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Gun-toting Utah teachers to parents: Your kids safe with us

Published May 20, 2013 11:57 am

School safety • Utah educators who carry weapons voice their perspective.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

One Utah teacher's worst nightmare goes something like this: A gunman slips into his school, draws weapons, aims and fires at his kids.

"I can think of nothing worse than having to witness my students being killed or maimed without me being able to at least attempt some sort of intervention," the teacher said. "I might even die in the process, but, in my opinion, going down shooting would be better than standing in front of them helplessly."

Every day, the Davis School District teacher carries a concealed handgun and about 25 rounds to his junior high school in hopes of helping to defend it should such an attack occur.

The issue of whether to allow guns in schools and who should carry them has sparked debate in Utah and nationwide since a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary in December. But at least one group of voices has been mostly missing: those of teachers who already carry.

No one knows exactly how many Utah teachers are packing because, as concealed-firearm permit holders, they're not required to tell parents, school police officers or their principals.

Plus, many of those teachers fear revealing their identities would give criminals a tactical advantage or cause backlash from parents, colleagues or administrators.

To get their perspective, The Salt Lake Tribune interviewed two teachers who carry in class and confirmed where they teach, but chose to use pseudonyms to protect their safety.

"This is a good opportunity to let [the public] know we're not psychos," said Paul Smith, the Davis district junior high teacher, who's been carrying for seven years in Utah schools. "We're not going to snap on their kids."

'Don't ever touch me' • Teachers who carry often go to great lengths to ensure their students never suspect a thing, said Smith and another junior high teacher in the Davis district, Rob Jones, also a pseudonym.

Every day, Jones wears a small pistol, along with five magazines filled with a total of 31 rounds, on a band around his belly. Smith wears his handgun on his side, tucked into his pants, under his shirt in a holster. Neither man's gun is visible under his clothing, and they never take the guns off while at school.

Smith said he explicitly tells kids to respect his personal space and also tries to communicate that message through body language. If a student approaches him too closely, he'll take a step back or cross his arms. In his school's crowded hallways, he holds his arm over his concealed gun to keep kids from accidentally bumping into it.

Both men said that, generally, junior high kids are hands-off anyway. They acknowledge it could be tougher to carry in elementary schools.

Smith's had just one close call. One day, a student ran up behind him and poked him in the back.

"Boy, I let him have it," Smith said. "It was like, 'Don't ever touch me again.' I made it very clear that was not appropriate and I would never allow it.

"It wasn't because I was uncomfortable. It was because he came about this close to poking my gun," Smith said, holding his thumb and his fingers several inches apart.

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, students asked both teachers whether they carried guns. They both joked off the questions or lied.

"I'm not lying out of malice," Smith said. "I'm lying out of protection, and I think that's OK."

More access, more accidents? • Smith and Jones say their guns make their classrooms safer, and most Utahns seem to agree.

Fifty-nine percent of Utahns either strongly or somewhat favored allowing full-time school workers to carry firearms at school, according to a January poll by Dan Jones & Associates for The Exoro Group.

While the National Rifle Association has suggested schools train staff members to carry guns, the nation's two largest teachers' unions oppose arming educators.

Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, president of the Utah Education Association, said she wouldn't have wanted to carry a gun in her classroom as a teacher. "My job," she said, "is to nurture and teach and, for me, a gun would have no place in my classroom."

Utah teachers have a right to carry, she said, but she wouldn't want to see more teachers forced to bear arms.

Marcelle Ross, a fifth-grade teacher at Cottonwood Elementary in Holladay who recently won a Huntsman Award for Excellence in Education, said she doesn't want to teach her kids that "the way we make our society safe is through violence." She also would worry about their safety with a gun in the room.

"I do feel firmly that the more access there is to guns," Ross said, "the more likely there is going to be an accident related to guns."

Some opponents have worried that an impatient teacher might display or fire a gun.

But Smith responds that teachers are largely a patient bunch. And even when they're not, he said, there's a world of difference between a frustrated teacher hurling an eraser versus shooting a student.

Teachers with concealed carry permits are especially likely to show patience and control, Smith said, because of the background checks they face to both teach and carry.

'We're more trustworthy' • To get a concealed-firearm permit in Utah, one must be 21 years old, complete a "firearms familiarity course" that typically lasts about 3½ to 4 hours, and undergo a criminal background check. Permits must be renewed every five years.

Applicants also must demonstrate "proof of good character," meaning they haven't been convicted of any violent crime, alcohol or drug offense, any offense involving "moral turpitude" or domestic violence, or been judged mentally incompetent by a court.

The state's Bureau of Criminal Identification checks permit holders against those convicted of or charged with certain crimes each day, meaning one who gets in trouble with the law will lose his permit quickly, said Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council.

"We're more trustworthy to teach their kids than easily anybody else," Smith said, "because we've got that constant check on our moral compass."

Since 1998, two Utah teachers have had their teaching licenses suspended or revoked primarily for actions involving guns, said Carol Lear, Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission executive secretary.

One Davis teacher had her license suspended in 2005 after she threatened to use a shotgun if she didn't get the teaching assignment she wanted. A Granite district teacher had his license revoked in 2006 after he brought an air pistol to school and showed it to students. It's unknown, however, whether either of those teachers had concealed-weapon permits.

The state otherwise has no records, at least going back to 1998, of teachers losing their licenses for harming students with guns, firing weapons at school or threatening students with guns.

Smith and Jones said they and many teachers they know go far beyond the state's minimum training requirements to carry. Smith said he practices shooting once to several times a month. Jones, who's been carrying in Utah schools for eight years, said he trains with other gun owners weekly.

"If you're going to put yourself in a setting like we do, with a school where we're going to be protecting a number of kids," Smith said, "another level of training I think ought to be encouraged."

Who gets to know? • Neither man has directly told his principal he carries a gun.

Smith said many teachers don't tell their principals because they don't want to be scrutinized, or they don't want their principals to feel pressure from others about it.

During the past legislative session, Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, introduced controversial HB389, which was to have allowed parents to find out which teachers carry, but it died quickly.

Utah parents have mixed opinions. Jim Olson, chairman of Highland High's school community council, said he believes parents should have the right to know.

"Because there are potential dangers with more guns in the classroom," Olson said, "I think parents should know the atmosphere that their kids are in."

But Michael Smurthwaite, a Bingham High grandfather who once worked as a California school administrator and now serves on his school's community council, is on the fence about disclosure, though he believes armed teachers can make a school safer.

Smith and Jones, however, feel telling parents would mean a tactical disadvantage if a parent ever decided to shoot up a school. Plus, Smith said, the names of permit holders are private in Utah and forcing him to disclose would infringe on his rights.

Jones compared the idea to letting parents know if teachers are gay. "Nothing's going to happen to your kid."

Smith has, however, alerted his school's resource officer, a police officer who works at the school.

"I felt like he ought to know at least, that if there was an incident, I would be probably engaging that person ... and he could pass the information along to the authorities."

Both men say more coordination between school resource officers, police and teachers who carry is needed in Utah schools.

"Right now where we're all in hiding," Smith said of teachers who carry, "there really is no team mechanics at all."

Smith said he immediately felt sorry for the Sandy Hook teachers when he heard of the attack. Several educators died.

Even before details were reported, "I knew those teachers threw themselves in front of their kids," Smith said. "They're going to protect those kids at all costs, but they had no tools. They had no ability to protect themselves, and it's sad." —

Learning the law

For a Q&A on Utah laws about guns in schools, see page XX.