It has been almost 18 months since Sharon Mapes’ 6-year-old great-grandson watched his teacher being shot at Townville Elementary School.
The shooting, which took the life of first-grader Jacob Hall, has haunted the boy, now 8, ever since. He has post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. The sound of a car backfiring or a firecracker is enough to make him feel uneasy, Mapes said.
"I just want to know is this it for our children? What else do we need to do to help them? What else can we do to make them safe?"
S.C. leaders are asking those same questions as they brainstorm how to protect the state’s 750,000 public-school students from another school shooting. The issue is front and center again after the Valentine’s Day massacre of 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
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Arming teachers, some say, should be part of the solution.
After the Florida shooting, the idea appeared to be gaining steam, winning early support from the White House and, locally, most of the Republicans running for S.C. governor, including Gov. Henry McMaster. A handful of pending GOP-sponsored bills in the S.C. Legislature, introduced after Townville, would pave the way for teachers to carry guns in schools.
Supporters of arming teachers say it would deter would-be mass shooters who view gun-free zones as easy targets.
“When you look at where mass shootings are, where are they? Gun-free zones. They’re in schools. They’re in churches,” said state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington. “They’re in places where people know there aren’t guns, where people can’t defend themselves.”
Shealy wants a greater safety presence in schools, whether that means armed teachers, law enforcement or “qualified, well-trained volunteers or whoever.”
But opponents say arming teachers would be too risky, putting students’ and educators’ lives at risk.
What if a police officer, rushing into a frantic situation, mistakes a gun-wielding teacher for the shooter?
What if the teacher fires and misses his target, hitting an innocent student instead?
What if a student overpowers a teacher and takes a gun?
More school resource officers?
Opposition to arming S.C. teachers is mounting.
“I’ve not talked to anybody in law enforcement who is for it,” said State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel, who keeps in touch with police chiefs and sheriffs across South Carolina.
“Teachers have so many responsibilities now to educate our kids, all the requirements the state puts on them to do their job, and they are there to teach.”
State education advocacy groups representing teachers, school boards and school administrators are uniformly against arming teachers.
The state should commit the money to pay for every S.C. public school to have an armed, uniformed law enforcement officer, a so-called school resource officer, on campus while children are present, said Kathy Maness with the Palmetto State Teachers Association.
Tides are shifting in that direction.
On Thursday at a school safety summit he organized, Gov. McMaster said putting SROs in every public school is his top priority. But that would take lots of money — up to $60 million — since half of the state’s 1,200 schools do not have school resource officers.
‘Take them out’
Public opinion polls also are leaning against arming teachers.
According to ABC News, 51 percent of Americans oppose the idea, compared to 42 percent who are in support.
Still, retired York High School football coach Scott McSwain said he would have carried a firearm during his 30-plus-year career as an educator if given a chance.
A hunter who enjoys shooting targets at the range, McSwain said teachers who are trained extensively and want to carry a firearm should be allowed to do so. “If somebody comes down the hallway with a gun, if you’ve got people there to take them out,” lives could be saved, he said.
In a small town like York, police could get to know the teachers who are carrying firearms in schools, minimizing the danger of law enforcement accidentally shooting an armed educator when responding to a shooter on campus, he said.
However, most teachers likely would not want to carry a gun, McSwain acknowledged. That includes his wife, also a retired 38-year teaching veteran.
Teresa McSwain said arming teachers is “a terrible idea. It’s almost kind of a knee-jerk reaction, like, ‘Oh let’s just give teachers guns and that’ll solve the problem.’ ”
Schools are already a sensitive place, where teachers strive to teach students the importance of working together to solve problems. “I don’t think kids need to see teachers with a gun,” she said.
“I’ve yet to run across a teacher who thinks this is a good idea,” said Mike Burgess, a River Bluff High School teacher. “Our jobs as teachers are to teach. ... In the case of an active shooter, our No. 1 goal should be the safety of the students, not engaging the active shooter. This whole concept is baffling that it would even be considered.”
In a school shooting, law enforcement is going to rush in and take down anyone holding a gun, Burgess said. He doesn’t want that to be a fellow teacher, just trying to protect students.
“If you have teachers who are not going to be in any distinguishable uniform, and they’ve got a gun, how do you tell whether that person is an active shooter or a teacher who is armed?”
‘It would make me feel safer’
Still, some parents, students and gun enthusiasts express support for arming teachers.
