TOPPENISH — When the new school year begins, some Toppenish School District administrators will be packing heat.
Under a policy approved earlier this year, school employees who receive training will be allowed to carry firearms on school property to provide an additional layer of security at the school. So far, 11 administrators, including Superintendent John Cerna, have volunteered to respond to a school shooting with their own weapons.
“I don’t mind giving my life if I have a fighting chance,” Cerna said about his decision to be trained to respond to a school shooting.
School officials who will be carrying guns are all volunteers, Cerna said. He declined to name them, but said the list includes principals, vice principals and other administrators, but not teachers.
The Toppenish district currently employs six armed guards from Phoenix Protective Corp., including two who divide their time among four of the district’s eight campuses, Cerna said.
The goal, Cerna said, is to have an armed and trained employee in each school.
Staff has not yet started carrying weapons due to the time it took to get training, as well as waiting for the arrival of bullet-resistant vests, which will be made available to those trained to carry weapons, Cerna said.
He said the decision to allow administrators to carry weapons was prompted by the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012. There, a gunman entered the school and killed 20 children and six adults, before fatally shooting himself as police approached.
In a school shooting situation, waiting for the police to come is risky, Cerna said.
At Sandy Hook, police officers arrived less than three minutes after the first call. That’s far faster than the national average response time of 14 minutes, Cerna said.
Arming school staff is especially appropriate in a rural area where police response takes longer, said Randy Town, safety and security coordinator for Educational Service District 105, which serves school districts in Yakima and Kittitas counties and parts of Grant and Klickitat counties.
Police response has evolved since the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colo., in 1999, when 12 students and one teacher were killed and 24 others wounded.
In the aftermath of Columbine — where police waited for a SWAT team to arrive before entering the school — officers were told to enter in groups of three to confront a gunman.
That thinking has since evolved to say the first officer to arrive at a school shooting should enter as a “lone wolf” and engage the shooter, Town said.
But even that doesn’t mean the response will be fast enough, said Town, noting that donning tactical gear and taking a rifle from a car trunk can take valuable time.
In reality, Cerna said that principals and administrators are the most likely to respond first to a school shooting.
Toppenish hasn’t had a school shooting, but in late April its high school was locked down for a half-hour on a report that a student had brought a gun to school. A 16-year-old boy was arrested when police said they found a gun in his backpack.
Cerna worked with Town to draft the policy and discussed it with Toppenish’s police chief prior to the school board’s unanimous vote to adopt it last February.
Attempts to reach Toppenish school board president Rick Schutz for this story were not successful; he did not return several phone calls to his home last week. Terri Winckler, president of the Toppenish Education Association, did not return calls seeking comment by press time.
The policy requires everyone who will carry guns on campus to undergo a background check, obtain a concealed weapons permit and receive firearms training similar to what police officers receive. The 16 hours of training includes shoot-don’t-shoot scenarios and range training.
The simulators, which can create scenarios that might be encountered in a school shooting situation, teach trainees when and when not to shoot, said Toppenish police Chief Adam Diaz, who was part of discussions about carrying out the policy.
His main concern is making sure responding officers can distinguish between an armed school employee and an attacker.
“The concern is, when police respond they need to know who’s who,” Diaz said.
Training can come from police or a certified police trainer. In Toppenish, the district used a certified private trainer.
Toppenish isn’t the only school district in the Yakima Valley with a policy allowing school officials to arm themselves. Last September, the Prosser School District adopted the same policy that was later approved in Toppenish. But unlike Toppenish, Prosser hasn’t carried it out.
Prosser Superintendent Ray Tolcacher said he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of arming school administrators and other employees beyond the security officer. It’s unclear how many other school districts in the state allow officials to carry weapons.
The Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction does not keep records on which, if any, districts allow employees to carry concealed weapons on campus, said Nathan Olson, the office’s communications manager.
In Prosser, the only person carrying a gun on campus under the policy is a security officer, who Tolcacher said is a retired Benton County sheriff’s detective with a current police officer’s certification.
Tolcacher said there were a few concerns about allowing other staff members to carry guns.
“In all the conversations we’ve had with law enforcement, they’ve told us that if you point a gun at someone, you better be willing to kill them,” Tolcacher said. “You can’t just wing them.”
But the district takes security seriously. Tolcacher said he and his staff work with Town on emergency procedures, and run through scenarios to decide when the best strategy is to take cover or evacuate. Also, Prosser recently received a $56,295 state grant to develop an emergency response system.
Toppenish’s Cerna, 58, said he’s had a concealed weapons permit since he was 22 and he’s comfortable with guns. But he hopes that he and the other administrators won’t ever have to use them.
• Donald W. Meyers can be reached at 509-577-7748 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/donaldwmeyers.