WEST PLAINS, Mo. – From a hilltop west of this Ozarks town, trees stretch to the end of the world and only the low rumble of far-off thunder breaks the morning quiet.
That is about to change.
“On the command of ‘gun’!” the chief instructor calls out. “Two steps to the left, three shots on target! One standing, one kneeling, one standing!”
The dozen or so schoolteachers, and one district’s bookkeeper, ready their trigger fingers.
The teachers move left, an evasive sidestep — “stepping off the X,” it’s called. They yank the Glock 19s from their holsters and fire at metal targets 50 inches tall with painted faces at the tops, careful not to hit the innocents in front and behind.
Drop to a knee, fire. Stand up, fire. Scan for additional threats.
In the heartland of a nation worn raw by school shootings, these teachers are now students, learning how to kill an armed intruder.
Most of their bullets find the intended pings; a few kick up red dirt of a berm. It’s a process.
In the year and a half since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, as America has struggled to find the answer to its epidemic of school shootings, some districts have decided that teachers are the ultimate first responders and need to learn to shoot back.
Four Missouri school districts recently sent staffers to this hilltop range for five days of firearms training. The instructors, all current law enforcement officers, refer to the teachers’ “unique situation” — essentially close-quarters combat while youngsters scream and run about.
“You have to pick your environment apart,” Jason Long, a lieutenant with the Howell County sheriff’s office, stresses to the class.
So, are these teachers ready to pull the trigger on a shooter? How about if it’s a kid they’ve had in class?
“None of us would be here if we haven’t already answered that question,” one man said.
While many in this country want to think that we aren’t at that point, and some teachers don’t want anything to do with a gun, education officials agree the old “hide under a desk” is no longer a viable response.
The U.S. Department of Education is pushing ALICE — alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate. School personnel and students should do whatever they can — including barricading doors, escaping out windows and even throwing objects at an armed intruder.
Olathe and Independence are among the districts that are adopting ALICE.
Other ideas include SafeDefend, the creation of Jeff Green, a former Kansas elementary school principal. It gives teachers fingerprint-activated access to pepper spray and a baton to counter intruders. The activation also triggers a school lockdown and notifies police.
Since Sandy Hook, several states have approved legislation that allows teachers to carry guns. Though well intended, the proposals are folly at the core, said G.A. Buie, principal of Eudora High School in Kansas and president-elect of the 20,000-member National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Arming teachers could not be more wrongheaded, he said.
“We would be asking school officials, trained as educators, to make a quick transition from teacher to SWAT member, arrive on the scene, assess the situation, overcome the severe nervousness that naturally accompanies a deadly force incident and take immediate action before blood is shed,” Buie said.
“It’s a bit more than you can cover in a typical teacher in-service.”
Certainly not all districts will go the gun route. Schools in large cities and suburban areas typically have security guards or police resource officers. Others are situated where law enforcement can respond within a few minutes.
But Greg Martin, a former Missouri Highway Patrol trooper who started the Shield Solutions training school near West Plains on his family’s farm, said districts should not rely on uniformed guards, whom he views as “soft targets” — the first person a gunman would try to take out. Martin also thinks that a few minutes of police response time is far too long if somebody starts shooting in a school.
His plan calls for one or two staff members carrying concealed weapons, anonymously, their identities known only to school district administration and local law enforcement.
“Like air marshals on planes,” Martin said. “How many hijackings have we had since 9/11?”
In the recent class were people from the Lutie, Climax Springs, Dora and Warsaw school districts. Among the bunch: administrators, coaches and teachers. All volunteers.
A superintendent said that if anybody from his district was going to undergo the training, he wanted it to be him. No easy duty. Military-like training with lots of yelling and running up a hill as punishment.
“Everything I expected and a little more,” he said during a break, winded and sweat dripping off his chin.
He’d been yelled at: “You’re too slow! That’s why we move fast — so we can shoot slowly!”
A teacher at Lutie Elementary in Theodosia, Mo., said she never thought she would be doing something like this, but somebody had to step up, particularly as two more school shootings happened the week of her training.
“These are my children,” she said.
Before fall, she will have to find a holster undetectable by her students.
“They like to give me hugs,” she said.
George Pharoah braced a rifle against a tree early one morning and shot a teacher as she unlocked the school door.
He used a Saturday Evening Post to muffle the rifle’s crack. That was Sept. 28, 1850, in West Chester, Pa. The murder of Rachael Sharpless is one of the early ones on a list of American school shootings.
It’s a long list, the early ones never widely known and the recent ones blurred by horror.
Then came Columbine. And in Littleton, Colo., 12 students and one teacher dead, plus more than 20 wounded.
