How one Ohio school district brought guns into its classrooms

Students starting the academic year in Ohio's Warren Local School District pass signs advising of armed employees in the buildings. 

VINCENT, Ohio — He had sat quietly through months of debate, trying to remain impassive even as the conversations filled his head with images of the 26 killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

He had listened to parents at public meetings. He had read the three-page letter from the teachers union expressing "our strong opposition to the proposal." He had absorbed statistics on accidental shootings, heard about emergency response times from law enforcement, and tried to imagine his version of what one expert described as "the worst possible situation that your district could ever find itself in."

Now, as the five school board members of the Warren Local School District in southeastern Ohio held their June meeting in the basement of an old brick building, Kyle Newton, 43, realized that after 20 years as an educator, his job was about to change.

"Next resolution is to give authorization for the superintendent to train and designate certain individuals to be armed," the board president said.

That was Newton. He was the superintendent.

"Questions?" the board president asked. "Concerns?"

Similar discussions were underway across the country. After the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, the American education system put considerable energy into preventing the next school shooting, and when the next school shooting inevitably occurred, the next. Some districts opted for metal detectors. Others hired guards. There are sophisticated machines that check visitors for criminal records, and companies for hire to monitor students' social media postings for warning signs.

Among the most extreme and divisive options, some school districts have chosen to arm staff members, putting guns in the hands of teachers to protect schools from guns in the hands of students. And now Warren was ready to make that choice.

As extreme as the option was, no questions were asked and no concerns expressed. The vote was unanimous, and as Newton drove home that night along the quiet back roads of Washington County, it was as the nation's newest superintendent in charge of a school district where staffers were going to be armed.

"Do it logically," he would keep reminding himself over the next 65 days, which was how much time he had to figure out how to get this done by the first day of school.

He passed house after house, many with his students inside.

And, he presumed, with guns inside, too.

***

How one Ohio school district brought guns into its classrooms

Students are seen on Aug. 21, the first day of the academic year in the Warren Local School District in Ohio. In response to the risk of a gun attack in one of their schools, district officials approved a program under which some school employees are armed while on the job. 

The school district Newton oversees is in an isolated corner of the state, pressed against the West Virginia border and two hours from Columbus, the nearest major metropolitan area. It has one high school, one middle school, two elementary schools, and almost 300 staff members. Its 2,100 students are pulled from a sprawl of 196 square miles, making Warren the largest geographic school district in the region.

The area is an economic mash-up of rural poverty and middle-class subdivisions. It is considered safe - the rate of violent crime is half the state average - and politically conservative. The long country roads cutting across the school district border family farms and the occasional church, and in the fall and winter, the woods echo with gunshots as locals take aim at turkeys and rabbits. Hunting is such a prominent part of life here that the first day of deer season is a school holiday at Warren.

It's a day that Newton typically uses to work, since he is neither a hunter nor a gun owner. He did not grow up with firearms and has not regularly fired a weapon since a stint in the U.S. Army Reserve in the late 1990s. But guns are on his mind. Even though there's never been a school shooting or a close call in his district, the threat has penetrated the remoteness of a place where remoteness has come to feel less an asset than a vulnerability.

Nothing made that more concrete to Newton than something a sheriff's department official told him earlier in the year, after pointing out that there were typically three deputies on duty at any one time in the county, patrolling 640 square miles. "Kyle, we aren't going to be here," Newton remembers the sheriff's official saying, if violence were to break out.

The official also mentioned that the average duration of a mass shooting was about four minutes, which further clarified things for Newton. Four minutes was the time it took to drive from his office to the high school and middle school. A right turn out of the gravel parking lot. Past the diner. Past the post office. Up a hill. A reliable four minutes, by which time, he realized, the worst would be over.

