Few schools take lawmakers up on allowing staff, teachers to carry firearms

By Leslie Bonnila Muniz, Indiana Capital Chronicle, and Arnolt Center staff Caroline Geib, Lily Marks, Marissa Meador, Ryan Murphy, Haley Ryan, Sarita Smith and Lizzie Wright.

INDIANAPOLIS – It’s been more than a decade since Indiana lawmakers authorized school districts to arm teachers but it’s nearly impossible to tell how many are packing in Indiana. 

Requests to at least three state agencies and offices ended in denials and secrecy. 

So, the Arnolt Center for Investigative Journalism and the Indiana Capital Chronicle called 440 school districts and charter schools in Indiana over six months. Just 51 superintendents responded to reporters’ requests for comment; eight declined to speak to reporters and 381 did not respond to calls or emails asking for comment.

The investigation found that the vast majority of respondent school districts haven’t authorized staff carry – and don’t want to – even as Indiana’s General Assembly offers up funds for training.

“That decision’s probably a very individualized decision depending on the needs of each school district, and here in Bremen we’re a nice little sleepy community,” said Jim White, superintendent of Bremen Public Schools. “… Certainly, there still is the same potential for a school shooting. But I just feel like given our environment, it just sends the wrong message for these kiddos.”

“I don’t fault others who make the opposite decision,” White said.

But dozens of superintendents said they wanted more state help paying for school-stationed law enforcement officials known as school resource officers (SROs). Legislators have put more money into K12 education the last several budget cycles although an individual district might see cuts if its enrollment is dropping. 

“I think (the) Legislature ought to fund SROs in all the schools,” said Sibbett, superintendent of Cannelton City Schools. “I think that ought to be a state priority. They cut our funding so much in public education right now, anyway, we’re scraping for every dime we can get.”

Lawmakers in 2023 approved House Enrolled Act 1177, creating an opt-in firearms training program for Indiana schools. The law lets schools apply to fund the training with Secured School Safety Grant dollars, as long as they meet state training curriculum requirements. The grant requires a school match.

Seven district applicants won a combined $101,979 allocation for staff firearms training in August 2023. The Governor’s Office and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) declined to divulge the districts’ names. 

“The funding for schools and their specific uses are not public and have never been public, except for in aggregate,” DHS spokesman David Hosick said at the time. “This is to protect the integrity and safety of the schools. To make that public has the potential to broadcast which schools have school resource officers and which don’t, as an example.”

Indiana Code keeps confidential the identities of people who’ve done the training – although the Capital Chronicle requested only district names – and gives agencies discretion to block the release of school safety plans.

Hosick said districts “are certainly within their rights” to talk about the program, but said that information wouldn’t come from his agency. 

House Enrolled Act 1177 author Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, said his intent was to “recognize the constitutional right of teachers and staff to be able to defend themselves in the event of an active shooter situation.”

Indiana’s Constitution, he continued, “does not say except for in a school.” 

“If something like that does pop up … the first people you call are people with guns, begging them to get there as fast as they can,” Lucas said. “So why not be your own first responder?”

He said he wanted to give staff members “the chance” to defend themselves, adding, “If schools don’t want to take advantage of that – and if they want to keep relying on methods that have … failed in the past, that is up to them.”

Arming school employees

Lawmakers gave school districts the authority to let their employees carry firearms at school a decade ago, but offered no training protocols until the 2023 change.

A 2013 law – the same one establishing the school safety grants – lets anyone who can legally possess a firearm and who’s been authorized to carry by a school board or charter administrator carry a firearm in a school and on school property. Previously, only security guards could do so.

The grant money can be used for a variety of safety efforts: employing SROs, purchasing student safety management technology or – now – training teachers to use firearms, according to the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.

Around 30 states allow at least certain non-law enforcement school staff members to carry firearms, according to groups from all sides of the debate: the anti-gun violence Giffords Law Center, the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures and the pro-gun rights U.S. Concealed Carry Association

In Indiana, just five respondent districts allow at least some non-security employees – administrators, teachers or others – to carry firearms on their campuses.

