Trained to shoot: the Utah teachers taking up firearms in their classrooms

To fight school shootings, Utah permits educators to carry a handgun at school and many are choosing to arm themselves and are taking combat shooting courses as preparation

Ryan Ferree, 33, is a keen shooter. If he was able to, he would shoot until the 160 -decibel sound of a gunshot didn’t faze him. He would shoot so often that he wouldn’t freeze up if he had to aim at someone he knew.

Ferree wasn’t always interested in firearms. He got his concealed-carry permit in March, after becoming a teacher. Three months later, in June, he’s taking a local combat shooting course offered to teachers in St George, Utah.

Utah is one of 14 US countries where educators can carry a handgun at school. Following the shooting that killed 17 people in Parkland, Florida, Rowdy’s Range started offering the class- which normally expenses almost $800- free of charge to teachers.

One of the course teachers, Brett Pruitt, 38, believes that teachers have the right to be armed if they prefer:” We devote our children to educators for four to six hours a day and trust them with their safety. My personal opinion is we should give them the means to[ keep those children safe ].”

School principals aren’t allowed to ask educators whether they carry a weapon on premises, so there’s no official figure on how many do, but gun rights groups guess it’s around 1 %. In March, classes were often fully booked, but when I visit, five people turn out in total across two separate 12 -person classes.

‘ Gunfighting 101 for Educator ‘, a course taught by Rowdy Reeve and Brett Pruitt at a gun range in Hurricane, Utah. Photograph: Mikayla Whitmore for the Guardian

Regardless, range owned Rowdy Reeve, 41, insures it as his responsibility to provide the course:” If educators are going to take a weapon into school, they should be trained to use one ,” he says.

Ferree chose he wanted to carry after his first lockdown drill. The drills are designed to prepare teachers and students for an active shooter situation; the students conceal in blind spots in their classrooms while someone pretends to force-out entry. A former military man, Ferree didn’t like having to hide in the corner:” It attains me sick to think that if someone came in and tried to harm my children, I’d be nothing more than a meat shield .”

He is one of the many educators emboldened by President Trump’s proposition that highly trained teachers might be able to stop shootings in their schools. For Ferree, it’s all a matter of practice:” I didn’t know how to teach math before I tried it ,” he says.

Another math teacher, Michelle Oldroyd, 53, rebuffs him:” There are a lot more repercussions for get this wrong, than messing up a math class .”

The repercussions for carrying a weapon can, indeed, be taken seriously. When a Utah teacher, Michelle Montgomery-Ferguson, 39, accidentally shot herself in the leg at Westbrook elementary school in 2014, it didn’t matter that she didn’t remember pulling the trigger. It didn’t even matter that the gun, placed on the toilet paper dispenser in a school bathroom, wasn’t in her hand when it discharged. The mistake was enough for her to be charged with a class B misdemeanor, with the possibility of six months in prison. Montgomery-Ferguson escaped jail hour, but shortly after she was charged, she resigned from the school where she had taught sixth grade for 14 years.

Pruitt and Reeve are ex-law enforcement. During two days on the outdoor range, they indicate teachers how to effectively conceal themselves behind barrels that they pretend are bookcases, and how to dodge gunfire in a hallway. They will practise shooting while sitting behind a desk, and how to quickly draw a weapon and aim in one swift movement.

At hours, it feels like something out of a shoot’ em up video game. The course does not include any de-escalation train or lessons on how to safely store your handgun in the classroom, and there is no discussion of racial biases and how to militate against them.

Ryan Ferree, 33, during a train class for educators. Ferree, who teaches seventh and eighth grade math, said it’s all a matter of practice:’ I didn’t know how to teach math before I tried it .’ Photograph: Mikayla Whitmore for the Guardian

” That stuff’s supposed to come before this class ,” says Pruitt.” If you can resolve the situation any other way,[ you] should. But if a educator objective up in a gunfight, I want them to be able to fight their way out without getting harmed .”

On the car journey back, Reeve asks what I’m planning to write. I tell him about the concerns of some locals: that the existence of the class, whether intentionally or not, could pressure some educators to carry guns when they don’t want to, or pressure them to be heroes when they aren’t trained to.