That was the big one until Sandy Hook on Dec. 14, 2012. Adam Lanza, 20, killed his mother at home before going to an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., and killing 26 people, including 20 first-graders.
“That was the catalyst for us,” said Tim Thomas, director of instruction and facilities for the Warsaw School District. “We knew we had to do something.”
The Warsaw district, with five campuses, two of them miles from law enforcement, was one of the first in Missouri to take the Shield Solutions training. The school board met twice with the company before signing on and sending letters home to parents advising them of the plan.
“Zero response from angry parents,” Thomas said. “We have had nothing but positive support and we’ve been doing this for over a year. No incidents.”
Martin started his training school after being approached by another district.
At first, insurance was a problem. Districts were told they would be dropped from regular coverage if any staff member was armed. The solution was for Martin’s company to provide $3 million of co-insurance to participating districts.
For a fee of $17,500, a district gets training for two staffers, who technically become employees of Shield Solutions and receive a salary. So far, 10 districts have taken the training. Three more signed contracts recently and more are in negotiations.
“One superintendent told us at one time that the idea would never fly with his board,” said sales manager Dan Wehmer. “Now we’re on the July agenda.”
Most of the districts are small — they say they can’t afford security guards — and isolated. A county deputy would have to race miles down winding and hilly blacktops to get to some of them.
“We’d be lucky if they could get there in 25 minutes,” the bookkeeper said of her school.
Dick Flanary, a deputy executive director for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, understands the isolated part but says those districts would be better off finding money in the budget for security guards.
“But there is no doubt that there is a growing frustration level in this country,” Flanary said. “Schools obviously have become targets and the solutions are not clear.”
The Missouri School Boards’ Association takes no position on the issue.
“That needs to be a local decision,” said Paul Fennewald, the association’s special adviser for education safety and a former FBI agent.
Under a state law enacted last year, each district in Missouri is now required to undergo an “active shooter” drill led by law enforcement. Kansas has no such requirement.
The Missouri drill focuses on building security, lockdown measures and emergency communication.
“Some districts are choosing to go beyond that,” Fennewald said, referring to arming teachers. “They just need to make sure they get appropriate training and be aware of their liability.
“But, sure, the number of districts going that way could go up.”
Here’s the thing about teachers’ choice of ammunition: They don’t want a bullet passing through a target and striking someone else in a classroom. The round needs to expend its energy within the soft tissue of the target.
“So absolutely no plus-P rounds,” training supervisor Don Crowley told the recent class, referring to overloaded bullets, which travel hotter and faster.
Crowley is an Army veteran, a federally certified firearms instructor, sniper instructor and Missouri Sheriffs’ Association Training Academy instructor. He knows the starting point for some of the teachers.
“Zero,” he said. “So it’s absolutely ground floor — stance, grip, sight alignment, trigger manipulation.”
But on a scale to 100, he said, his students will be shooting at 90 to 95 by the end of the week. If not 90 percent, they don’t graduate and the district will have to send someone else.
At the recent session, an elementary teacher struggled. Her eyes were tearing up, and she repeatedly had to run up a hill as punishment for misses.
“She’s not going to make it,” Wehmer said. “She can’t handle the stress. And if she can’t handle it out here, what would she do in a real situation?”
The woman knew she was too slow.
“I have to stop thinking scenario so much and start shooting,” she said.
Training topics include weapons maintenance, threat identification, discretionary shooting, one-handed shooting, shooting while moving, barricade shooting and “the warrior mindset.”
Five hours are spent in the classroom and 35 hours on the range. The required firearm is the Glock 19 semi-automatic pistol.
“Concealable, easy to handle and it goes bang every time,” Crowley said.
“Combat accuracy,” added instructor Fred Long, a retired Missouri Highway Patrol driver instructor supervisor and former Army paratrooper.
On Thursday of the recent week, too many shots missed targets. Students forgot to take the evasive sidestep.
“This is Day Four! Step off the X!” instructor Jason Long yelled.
Crowley, clearly frustrated, glared at flubbers as they left to run up the hill.
“You boys are detracting from everybody else’s training,” he said.
Part of the school shooting scenarios include the arrival of law enforcement.
“Sheriff’s department! On the ground!” the officers shout as they barge onto the scene.
By that time, the teachers should have looped around their necks the yellow security sash they must carry at all times.
“What is your name?!” the officers yell. “Do you work here?! Are there other shooters?!”
Some of the teachers’ voices wobble as they respond with their hands up and their knees in the gravel. It’s about performing under pressure, Martin said. The same as putting the school shooter target in the middle of the kids.
“It adds to the stress,” Martin said. “But it makes them better.
“They can’t fail at this.”