All of that, along with his own career arc, helped Newton see why the school board felt the need to take some type of action. He began teaching in 1998, just a few months before the Columbine High School shooting. He became superintendent in 2013, just a few months after the Sandy Hook shooting in late 2012. His wife is a teacher, and they educated their children in public schools, so he understood safety concerns at a personal as well as a professional level. Year by year and shooting by shooting, the question of how to keep students safe was reflected in the phone calls he would get from parents wondering what was being done. But it really was after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting in 2018 that the pressure to act, rather than react, intensified. "After that, pretty much everybody's world changed in education," he said. "We had to do something."

Whether he agreed with the school board's decision to go to such an extreme didn't really matter - the decision was the board's, and his job was to make it happen. But he was conflicted. "I'm not saying I'm for it or against it," he said. "Would I want my wife to carry a gun in school? Probably not. But when it comes down to having the worst day of worst days happen here, I don't ever want to be able to say I didn't do everything possible for giving my students the best chance."

One day, after making the four-minute drive from his office up the hill, he stood between the middle school and high school, where construction crews had begun pouring the foundation for a new $62 million campus. Once completed in two years, the new buildings will house all the district's students and staff - the largest gathering of people in the county on any given day. It will have entrances with clear sightlines of approach, and buzz-in access controlled by a staff member in a vestibule. It will have hallways and classrooms with lockdown doors that can be triggered remotely by a cellphone app. It will have windows with shatterproof coating.

"This will totally change our district," he said. "I'm so excited."

Now, turning his attention to the aging school buildings currently in use, he looked at the high school. "The first time I saw it I thought it was the weirdest looking building I'd ever seen. Our high school was built in the '70s, and it totally has that California school design look." He pointed to the glass-walled walkways connecting the buildings. "A hazard." He imagined those exposed walkways filled with students, and in less than two months now, with armed teachers as well.

***

How one Ohio school district brought guns into its classrooms

Second-grade teacher Velina Phelpster practices first-aid measures under the direction of paramedic Don Williams, right, as employees of the Warren school district prepare to begin a new school year. 

How that would happen would be primarily up to Newton. Ohio law leaves specific decisions about "who is authorized to carry deadly weapons or dangerous ordnance" to local school districts. The only requirement is a federal one that says any designated staffer must have a valid permit to carry a concealed weapon. Other than that, every decision would be Newton's.

He wanted an orderly process. Do it logically. The district was small enough for the superintendent to already know about any issues, and all of the staff members who applied were good employees. He interviewed them separately, and after going through logistics, he steered the conversations to the blunt responsibility the teachers were taking on. It wasn't about breaking up fights or de-escalating tense situations, he said. It was about gunfire. If shots were fired, they were to engage the attacker.

"You understand that you might have to shoot a student?" he asked each of the applicants. "It could be your student, it could be one that's not your student, but you're going to have to make that decision and do it."

As a final step, Newton went over the applications one day with the school board president, the school district's treasurer, and a sheriff's deputy who, once classes began, would be rotating among the schools. "It's always going to be us four," he told the group, any of whom could object to an applicant.

He explained about the concealed carry permit and said that any applicant they approved would take a three-day training run by an Ohio gun advocacy nonprofit group designed specifically for teachers. In addition, Newton said, anyone they approved would be required to go through annual background checks and drug testing, and would have to fire at least 100 rounds a month on a range.

On a table in front of Newton was a stack of files. Before picking up the first one, he mentioned the need for confidentiality. No one could know any names, he said. Not teachers. Not students. The program depended not only on the fact that some teachers would be armed, but also on the illusion that any teacher might be.

"So we're going to have a kind of 'don't ask, don't tell' policy," he said.

"I think that's going to be your hardest thing," Brad Holbert, the sheriff's deputy, said. "With social media and the way things are now, I think it's going to be impossible. It's going to leak."

"What are the consequences of violating the confidentiality agreement?" the board president, Bob Crum, asked.

"Technically you are violating board policy," Newton said. "There could be a range of possibilities."

"There will be people who are totally against this, and they are going to search and destroy and witch-hunt," Holbert said. "They're going to put it on social media. I think this could be a disaster."

Newton nodded and scribbled down a note. He lifted the first folder from the stack, flipped it open, and said the person was thinking of retiring soon and wouldn't be a good candidate. A denial.