I also tell him that in Utah, like the rest of the country, it seems like what constructs some communities feel safe against gun violence is exactly what constructs other communities feel unsafe.” I see that ,” says Reeve.

* * *

The idea of training teachers to shoot has been met with mixed reactions across America. The National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ foyer, is against it. After the Parkland shooting, 14 states is moving forward bills to allow educators to be armed, but only one of them- Florida- passed the law. Students involved in the nationwide March for Our Lives initiative have expressed concerns about the proposals.

In Utah, at a suicide prevention meeting, many feel a suicide-focused strategy would help deal with school shootings.” Most mass shootings have been driven by suicidal ideation ,” says Craig Bryan, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Utah.

Cathy Barber, another member of the suicide prevention squad and an academic at the Harvard School of Public Health, believes that political polarisation between left and right has fueled an inability to move forward on firearm reform.” Sometimes I feel good-hearted anti-gun groups think agreeing to focus on suicide means they’ve confessed to the handgun hall ,” says Barber.

But while handgun lobbyists in the room are happy to discuss suicide prevention, discussions around police-on-citizen shootings, gang violence and mass shootings seem less welcome.

Catherine Voutaz, a mother who recently lost her 15 -year-old son Chandler to suicide, was surprised and disappointed to discover that Chandler’s school district expended grant money on training for live intruder drills.” Mass shootings make up a tiny proportion of gun demises ,” Voutaz says, outside the session.” Most people don’t even recognise how big a problem suicide is, because of the media focus on school shootings .”

While training teachers to shoot has been one of the more controversial recommendations for solving school firearm violence, it’s not the only option being discussed. Trump’s national school safety commission has been tasked with looking at everything from video games to how journalists encompass mass shootings. Schools across the country are installing facial recognition systems, metal detectors and more police officers in schools.

A newspaper target at the shooting class for educators. Photo: Mikayla Whitmore for the Guardian

The effectiveness of such police officers- called school resource policemen, or SROs- is debated. While Scot Peterson, the police officer at Parkland, became a figure of national hatred and ridicule for not entering the building where Nikolas Cruz was shooting students with an attack rifle, many pointed out there was little he could have done against an AR-1 5.

Justin Chapman, a captain at the Sandy police department in Utah, ran in schools for decades, and now operates a private business develop police to work in schools as SROs.

Chapman avoided his first school shooting 20 years ago, two days into his first role as an SRO, when he found an assault rifle on a student.

He believes developing relationships so students feel comfortable confiding in officers is the most important part of the role:” In many cases where there’s been a school shooting, a student has known[ it was coming] but didn’t feel safe enough to tell anybody ,” Chapman says.

Utah has a fraught history with law enforcement in schools. In 2014, SROs arrested 299 students. While school-related arrests have almost halved since 2012, racial gaps have gone up- Native Americans were 8.8 times more likely than their white peers to be arrested in 2014 and Pacific Islanders were 3.3 times more likely.

Chapman disagrees that SROs are racially biased:” If more Latinos are perpetrating more crimes in a school they’ll get arrested more .”

But the local non-profit Voices for Utah Children, which conducts research on the school-to-prison pipeline, disagrees.” Are non-white kids more violent, or more likely to commit crimes ?” asks policy analyst Anna Thomas.” There’s no data to show that’s true, all that’s shown is that they get caught more .”

* * *

When it comes to solving gun violence, many in Utah believe in putting the very best of the majority first, even if that entails some necessary evils. Anna Thomas believes that’s a problem:” When we’re talking about school security and how to keep children safer, we always have to ask: which children? If it’s always black and brown kids who feel less safe, those solutions are not appropriate for national societies .”

Saida Dahir, 17, is a March for Our Lives coordinator in Salt Lake City. For her, arming teachers and increasing law enforcement in schools will inevitably end up sacrificing the safety of minority students for the peace of mind of their white equivalents. She points out that the existence of these measures doesn’t build everyone feel most secure:” The dread of firearms, and the fear of policemen is in our blood. We watch videos of our communities torn apart by both every day ,” she says.

