Two Portage County school districts are allowing armed personnel, but police are raising questions

Maplewood Career Center in Ravenna

Two Portage County school districts are starting the year with armed teachers and staff.

Streetsboro and Maplewood Career Center are among 46 school districts in Ohio taking advantage of House Bill 99, which Gov. Mike DeWine signed into law last year.

The Republican-backed law gives local school boards the power to allow armed personnel on campus and reduced the hours of training required for armed school personnel from 700 to 24, with eight additional hours required on an annual basis.

The training includes live firearms training, four scenario-based training hours, first aid, the history and pattern of school shootings, mitigation and de-escalation techniques, and crisis intervention. Staff also receive training in how to neutralize potential threats and active shooters.

The names of the teachers and other school personnel packing heat are not public records, nor are the total number of armed staff in each district.

The Portager reached out to school officials and law enforcement officers in Streetsboro and Ravenna to learn about the rationale for allowing school employees to be armed and the potential benefits and risks. We also reached out to other schools that did not opt for weapons on campus and received comments from Southeast and Kent school leaders.

While some officials defended their decision as an additional way to protect students, the chief of Ravenna city police expressed strong concerns about arming school personnel. He believes the training requirements are insufficient and questioned whether an armed teacher would be prepared to handle a firearm among students under high stress.

Streetsboro police support the decision

Streetsboro’s board of education on Jan. 12 authorized district employees “to possess firearms on the school property and in designated school safety zones.” School Superintendent Mike Daulbaugh did not respond to The Portager’s request for comment.

Streetsboro Police Chief Tricia Wain said the safety of arming school staff depends on their training, preparedness and coordination with local police.

Without divulging details, she said Streetsboro school staff are trained “above and beyond” the state mandates.

“Law enforcement can’t be everywhere at the same time. I don’t know of a city that has an officer in each school, and even if they were in each school, if somebody wants to do something, there’s always going to be an opportunity,” she said.

Though having an armed staff member ensures an extra layer of eyes, ears and protection, school districts must make sure the person is physically and emotionally capable of handling a critical incident, she said.

“I can’t imagine how hard it would be to engage a student or a former student regardless of what they’re doing,” she said. “Do I think every teacher out there or administrator is capable of potentially doing what needs to be done? If you have an active threat, no, but those aren’t going to be the ones that are hopefully going to be carrying a firearm in a school.”

While acknowledging that it is possible students might attempt to disarm teachers, even just as a prank, Wain downplayed the possibility. Who is and isn’t armed is not public knowledge, and staff have been trained to make clothing choices and take other necessary precautions to make sure it doesn’t happen, she said.

“Kids trying to disarm a teacher for fun isn’t one of my top concerns. My top concern is how sad is it that we live in a world where this has to be a possibility,” she said.

Training and preparedness will ensure that bullets don’t go wide and hit the wrong targets, she said.

“The staff that I know of in various locations, not necessarily just in Streetsboro, they’re very well trained. This isn’t something that they take lightly. It isn’t something that many schools are going to take lightly,” she said.

If arming staff deters even one student from potentially doing something that could have potentially fatal consequences, it’s worth it, Wain concluded.

Maplewood hopes to prevent incidents

Citing district safety, Maplewood Career Center Superintendent Randy Griffith declined to say how many armed personnel are in the Ravenna school. Acknowledging that there is no way to ensure total security, and as distasteful as the decision was, he said school leaders must do what they can to keep kids and staff safe.

Whether trained staff or school resource officers could or should open fire in a crowded area like a cafeteria would depend on the situation, he said.

“I think we can definitely mitigate the loss of life but it is extremely difficult to determine ahead of time what could take place. If we will be successful in mitigating all loss of life if something like that were to happen, I don’t know,” he said.

The real questions, he said, are how to stop such violence in the first place, and how to encourage both students and staff to report what they’ve seen or heard.