He opened the next file, said the name of the applicant, and took out the form authorizing the staff member to "convey a deadly weapon in a school safety zone."

"Anybody have a problem?"

No one said anything, and after a moment Newton signed and dated the form, closed the file, and opened the next one.

"That one surprised me," he said after announcing the name. "She's going to do a lot of - "

"Soul searching?" someone filled in.

"When she gets into the tactical training, I don't know if she has her head wrapped around that," Newton said. "She said, 'I think I would have to see it to know for sure.' "

Again no one objected.

Next file. "He's an avid shooter," Newton said. "I didn't know that. Would you have known that? He's super excited about this - in a good way."

Again, no concerns, and Newton signed.

Next file. "Anybody have an issue?"

"Do these people really understand the liability issues involved in this?" Holbert asked after the last of the files had been discussed and the last of the applicants had been approved. "Do they have any clue?"

If something were to happen, he continued, all of the armed staffers would be held responsible. "Regardless," he said. "Fifteen years ago, I signed up for that when I became a law enforcement officer. These guys signed up to be educators, and they now have the opportunity to lose everything. Have you addressed that with them?"

Newton nodded again and scribbled more notes, and with that the meeting came to an end. The Warren Local School District had its first group of armed staffers, and Newton began calling them to tell them they'd been approved.

"I kind of knew that I would be," one of them told Newton.

"Am I allowed to know who the others are?" another asked.

"Let me think about it," Newton said.

***

How one Ohio school district brought guns into its classrooms

A Warren teacher prepares for the first day of school. A shirt will conceal the gun he is authorized to carry at work. 

Soon after that, late on a weekday afternoon, two of the teachers stood in a clearing off a road that twisted deep into the county, past abandoned trailers and farms.

One of them, who'd been approved, fixed a target to a metal frame, which was cut out of a piece of cardboard into the vague shape of a human head and torso. Nearby, the other, who still had to go through training, was snapping 9mm full metal jacket rounds into magazines.

Both teachers - whose names The Post agreed not to disclose for safety reasons - were lifelong shooters, and the one fixing the target in place was the type of teacher who liked to hug his students and, especially after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shootings, assure them that he would give up his life for theirs.

He had no doubt he would do that, or, now that he had been approved to be an armed teacher, to defend his students with force. What he did worry about was identifying a troubled student before things reached such a point. Years before, he'd had a student who filled his notebooks with violent drawings, and who'd turned out okay, but he remembered thinking: Would he be able to distinguish a true threat amid the panorama of teenage angst he saw every day?

To that end, he read whatever he could about mass shooters, as if understanding their lives would be the key to predicting the possibility of violence. He also had enrolled in the gun training course for teachers, hoping the experience - learning statistics, the legal issues, the correct way to round a corner in a firefight - would put him closer to knowing why students attack.

That was why he had come with his friend to this abandoned property, to run through a series of timed drills so the friend would know what to expect when he took the firearms course.

"The first one is at three yards," the teacher said, reading from a binder of training drills. "One body shot. Two seconds. And we're going to do it five times."

"All right, bud," his friend said. "You're up."

The teacher faced the target, a 9mm Smith & Wesson M&P Shield in the holster at his waist. It was compact. It weighed less than some of the textbooks his students carried. It had an eight-shot capacity.

His friend raised a timer that would start the drill with an electronic beep.

"Shooter ready?"

"Ready."

Beep.

The teacher grabbed his chest with his left hand, yanked up his shirt, reached into the waistband of his shorts with his right hand, raised the handgun, brought his left hand to the grip, and squeezed the trigger. The barrel jerked. The gunshot echoed across the clearing and the sycamore trees beyond.

It was a hit in the center, straight through the heart. The teacher covered the fresh holes with small pieces of tape, leaving his friend with a fresh target.

"Shooter ready?" the teacher said as his friend took his place.

"Ready."

The friend's first shot went through what would be a person's lower abdomen.