Superintendent Tania Grimes of Southeast Fountain School Corporation in Veedersburg is among them. Her district has authorized staff carry but has not funded training via the law. Instead, she said the district pays for training costs through the school’s operating budget or through separate competitive grants.

Southeast Fountain’s policy, which was first adopted in 2013 and revised in 2023, allows “authorized carriers” – defined as “school safety specialists” and “law officers” – to carry firearms on school grounds. 

Grimes said only a few teachers have undergone certification to become authorized carriers. She did not disclose what specific staff members are armed, citing safety.

Because the district does not use state money to fund training, it does not need to follow state training requirements. Instead, the district’s authorized carriers are responsible for maintaining certification to remain in compliance with board policy. 

The law established minimum training requirements that school personnel must undergo before being allowed to carry firearms – if their districts are taking state training money. Training must consist of at least 40.5 cumulative hours of education from a qualified firearms instructor. One hour of that training must address school shootings. 

Still, Grimes said some employees within the district have voiced discomfort about being near firearms, regardless of whether they are intended for protection. 

Johnny Budd, superintendent at Borden-Henryville School Corporation in Memphis, said he is interested in potentially arming staff because he wants to have people on school grounds who can more quickly stop an attacker. 

“In looking at the data from other events, these events usually take place in a short period of time, often before police can arrive,” Budd said in a follow-up email. “In rural settings, response times are usually longer, thus I feel the need to be able to stop an attacker with the personnel we have on site, or nearby.” 

Not teachers’ jobs?

Board members for Matchbook Learning School Board, a charter school in Indianapolis, didn’t like the idea of teachers toting guns on campus.

“… They just had this picture in their head of like, a kindergarten teacher having a gun and kneeling down with kids at circle time,” Matchbook Learning CEO Amy Swann said. “And this didn’t seem right. You know?”  

Dozens of interviewed superintendents said they didn’t think teachers should have the burden of carrying a firearm as a school safety strategy and that the task is better left to trained police officers. 

“That’s an awful lot to ask of a teacher,” said Superintendent Philip Harrison, of Southwest Parke Community Schools in Montezuma. “I would prefer that my teachers spend their time focusing on preparing engaging lessons and making classrooms safe and hospitable for students as opposed to figuring out how to load a 9mm and pull the trigger.”

Sibbett, of Cannelton City Schools in Cannelton, said his decision to forgo firearms for staff was informed by Indiana State Police, who warned that arming teachers could cause innocent lives to be lost. Police told him accuracy suffers in high-pressure situations and training requirements don’t measure up to the experience level of law enforcement, he said.

“It’s potentially more harmful than it is a good thing,” Sibbett said.

Lucas said he intended the training requirements to mimic a police officer’s academy training. 

Superintendent Jeremy Riffle, of Triton School Corporation in Bourbon, Indiana said teachers chose not to go into law enforcement for a reason. 

“Being a teacher myself, I mean, my job is to go in and teach and make a safe environment for those kiddos on a daily basis without having a gun on my hip or being concerned of where that’s located in my classroom,” he said. 

White, of Bremen Public Schools, said he feels personally and professionally that authorizing staff members to carry firearms in schools sends the “wrong” message. 

“I think that it just gives the wrong impression (of) what we’re about,” White said. “And I understand the security implications, but I just think it’s a bridge too far, at least for our school organization.”

Lucas, however, rejected the argument that carrying is outside employees’ job descriptions.

“Carrying isn’t a job. I mean, it’s an insurance policy,” he said. “Especially in the world we’re living in, we’re seeing just stupid, stupid acts of violence.”

Are school resource officers enough?

A whopping 37 of the interviewed Hoosier superintendents said they weren’t interested in state funds to train and arm staff members. Instead, they wanted to maintain or increase the presence of school resource officers (SROs). 

“I just think that it’s important that you have people that are highly skilled and highly trained not only knowing how to use a gun, but able to react in crisis situations,” said Paul Kaiser, superintendent of Westfield Washington School District. 

He said the state has provided grant money for school resource officers and he’d like to see more of those positions in his district. He said the problem is a lack of available officers.

“There’s not enough police officers to go around. It takes time to implement if schools want one in every building,” Kaiser said. 

