In a new twist to professional development in a post-Sandy Hook world, some teachers in the Galt Joint Union Elementary School District will not only be learning Common Core state standards and classroom management, but also how to handle a gun.
“We have a small-town feel here, so we could all relate to what happened at Sandy Hook,” said Superintendent Karen Schauer of the Dec. 14 shooting of 20 elementary school students and six teachers and administrators in Newtown, Conn. Galt, which has about 24,000 residents, is located 20 miles south of Sacramento along Highway 99, adjacent to the Consumnes River Preserve. The district serves about 3,900 K-8 students.
Since the Newtown shooting, school districts throughout California are trying to improve security by working more closely with local police, forming safe school task forces, and adding video cameras and additional security personnel. Legislators are also introducing a number of bills aimed at promoting gun safety and enhancing safety programs on campuses. But Galt may be the first community in the state to set up such hands-on trainings for school staff.
So far, 139 employees in the district of about 500 have signed up for a three-hour voluntary class on guns and a chance to use them at a target-shooting course. The course is being offered by the local police department.
“Ten years ago, I would never have been thinking about needing to understand guns,” said kindergarten teacher Kristin Szyper, who signed up to take the course. “But with recent events, you want to make sure you are safe and your students are safe.”
A similar concern drove kindergarten teacher Linda Ekstrom to sign up.
“I want to do anything and everything I can do to protect my students,” she said.
Szyper, who has taught kindergarten for the past 11 years, has never handled a gun in her life. “I wouldn’t even know how to pick it up, know if it was loaded, know if it was safe to handle,” she said.
Classes, which are open to all district employees, are expected to begin in April. Two weeks ago, the Galt Joint Union High School District’s trustees also approved offering the training to its staff. The training is aimed at familiarizing school staff with guns – not at arming teachers in the classroom as some gun lobbyists suggested in the days following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.
Neither the California Police Officers Association nor the California Police Chiefs Association had heard of any other communities offering their teachers trainings on guns. “It sounds unique to me,” said Sara Dwyer, communications coordinator for the Police Chiefs Association.
However, Leslie McGill, executive director of the Police Chiefs Association, said she is not sure that anybody would keep track of such trainings. “It’s going to be a community-by-community decision,” she said.
The Connecticut shooting prompted a meeting between Schauer and Galt Police Chief William Bowen to review the district’s safety plan and to set up a “tabletop” emergency situation enactment to be held in April at the police department. Administrators and teachers are to be given scenarios about a shooter on campus and asked how they would respond.
When Bowen suggested the possibility of a class on guns for district employees, Schauer at first wasn’t sure. But she soon became convinced that “information is power” and staff at the district “would feel safer and would be safer.”
Although the details haven’t been worked out, Bowen said that the course would be essentially free except for the cost of ammunition, which has become scarce, and therefore expensive, because of concerns that stronger gun and ammunition control laws are imminent since the Newtown shooting.
Bowen said across the nation police teach residents to respond to a threat first by running away. If that is not possible, then they should hide. But if neither is possible, the only alternative is to fight.
“In a fight over the weapon, if the shooter loses the weapon, what are the people going to do who pick it up?” he said. “If a teacher finds a weapon in a student’s backpack, they don’t know what to do with it.”
The class will also help police in the event of an emergency because the school staff would be able to tell them whether the gun is a revolver, which typically hold six rounds of ammunition, a semiautomatic, with up to 15 rounds, or a rifle or assault weapon. Such detailed information helps police better plan their response. “Typically people just say, ‘He has a gun,’” Bowen said.
Teachers will also learn how to determine if a gun is cocked or loaded.
The class will be taught by Galt police Lt. Jim Uptegrove, who already trains students who want to become police officers at nearby Los Rios Community College and teaches a class for hunters, which includes children age 12 and up.
If school staff want to shoot the weapons, Uptegrove plans to set up a target-shooting course for them to go through that will give them a score at the end.
“I did not expect the overwhelming response we received,” Uptegrove said. “I’m encouraged by it. I think people need to be aware.”