The two traded places, and traded places again. The beeps and gunshots continued. Five yards. Beep. Ten yards. Beep.

"Let's see if I got anything good here," the teacher said after several more rounds, returning to the target.

"One of them went through the uprights," his friend said. A miss.

"I got to do that again," the teacher grumbled. He hadn't shot in two weeks, and it was showing.

Beep.

Another miss. "Too much finger on the trigger there," the friend said. "Try to slow down just a hair on this next one."

"I'm going from getting upset with the timing to getting upset with the accuracy," the teacher said.

"Timing will come."

"Yeah," the teacher said. "We'll have to be accurate."

Now fifteen yards. Beep.

"You got the active shooter in the jugular," the friend said, eyeing the fresh hole.

Twenty-five yards. The teacher let out a breath. They'd been at it for a while. The sun was down below the hills. Beyond the target fireflies were poking small nicks of light into the dark tree line. Sweat and humidity were beginning to glaze his protective glasses.

Beep. Through the stomach.

"Way too quick," the teacher chastised himself.

He got ready again.

There was so much to do before school began. He had to buy new shirts roomy enough to hide the holster. He needed to rethink how he hugged students so they wouldn't feel the gun. And, he was realizing, he needed to shoot more so he'd be ready in every way, including psychologically, if the moment ever came.

"They say the last thing you want to do is make eye contact," the teacher said now to his friend.

"Well," his friend said. "You have to look at it as an active shooter is an active shooter."

***

How one Ohio school district brought guns into its classrooms

Schools Superintendent Kyle Newton monitors activities on the first day of classes in the Warren district. Behind him is Deputy Brad Holbert of the Washington County Sheriff's Office. 

Five weeks later, the teacher woke at 4:30 a.m. and couldn't get back to sleep. Typical first-day nerves, he thought, even though he did also feel a new touch of anxiety.

In the intervening weeks, he had continued preparing, spending more time at the range until he was regularly hitting the target to his satisfaction. Six new shirts were hanging in his closet, and he had tried out a half-dozen holsters before settling on the one he would wear today.

He showered. He dressed. He clipped the holster behind him, to the inside of his waistband, and snapped in the Smith & Wesson, which he had loaded the day before with eight 9mm Hornady self-defense rounds - seven in the magazine and one in the chamber. He would wear the shirt untucked, and he now jumped up and down to make sure movement didn't expose the weapon.

It didn't, but the gun was hitting him wrong, against his tailbone, so he brought the holster around to the front and decided that would be better, despite what he now described as the "inherent dangers" of having a gun pointed toward the top of his legs. "Because you get the femoral artery if I do anything really stupid," he said. "But I can hide it a little better. I can get to it a little easier."

The sun was rising now. By coincidence, on this same day, at this very same time, some of the students who had survived the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and had gone on to form a gun-control organization called March for Our Lives were unveiling a proposal online. It called for bans on military-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, a mandatory gun buyback program for such weapons, and a national licensing and gun registry.

"Created by survivors, so you don't have to be one," was how the proposal was framed, and meanwhile, the teacher kissed his wife, got into his car and drove toward his school, where at 6:45 a.m., Kyle Newton was already standing in the parking lot, a bright-orange traffic vest over his blue polo shirt.

"Keep moving guys. Go, go, go," Newton called to parents, waving them forward and looking at the growing line of cars and school buses. It was the typical chaos of the first day. There were dozens of students waiting outside for the doors to open, and then hundreds, and then the bell rang and they pushed inside, passing four new red stickers on the glass doors that said, "Warning: Some Employees Are Armed."

It was 7:40 a.m. now, the precise moment of a different day, at a different school, when a student with a shotgun walked into the art department at Santa Fe High School in Texas on May 18, 2018, and yelled "I'm going to kill you!" as classmates barricaded themselves in a supply closet. Eight students and two teachers died that day, but here, on this day in Warren, the teacher was taking his place at the front of his classroom and Newton was standing outside, congratulating one of his principals on such a smooth start. "That went about as well as it could have gone," he said.