He said officers are not only essential for crises but also to have as mentors for students.

Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, speaks on the House floor on Feb. 16, 2023. (Courtesy Indiana House Republicans via Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, speaks on the House floor on Feb. 16, 2023. (Courtesy Indiana House Republicans via Indiana Capital Chronicle)

“It’s not even about having them in the building, it is not about an officer with a gun, it is about another adult role model for them (students),” Kaiser said.

Tommy Reddicks, the CEO of Paramount Schools of Excellence, a charter school in Indianapolis, said teachers already have enough responsibilities without worrying about firearm training.

“Teaching is very hard and the stresses of teaching are very hard. Adding the complexity of a firearm and firearm training could really push stress levels too far,” Reddicks said.  

Reddicks said he thinks arming teachers combines two jobs that should remain separate.

“There is a whole career field on using and handling a firearm for the protection and safety of others, and that is law enforcement. There is a whole career field for delivering education to students,” Reddicks said. “I do not think we should streamline the process to intersect the two.”

Superintendent Matt Rhoda, of Community Schools of Frankfort, feared authorizing staff carry would open the district to potential liabilities. He said he thinks school resource officers are effective enough.

“If it isn’t broken, we’re not gonna fix it,” he said. 

But school resource officers are expensive. 

“Some of our schools have several thousand students. What is one SRO going to do?” Lucas asked. “And for the first-year expense, you can train about 45 staff members. … Now you’re taking your deterrent factor from one to at least 45.” That depends on how many volunteer.

Even those supportive of staff carry prioritized their SROs for grant money.

Jay School Corporation Superintendent Jeremy Gulley was among the first to adopt staff carry. The district is using local operating dollars to pay for initial training and quarterly brush-ups, he said in a follow-up email. He estimated the cost at nearly $32,000 in July 2023.

The district’s safety grant money went “almost exclusively” to its single SRO, Gulley said at the time, for an estimated $80,000 annually. And he dreamed of adding more: one for each of his six schools. 

Todd Hitchcock, the superintendent of Shelby Eastern Schools in Shelbyville, said his district was paying for grant dollars itself while maxing out the grant on SRO work.

If the allocation was larger we would absolutely use some of those dollars to fund our training program,” he said in a follow-up email.

Districts want more

Multiple school districts said the General Assembly could better leverage safety money to support existing initiatives, whether sustained funding for school resource officers or mental health counseling for students. 

“It would be nice if I didn’t have to match that grant, because that’s money that I’m taking out of the classroom, specifically, or teachers’ salaries,” said Derek Arrowood, superintendent of Hamilton Heights Community Schools.

Grimes, of Southeast Fountain School Corporation, said safety is the district’s top priority and wanted the state to pitch in more. She said her district added keyless entry to school doors, fences around the playground and allocated an additional $65,000 from its rainy day fund for other improvements.

Harrison, of Southwest Parke Community School Corporation, took a different tack. He wanted state support for hiring specifically counselors and social workers.

“I think (when) most people think of school safety, they think of fences and surveillance and armed guards — when really, people who are there to help students in crisis would be just as beneficial,” he said.

More funding for mental health services would be helpful, said Superintendent Keith Nance of West Washington School Corporation in Campbellsburg. The district has contracted mental health professionals by using COVID-19 relief funds, but Nance said it is only paid through September 2024. 

“And that’s about to be exhausted, and the problem with mental health is not exhausted,” he said. “So we’re still gonna have the need and I’m gonna have to figure out how to pay for it.”

But districts are likely to find a skeptical crowd at the Statehouse. Lawmakers will put together the state’s next biennial budget during a long legislative session that begins in January, but they’ve been tight-fisted following the reveal of a $1 billion error in Medicaid forecasting.

“Everything is boiling down to everybody wanting more money – and those days are drying up,” Lucas said. He highlighted the Medicaid “hit,” noting it’s the budget’s fastest-growing program.

“It is to the point where we’re going to have to cannibalize other programs or we’re going to have to raise taxes. At what point do people stop and say, ‘How big do I want government to be?'” he continued. “So we have to start looking at solutions outside the box, which this is.”