SPANISH FORK — After a childhood spent surrounded by gun violence in South Africa, Erin Thomas is, as she puts it, "anti-gun in a lot of ways."
It’s a description seemingly at odds with Thomas’ newly-acquired permit to carry a concealed firearm.
But with what can feel like an endless cycle of school shootings in the news, Thomas, an assistant principal at two elementary schools in the Alpine School District, has been increasingly forced to consider a frightening question for educators: What would I do if it were my school?
If the unthinkable were to happen, Thomas says, she wants to be able to take action — to be "helpful," rather than helpless.
Thomas and 31 other teachers, principals, and counselors filled a classroom at the Utah County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday for a concealed carry instructional course, part of a comprehensive academy to help educators prepare for potentially violent situations.
An earlier lesson focused on de-escalation techniques. Later in the month, the class will receive hands-on training at a shooting range. It’s the first time the sheriff’s office has offered such an academy.
As schools around the country contend with how best to prevent and respond to active shooter situations, there's disagreement over whether arming teachers is an effective way to keep students safe. In Utah, where it’s legal to carry a concealed firearm in the classroom, some educators are weighing the potential risks of bringing a handgun to school with the greater sense of security they believe it could bring.
Jennifer Jacobsen, a 70-year-old physical education teacher at Willowcreek Middle School in Lehi, had never shot a gun as of Wednesday night. She isn’t sure whether a concealed carry permit is something that would have crossed her mind 20 years ago when she first began teaching.
"(Now) this is a real issue. It’s the world we live in," Jacobsen said. "I’m a firm believer that I could be the one. It could be me, and I want to be prepared."
Those in favor of arming teachers say it could allow them to better protect their students in an active shooter situation, especially in rural areas where police may not be able to respond right away. Those opposed say they worry about the safety of students, citing the potential for deadly accidents in the classroom or the possibility that a teacher with limited training unintentionally shoots a student while trying to shoot an attacker.
"Guns don’t belong in our classrooms to begin with," said Mary Ann Thompson, head of the Utah chapter of gun control advocacy group Moms Demand Action. "Teachers and staff should be focused on helping our kids learn, not focused on being responsible for stopping an active shooter."
Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, said that generally speaking, the UEA is in favor of keeping the areas around schools gun-free.
Rather than devoting energy to arming teachers, Matthews would like to see schools expand mental health resources and focus on building relationships between students and trusted adults.
"School safety is greater impacted by paying attention to individual students and their needs than arming teachers," Matthews said. "And if we only have so many resources, let’s put them to use with things that have been statistically shown to make an impact."
The risks of carrying at school — particularly in a classroom of young children prone to hugs and handsiness — give some pause to Kristen Baumgarten, a kindergarten teacher at Orem Elementary School. She doubts she'll ever bring a gun to work, in part because she isn’t confident in her ability to handle a weapon in a moment of panic, but she applied for her concealed carry permit this week — just in case.
"Seeing these things (on the news), it really hits home," Baumgarten said. "It makes you more aware. What would I do in that situation?"
Andrea Brinkerhoff says she wouldn't arm herself in her current position as a counselor at Mapleton Elementary School, but she would be open to carrying in a high school. Either way, she believes a familiarity with weapons could benefit her and her students in a dangerous situation.
"It just helps to know what you’re up against," Brinkerhoff said, citing as an example, being able to identify different types of guns and their capabilities.
The sheriff's office had initially planned on a class of 20 for its academy but expanded the size due to high demand, Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith said. Still, there was a waiting list to get into the five-day course, which costs $20 and is mostly funded by the Utah County Sheriff's Honorary Colonels.
The Utah County Sheriff's Office isn't the only law enforcement agency to offer firearms training to Utah teachers. The Uintah County Sheriff's Office offered a two-day course for educators last month that similarly included shooting lessons at a gun range and concealed carry instruction. That training was funded by a donation from a local chapter of Safari Club International.
If teachers do choose to arm themselves, Smith says, training them in proper gun safety and shooting techniques could reduce the chances of an accident happening.
"That’s the thing: It is reality," Smith said. "There are teachers carrying guns to school. So for me, it's dealing with the reality.
"It’s easy to say, ‘I’m going to carry a gun to school because the law says I can, and if something happens I'm going to use it,’" he continued. "But shooting a gun is something that you need to work at and be confident in, especially if you need to take a shot in a room full of kids."
The Utah County academy doesn’t just include firearms training, and some participants have said they have no interest in carrying a gun, Smith said. Roughly half the class signed up for a concealed carry permit; a few others already had permits. Over the course of the month, the educators will also learn self-defense skills and emergency medical techniques.67 comments on this story
Jacobsen's colleague McKenzie Wilson, also a P.E. and health teacher at Willowcreek, said she chose to participate in the academy in part because of past experiences at work. Several years ago, she said, a student made a death threat against her. She sent the student to administrators; he was returned to her classroom several minutes later.
"It just feels so real," Wilson said. "I need to know how to protect myself and my students, because it's not coming from higher."
Thomas, like Wilson, Jacobsen and many of their classmates, isn’t sure whether she’ll ever carry a weapon at school, or at all.
"But if I do," Thomas said, "I would like to know how to do it the right way."