The morning passed. It was now 9:35 a.m., the same time as when a gunshot went through a glass panel next to the locked front door of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 14, 2012. That morning ended with the deaths of six staff members and 20 children ages 6 to 7. Here at Warren's Little Hocking Elementary School, 23 first-graders were adjusting to their new classroom, finding their desks, their jacket hooks, the breakfast cart with their fruit and graham crackers; after the Pledge of Allegiance, they were all sitting on the floor listening as the teacher read a book called "First Day Jitters."

11:19 a.m. now. It was the time in Columbine, Colorado, on April 20, 1999, when the first shots were fired at Columbine High School. Twelve students and one teacher died that day as the shooters moved through school's library, hallways and cafeteria; here, in Warren High School's cafeteria, lunch was coming to an end when a laughing student who had dyed her hair pink declared, "I'm having an existential crisis!"

2:21 p.m. now, the time when, on Feb. 14, 2018, Marjory Stoneman Douglas went into a code red lockdown. Seventeen people would die; here, the high school's hallways were empty. Sunlight was filling the glass corridors that Newton often worried about. The sounds from classrooms were of teachers doing nothing other than teaching.

"Do any of you know what mariposa means?"

"French Polynesia. Anyone know where that is?"

"Flash cards! You put the element's name on one side, the symbol on the other. September 19 is roughly 30 days from now. You can get all 92 done if you do a few each day."

2:49 p.m. now, and the first school day was over. On March 21, 2005, at Red Lake High School in Red Lake, Minnesota, that was when the first of seven people was shot and killed, but in Warren, where there were no shootings on this first day, no threats, no incidents of any kind, and Newton was back in his office, thinking he had made his deadline. He had been logical about it. He had done it.

***

Two days later, he gathered with several of his armed staff members and the sheriff's deputy to talk about how the first days had gone.

There were some questions.

And some concerns.

"Like if I'm at the middle school and something should happen at the high school, should we head to the high school?" one person asked.

"I thought about that, too," Newton said. "That's what we have to determine."

"Today I realized how much longer it takes to use the restroom when you carry," said the woman who'd been approved, referring to the single-user bathroom set aside for staff. "I'm thinking, 'I have to take this out. Where am I going to put it?' Because you always see phones up on the toilet paper rack. People always leave their phones there. So I put it on the sink."

Newton sat listening.

"Another thing we need to discuss is what kind of rounds the sheriff's department is carrying," a teacher now said. "We want to all be on the same page as far as defense rounds."

"We need to have the same as they do?" one of the others asked.

"It's going to help."

"Why is that?"

"They told us in the class, if something happens, you want to be on the same page as your sheriff's department. Your sheriff is carrying something that's tried and true and tested, so why are you carrying Hornadys when they're carrying Winchesters? So if they're carrying Hornadys, we want to be carrying Hornadys. If they're carrying Winchester, we want to carry Winchesters."

"That's a really good point. That's exactly why we're having this meeting," Newton said, and as the conversation went on, he was realizing that even though he'd met his deadline, he wasn't done at all.

There was a discussion about gun safes.

There was a discussion about "ball ammo" vs. "defense ammo."

And now the discussion moved on to one more thing Newton hadn't thought about before - the football game that would be starting in a few hours. Like the schools themselves, the football field was a designated gun-free zone.

At the far end of the conference table, Holbert, the school's deputy, spoke up.

"I can tell you for a fact, there's people in your stands with guns. On both sides of the field. It's just the reality of it," he said. "If you have a weapon, you've got to know there's weapons all around you."

"What are you going to do tonight?" Newton asked one of the teachers.

"I don't know," the teacher said. "I never really thought about it."

He turned to another teacher.

"Are you going to carry?" he asked.

"I'm under the impression that if I'm going to carry, I'm going to carry all the time," the teacher said.

The superintendent of the nation's newest school district with guns in its classrooms considered what to do. Time for his next decision.

"I'm fine with that," he said.

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