North Augusta mother Victoria Sikes said she would support the idea if it meant her two children, both school-aged, would be safer in school.
“After the Florida shooting, my husband and I were talking, saying that we bet if the teachers had guns, no one would think about something like that. It’s a good idea in general.”
Sikes' daughter, 13-year-old Haley, said she also would feel safer in school if her teachers were armed so as long as they have a permit and attend shooting classes.
“It would make me feel safer because if anyone were to come in and try to harm me or my fellow students, the teacher would be able to stop what was happening.”
Gun instructor Gerald Stoudemire, who has had teachers as students in the concealed weapons course that he teaches in Little Mountain, said armed teachers could act as a deterrent. But entrusting them with protecting students’ lives would require more extensive training than a concealed weapons course.
“Most are not highly skilled or would know what to do under pressure,” said Stoudemire, who also is the president of a pro-gun group. More SROs in schools or allowing teachers to carry tasers would be better ideas, he said.
“In a crowded room, you can’t just turn a bullet loose,” he said. “You’re responsible for what’s behind (the target) too.”
Other states have armed teachers
Gov. McMaster, who previously said he would sign a bill arming teachers if it reached his desk, took a more cautious stance Thursday, saying that proposal needed extensive study.
South Carolina would not be the first state to arm teachers, if it went that direction.
At least 10 states — Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming — have laws allowing school employees, with varying restrictions, to have guns on school grounds, a study by the Education Commission of the States says.
Georgia’s policy made the news Wednesday when a teacher in Dalton was arrested after firing a gun in a classroom.
Teachers and school employees in more than 100 school districts in Texas carry a weapon and have been trained to respond to attacks, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott told President Donald Trump during a White House meeting Monday, the New York Times reported.
Some of those districts, Abbott told Trump, promote having armed educators “with signs out front” warning would-be intruders that “if they attempt to cause any harm, they’re going to be in trouble.”
In Ohio, Sidney City Schools has invested heavily in security, the Times reported. In that district, all schools have uniformed armed guards, panic buttons and security cameras sending a feed to local law enforcement. All visitors must be buzzed in.
The district also has trained a secret group of about 40 teachers and other personnel to be an armed “first responder team.”
School districts investigating threats
Adding to the urgency for state leaders to act, South Carolina is not immune to school shootings.
Before Townville, there was the Oakland Elementary School shooting in 1988 and, in 1995, a shooting at Blackville-Hilda High School. There have been others, law enforcement said Thursday.
S.C. school districts have been in a frenzy since the Florida shooting, investigating alleged threats, according to emails from school administrators and law enforcement agencies.
In the last two weeks, for example:
▪ In Richland County, an investigation into a Snapchat threat circulated by Richland Northeast High School students and directed to “students of Northeast High School” was found to actually reference a school in Maryland.
▪ In Lexington County, a Gilbert High School student was charged after threatening to shoot some of his classmates and their family members.
▪ In Sumter County, an anonymous note found at Crestwood High School threatened several teachers and one student. Later, a bullet was found on a door frame leading to a school gymnasium. A janitor later said he found the bullet in the trash and put it on the door, but forgot to notify school officials.
“Unfortunately, some of the students think this is a joke,” Sumter County Sheriff Anthony Dennis said in a news release. “We had the same kinds of things happening around the country after the Columbine High School shooting.”
‘There are still mistakes’
South Carolina and other states have pending legislation that would allow for school employees to be armed.
However, any efforts to arm teachers will face a huge obstacle: law enforcement.
The S.C. Sheriff’s Association opposes arming teachers, citing a number of concerns, including that guns could fall into the wrong hands.
SLED Chief Keel, who supports putting SROs in schools, says educators would need extensive and near-constant training to learn to react quickly and efficiently in an unexpected shooting. The needed skills – sharpening reflexes and learning when, and when not, to shoot – take months to cultivate, if not years, Keel said.
Teachers also would have to surmount a huge psychological hurdle. They are in school to educate and mentor children, and they might have to make a sudden transition “to take a life of what may be one of their own students,” Keel said.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said responding to shooting situation, where you could be fired upon, is very different than shooting paper targets on a pistol range. It’s even a challenge for the officers trained to do it, Lott said.
“Police officers have to have a lot of training to make those decisions, and we still are questioned, and there are still mistakes made.”