“We can talk about all the things we have in place, but the reality of this is that kids often know that someone has said they’re going to do this, and nobody is informed ahead of time. I always tell our staff to teach our kids if you see something, you say something. That’s the only way we’re going to mitigate the potential for a disaster. To me, that is the answer,” Griffith said.

Trainings aren’t enough, chief says

Ravenna Police Chief Jeff Wallis said he has met with Griffith. He respects his commitment to student safety and supports the district’s decision to arm staff. Even so, he has reservations.

“The police officer who is responding, are they going to mistakenly shoot a teacher, or is the teacher going to mistakenly shoot a cop?” he asked.

Reflecting on the state’s training and recertification standard, Wallis had one question: “Is that sufficient for a police officer?”

Ohio requires people intent on becoming police officers to complete a written exam, physical fitness testing, an oral interview, a personal history questionnaire, a background investigation that includes interviews with neighbors, two polygraph examinations, a psychological exam, a medical exam and other benchmarks.

After completing police academy, the state requires police officers to have 24 hours of annual continuing police training and several months of field training. Once hired by Ravenna PD, they remain on probation for a year so both police and the public know they can handle the job, Wallis said.

Standards for screening teachers and other school staff are simply different, he said.

“Now you’re trying to take a pool of people who may not have sufficient background to be able to respond to stressful situations and use appropriate use of force and de-escalate when appropriate or escalate where appropriate,” he said.

“If you have a teacher, what training are they getting? They have that 24 hours, but what is their background? What is the screening process? Are they making them do psychological and polygraphs to see if this person should even be carrying a gun? You give a guy who’s been teaching math for 24 years, and now you give him a gun, what training does he have?” he asked.

Wallis also mused about physical changes that people face in stressful situations.

“We get tunnel vision and auditory exclusion, and all our blood is flowing away from our limbs. That’s why your hands start shaking when you get stressed. So a stressful situation’s happening, and you have to use a firearm in self defense or to stop a threat, there’s a percentage of police officers who miss because it’s a stressful situation. Your fine motor skills diminish.”

And because they diminish, police officers may or may not hit their intended target. In a crowded school, teachers would have to live with the consequence of injuring or killing the wrong person for the rest of their lives, Wallis said.

Even police miss their mark

The FBI does not keep data on how many times law enforcement officers hit the wrong person. But police departments may keep these figures themselves. The New York Police Department said it had a 38% hit ratio in 2016 and a 44% hit ratio in 2017, according to PolitiFact.

Police “hit rates” rarely exceed 50%, Arizona State University criminology professor Michael D. White concluded in a 2006 study.

“The research examining shooter accuracy overwhelmingly debunks the Hollywood myth of police officers as sharpshooters who can wing suspects in the shoulder or leg or shoot weapons out of suspects’ hands,” White wrote.

Far from arming teachers being a final answer, Wallis suggested that doing so raises another set of possible unintended consequences.

Courts would have to decide if schools will be responsible if a school employee injures or kills an innocent bystander. What are the insurance implications for districts that choose to arm their employees? What happens if students manage to disarm a teacher? Would teachers quit because they don’t want to work in a district where teachers are armed?

Also, would parents pull their children out of schools that arm staff and enroll them in districts that don’t? Should that happen, school districts would lose money to open enrollment, Wallis said.

Southeast and Kent

Other school superintendents The Portager reached out to have opted not to arm their staff.

Southeast Superintendent Bob Dunn said he and the school board have discussed arming staff but opted for other security measures.

“We put in door ajar alarms for all our external doors that alarm locally and also alarm on principals to any door that would be ajar. We added an extra SRO and we also put in new cameras throughout the district,” he said.

Kent schools have also opted against arming staff. Superintendent Tom Larkin said the district’s school resource officer, who serves Stanton Middle School, is accompanied by a K9 officer who can smell and detect weapons. The dog is also a trained therapy dog, comforting countless students who need reassurance.

Larkin said he is engaged in ongoing conversations with Kent police to bring SROs to Kent’s other schools, as well.

Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that Maplewood Career Center is in Ravenna Township. It is actually in the City of Ravenna.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.