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John Cerna, superintendent of the Toppenish School District, who is one of 18 district administrators who carry concealed firearms as a safeguard against potential safety threats, is photographed with his Desert Eagle 9mm semi-automatic pistol in his office in Toppenish, Wash., on Friday, April 1, 2016. (SHAWN GUST/Yakima Herald-Republic)

TOPPENISH, Wash. — Toppenish has long embraced its motto of “Where the West Still Lives.”

Some have argued Toppenish School District leaders fully embraced it in 2014, when the school board agreed to allow some administrators to carry concealed pistols.

It wasn’t a stunt. Superintendent John Cerna and others worked on the policy for more than a year, feeling it was the best option to keep students and staff safe — and they stand by their decision.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with us being cowboys,” Cerna said. “It has to do with safety.”

Toppenish went forward with the controversial measure and everything it carried with it — many hours of training, out-of-the-box thinking, and ample supporters and critics.

Two years later, the decision reverberates regionally, as the issue has picked up traction in a few other school districts.

The Toppenish educators equipped with guns have not needed to use them. However, Cerna said in the event of an emergency he and his armed staff members would be ready.

“I believe Toppenish School District is the safest in the country right now, not just in the state,” he said.

 

Element of surprise

When the concealed-carry policy was adopted, 12 Toppenish administrators volunteered to carry guns. Today, that number is 18, one of whom is Cerna. He said there is at least one armed adult in each of the district’s buildings. Each has an easily-concealed gun, such as the Desert Eagle 9mm semi-automatic pistol Cerna carries.

Who are the other 17? Cerna would not disclose their names.

However, three of the other armed administrators agreed to be interviewed by the Yakima Herald-Republic interviewed, provided their names were not used. They cited the need for school security for insisting on anonymity.

“Our names being out there, it weakens the purpose of us” defending students and staff, one administrator said.

As another of the three pointed out, most active shooters begin their attacks by targeting a school resource officer, who’s typically a police officer assigned to a school, or other school security personnel to neutralize any threats.

By staying anonymous — other than Cerna — Toppenish staff would have the element of 
surprise if there was a threat, they said.

Not to say that people aren’t curious. “I think some people suspect, but I don’t think others know,” said one of the administrators.

“Our spouses know,” another joked.

Asked if they were uncomfortable carrying a gun just feet from students and colleagues, they said it was “awkward” at first. Not so anymore.

“It’s very routine,” Cerna said. “Nothing out of the ordinary.”

All four said they never envisioned carrying weapons when they were beginning their education careers, but student and staff safety requires it now.

Hardcore training

Development of the firearms policy took 18 months. The process of volunteers getting and carrying guns didn’t happen overnight, either.

Each of the 18 administrators underwent and regularly go through extensive firearms training. Cerna said the training is equivalent to that of a law enforcement official.

Initial training was 40 hours of combined classroom instruction and firing range training. Classroom instruction includes firearm use, gun maintenance and psychology of a shooter.

Cerna and the other administrators said training is much more than just the initial 40 hours, as Jon Ladines of security company Force Dynamics Defense Systems regularly checks up on their skills. The administrators undergo a full day of training every quarter. Every year, Ladines recertifies — and fails, if he has to — the volunteers.

“It runs with what law enforcement does,” said Ladines, a former law enforcement officer with more than a decade of experience. “In fact, they may get more training than some of these law enforcement (officers).”

The volunteers do not get a psychological evaluation, Ladines said, but that doesn’t mean they don’t get evaluated. Ladines and the school district can determine if someone is unfit or unable to meet the challenge.

Cerna said one volunteer did not pass the screening.

“I don’t want someone to volunteer to just volunteer,” he said. “This is serious.”

Toppenish allows only administrators to carry guns under its current firearms policy. Teachers cannot volunteer and there are no plans to include them, Cerna said.

However, Ladines and Force Dynamics do provide other defense training to all noncarrying staff, including teachers. As a result, each classroom has a baseball bat and pepper spray.

 

Toppenish not alone

The main goal of Toppenish’s firearms policy is to provide a first line of defense against potential threats. In-school security, whether a resource officer or a gun-wielding educator, provides near-immediate protection while law enforcement responds to the emergency. Smaller rural school districts like Toppenish could be more vulnerable in an emergency because police may be farther away and police forces are smaller.

