They are the “good guys with guns” the National Rifle Association says are needed to protect students from shooters: a school police officer, a teacher who moonlights in law enforcement, a veteran sheriff.
Yet in a span of 48 hours in March, the three were responsible for gun safety lapses that put students in danger.
The school police officer accidentally fired his gun in his Virginia office, sending a bullet through a wall into a middle school classroom. The teacher was demonstrating firearm safety in California when he mistakenly put a round in the ceiling, injuring three students who were hit by falling debris. And the sheriff left a loaded service weapon in a locker room at a Michigan middle school, where a sixth-grader found it.
All told, an Associated Press review of news reports collected by the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive revealed more than 30 publicly reported mishaps since 2014 involving firearms brought onto school grounds by law enforcement officers or educators. Guns went off by mistake, were fired by curious or unruly students, and were left unattended in bathrooms and other locations.
“If this can happen with a highly trained police officer, why would we give teachers guns?” interim superintendent Lois Berlin of the Alexandria, Va., school system asked after the incident involving the officer whose accidental discharge put a bullet through a wall at George Washington Middle School. He was placed on leave and is under investigation.
Amid a nationwide push to arm teachers or add more police officers and armed guards, the AP review suggests that doing so will almost certainly have unintended consequences. The accidents are rare, but the actual number is probably higher because schools are not required to report them. And they have frightened students, outraged parents, prompted disciplinary and criminal investigations and left at least nine people injured.
Some insurance companies have refused to cover schools that allow non-law enforcement personnel to be armed. And many school employees have said in surveys that they would feel less safe if more of their colleagues were carrying weapons.
Nevertheless, calls to encourage districts to add more armed educators and officers have intensified since the Feb. 14 shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 students and educators dead.
Speaking Friday to the NRA convention in Dallas, President Donald Trump called for allowing trained teachers to carry concealed weapons in schools, along with more armed security guards.
He said the best deterrent to would-be school shooters is “the knowledge that their attack will end their life and end in total failure.”
He added, “When they know that, they’re not going in.”
In March, the White House pledged to provide aid to state and local agencies to provide firearms training for school personnel and to recruit more veterans and retired officers into education. At least a dozen states have considered bills this year that would encourage more armed officers, security guards or teachers in public schools.
Supporters of allowing more school personnel to carry weapons argue that proper training would prevent such incidents.
“It’s usually the person behind the gun who determines the outcome,” said Kansas state Sen. Dennis Pyle, a Republican and supporter of a stalled bill that would have prohibited insurance companies from charging “unfair discriminatory” rates to schools that arm their staff.
A representative of the NRA declined to comment on the AP’s findings.
Sean Simpson is among the educators who have said publicly they would be willing to have firearms training, but the Marjory Stoneman Douglas science teacher recently had his own mishap. He was charged after leaving his loaded handgun in a public restroom at a crowded beach pier in April. An intoxicated homeless man found the weapon and fired it before Simpson snatched it back, authorities said.
The National Association of School Resource Officers has raised concerns about allowing teachers to be armed, saying they may not have the training to use guns effectively during a high-stress situation or to keep them secure. The group is pushing for an officer in every public school instead.
Executive Director Mo Canady, a former school resource officer in Alabama, said he believes accidental discharges and other mistakes involving school officers’ guns are “much more rare than people might think.”
“When you’ve got 20,000 officers in schools across the country, things can happen. There’s no perfect situation,” he said.
Earlier this school year, a fifth-grader in St. Paul, Minnesota, managed to pull the trigger on a gun in an officer’s holster, firing a bullet into the floor. The same day in Florida, a parent discovered a school resource officer’s gun in a faculty bathroom. A deputy’s gun went off in Michigan last fall during a struggle with a high school student.
Parent Rashmi Pappu, who has two daughters at the Virginia school where a bullet went through a wall and into a refrigerator, said she was stunned by the incident because she wasn’t aware the school’s officer was armed.
“I want to know why he was even handling his gun in the school and what the procedure is,” she said. “I just felt that in a safe school environment, this is ridiculous.”
The same day as the Virginia incident, Dennis Alexander was teaching his criminal justice class at a high school in Seaside, Calif., when he pointed a gun at the ceiling as he checked to make sure it was not loaded. The weapon went off. At least one of the students injured has hired a law firm and is considering legal action.
Alexander resigned his jobs as a teacher and reserve police officer. He also apologized, as did Michael Main, the Isabella County, Michigan, sheriff whose gun was found in a gym locker room where he’d left it while changing uniforms.
“I have worked diligently my entire career to protect people, especially our youth,” Main said in a statement. “However, I have failed to do just that, and I’m devastated with my lack of accountability in this matter.”
Associated Press writer John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas, contributed to this report.