Dahir is a Somalian refugee who escaped to Kenya with her family as a newborn and came to the US as a three-year-old. She guessed the US was a mythical place of dreams:” I figured, people don’t die here, right? It’s all Hollywood and Disneyland ,” she says.

Today, Dahir receives her schools militarised, her school hallways a danger zone, and her black scalp and hijab an invitation for suspicion and violence. When she first got to the US, her mother, a housemaid, prayed in closets while on the job, for anxiety of being seen.

Like many students of colour in Utah, Dahir says that resource officers tend to treat minority students differently- detecting undue reason to chastise them, or to suspect they are up to no good. She isn’t reassured by the push for more security in schools:” If these rules attain everybody safer, why do I find myself cringing my way through school ?”

Shell casings during the class. Photo: Mikayla Whitmore for the Guardian

If forced to choose, she and some other minority students say they would rather have armed teachers in schools than more law enforcement.

Yet many people do feel safer around more cops, more firearms and less handgun limiteds, and believe the second amendment is intended to help American citizens defend themselves from the threat of tyranny.

In Utah, this is intensified. Many people in the largely Mormon state are shaped by tales of persecution in their family history. They tell narratives of how Mormons were terrorized and chased out of the eastern US and forced to settle in territories that weren’t for the purposes of the control of the US government at the time. Central to this story is how necessary firearms were, and still are, to protect Mormons from a tyrannical government.

Dahir feels that the same rights are not afforded to black people. In May this year, her childhood friend Elijah Smith was shot to death by Salt Lake City police. Smith, who had run away from police who suspected him of stealing a cellphone, was killed while raising his hands to surrender.

His death came months after Patrick Harmon was Tasered and shot to death by police for cycling in Salt Lake City without proper lighting in August 2017. The district attorney’s office initially refused to release footage of the arrest; after public protest, the footage, eventually released in October, indicated a man shot in the back while running away.

” Are these the people that they’re sending to protect us ?” asks Dahir.

* * *

Utah’s school safety commission recently voted for modest handgun reforms such as background checks for secondhand sales and extreme risk protection statutes, which let authorities to seize an individual’s guns if they are judged to pose a risk to themselves or others. But there is still a long way to go in Utah on firearm reform.

When March for Our Lives students marched in Utah, firearm rights proponents organised a March Before Our Lives counter-protest.

The Utah Sports Shooting Council chairman, Clark Aposhian, owned over 300 guns when he was arrested in 2014 after driving a 2.5 -tonne military vehicle on to his ex-wife’s property and allegedly threatening to run over her partner.( Aposhian was fined for disorderly conduct, but domestic violence charges against him were dropped .) After authorities confiscated his guns, Aposhian became a vocal firearm rights activist.

Aposhian, who was on Utah’s school safety commission, is adamant that schools can be made safer without firearm reform:” We need to enforce our the existing laws ,” he says.” Until then don’t start asking for any new laws that are gonna merely curtail me and not the criminals .”

He does accept that there are some limitations:” People who induce poor decisions shouldn’t be allowed to bear arms. For every right comes regulations ,” he says.

Here, he is referencing what he believes is a difference between the way that gun violence manifests itself in different cultures.” White people kill themselves. That’s not the same in African American or Hispanic communities. They’re preying upon one another ,” he says.

For Aposhian, the route that gun violence has to be dealt with is simple: more apprehends. He points out that out of tens of thousands of cases of offenders buying firearms during the Obama administration, merely 44 were ever apprehended.

These communities, says Aposhian, are mainly minority areas- in contrast to the white community, which, he says, has ” very few true firearm incidents; ours are largely related to drugs and alcohol “.

Aposhian doesn’t believe in taking a similarly heavy-handed approach when it is necessary to criminalising people who fail to lock away their guns, however:” I prefer the carrot approach. Let’s give these households some fund to buy a handgun safe, then talk about why they should lock it away .”

Aposhian’s blind spot seems to reflect a broader problem with the US’s gun culture- an inability to see why macho solutions to handgun violence, like arming educators, are experienced differently by people of colour.

When I ask him whether this is unfair, he’s frank in his response:” Well, to be honest, I haven’t thought about that ,” he says.

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