But is arming educators a sensible solution? Several other nearby districts think so, and are exploring options.

Statewide figures on how many school districts allow staff to carry concealed weapons were not available. State Superintendent Randy Dorn said his office does not keep track of the number of districts having adopted gun policies such as Toppenish’s.

But after the Toppenish school board approved its policy, Kiona-Benton School District, just east of Prosser, approved a similar measure a year later.

This year, three other school systems in the region have confirmed interest in similar policies.

The Naches Valley School District held a community forum on the topic on March 21. As expected, public opinion was divided.

La Salle High School, a private Roman Catholic school in Union Gap, has expressed interest in firearms training for some of its staff, with a possible decision by its board of directors coming this month. The Union Gap City Council has said its police department can provide training if La Salle approves such a policy.

Granger School District officials also have confirmed they are in the early stages of debating having armed staff in its schools.

Cerna said he’s also fielded inquiries from districts near White Pass, the Tri-Cities area, the Spokane area, as far away as Alaska and even the East Coast.

Cerna said he anticipated plenty of negative feedback after the policy’s approval, but community support has been overwhelmingly positive, he said.

“We’ve had people want to volunteer,” he said, adding that he tells them no.

 

Not all are on board

Steve Myers, superintendent of Educational Service District 105 and a former Toppenish district superintendent, is one of the policy’s critics. He says he understands school districts that want to protect students and teachers, but he has concerns. One question he has is how educators would react in a real assault. “There’s a possibility of panic and mistakes,” he said. “I understand they want to protect their kids and staff ... schools are indeed soft targets.”

Myers said, “The ESD Safety Co-op is not endorsing by any means or providing training for school personnel on firearms.”

Some national organizations devoted to school security also do not support armed staff. In the immediate wake of the Sandy Hook, Conn., school shooting in 2012, the National Association of School Resource Officers and the National School Safety and Security Services released statements saying security should be left to resource officers and other law enforcement officers.

The two groups stand by their statements.

“Educators trained their whole careers to teach, and then you take them into (school security), it’s something they’re not used to,” said NASRO Executive Director Mo Canady, a retired police officer.

Toppenish and Naches Valley officials are among those who have argued a resource officer is more expensive than equipping staff with guns. Canady said a good estimate as to how much a school resource officer costs is $60,000 to $100,000 a year.

In contrast, the Toppenish training cost $4,500 for all of the volunteers, and they must supply their own weapons. Annual recertification costs an additional $1,500, and the district provides a stipend for ammunition for practice, Cerna added.

Kenneth Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services, called the arming of school staff a “high-risk proposition” that isn’t justified by a smaller school budget.

If school districts want to prioritize security, Trump said, school boards and administrators can “dictate priorities” through
their budgets. Other concerns include liability risk, insurance
costs and potential miscommunication between responding police officers and armed staff in an active shooter incident.

“When law enforcement enters, they won’t know who the bad guy is,” Trump said. Toppenish uses bulletproof vests and orange reflector vests for identification, but both Trump and Canady argued that identification method isn’t foolproof.

Prior to its adoption two years ago, Cerna and Toppenish Police Chief Adam Diaz discussed how to craft the policy, and the chief said something similar about making sure emergency responders knew “who’s who.” Diaz could not be reached Wednesday for comment on this story.

 

Watching Sandy Hook

Cerna remains a strong advocate of the policy. A Seattle educator called to voice her disapproval shortly after the policy’s approval. His response? He called her a “tree-hugger.”

“She was offended by it,” he said. “I don’t care. ‘You got kids in school, right? Are they protected?’ ”

All that matters to Cerna is how he and others felt watching the aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy. Twenty-six people died in the school, including 20 children 6 and 7 years old.

With only two resource officers in Toppenish schools at the time — neither of whom patrolled an elementary school — Cerna said the shooting made him realize his schools were not entirely secure and safe.

“I sat right here watching it,” said Cerna, referring to his conference room. “To me, our elementary schools are the most vulnerable. The mentality of people today, it’s changed.”

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