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The Journal Gazette

  • Brian Francisco | The Journal Gazette A Glock 19 handgun is shown in a safe at the Jay County School Corp. administration building.

  • Gulley

Sunday, October 21, 2018 1:00 am

Schools turning to gun safes

Jay County likely 1st in state; secrecy shrouds many details

BRIAN FRANCISCO | The Journal Gazette

About this project

School shootings across the nation – some of them fatal – have shaken students, staff, parents and communities. The tragedies have led to protests, asking lawmakers to enact tougher gun control laws.

Reporter Ashley Sloboda and a team of other Journal Gazette reporters take an in-depth look at the violence, steps schools have taken to be better prepared to respond, and other issues related to safety.

PORTLAND – Jeremy Gulley would not say how many people would have access to gun safes at Jay County schools, or even how many guns and safes there would be.

The superintendent of Jay County School Corp. would not say whether he would be among the administrators, faculty or staff allowed to retrieve a loaded Glock 19 handgun in the event of an attack on a school building – although he did produce a locked, Glock-storing safe during an interview at the administration building in September.

“I believe every kid who goes to a school should go to a school that's protected by some armed presence,” Gulley said at the time.

That presence could be a police officer or a security guard, he said, “or that could be an armed, trained person on the staff.”

Not could be – will be. The school board voted 7-0 on Monday in favor of Gulley's recommendation to have selected volunteers act as a last line of defense in what the superintendent describes as a layered security strategy. 

The board resolution states: “Team members are authorized to use deadly force to protect students, staff members, or others from what is reasonably believed to be an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury due to violence.” Their identities “shall be kept strictly confidential,” the resolution states.

Gulley, who doubles as commanding officer for the Army National Guard unit based in Fort Wayne, developed the security plan soon after a teenage gunman killed 17 people and wounded 17 others Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Teachers, students and parents endorsed Gulley's proposal – 97 percent of them in an online survey. Local law enforcement officials did the same. The school board finalized the plan, minus the trained volunteers chosen Monday, in a unanimous vote in May.

Gulley last month emphasized that the strategy does a lot more than put gun safes in schools. Jay County School Corp. has begun a series of improvements to its buildings to make students safer: a single point of entry for visitors, who will be photographed and checked against a sex offender registry; ballistic doors and windows for classrooms; integrated video cameras that will be linked to law enforcement agencies; and fencing around playgrounds. 

Students will receive cellphone apps to report suspicious or threatening behaviors. Mental health professionals will be in school buildings every day. Retired police officers might be on hand as well.

The school district has committed about $900,000 worth of security upgrades, and the Indiana State Board of Education recently approved Jay County School Corp.'s application for a $500,000 loan from the state's school safety loan program. NextEra Energy Resources, which owns the Bluff Point Wind Energy Center in Jay County, announced this month that it would contribute $100,000 for the purchase of security equipment for the high school.

Gulley's military experience no doubt informs his school protection terminology: Prevention, hardening, arming. Deter, deflect, deny, defeat. Shorter response time. Cut the confusion.

School shootings are “statistically unlikely, but they are happening more often; that's a fact,” Gulley said.

Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates for reducing gun violence, has counted 72 incidents of gunfire on school grounds this year, compared with 65 for all of last year and 53 for 2016. Two months after Parkland came the shootings at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, leaving 10 dead and 13 injured. 

“Everywhere it happened, they didn't believe it would happen,” Gulley said.

Staying secretive about 'game plan'

Jay County School Corp. might be the first Indiana school district to install gun safes in buildings. Other districts apparently are considering them.

Indiana Department of Education spokesman Adam Baker said agency staff “have heard from a few schools that are looking to install gun safes” but that he could not publicly identify them. State law lets school boards establish policies allowing for firearms on school property and exempts school safety and security plans from public access to government records. 

Two Ohio school districts received widespread media attention after placing gun safes in buildings. Sidney City Schools Superintendent Bob Humble said he has been turning down further media requests, including from The Journal Gazette, to visit schools in that west-central Ohio district.

“At some point, too much exposure is actually kind of bad. We kind of want people to kind of not know everything that we're going to be doing in the case of an emergency,” Humble said in a telephone interview.

Rick Cron, who retired this year as a school resource officer, would not say whether Sidney district employees have ever had to fetch a gun from a safe.

“We want people to wonder,” said Cron. “We don't tell our game plan to people. ... I will tell you that we have not had an active (shooter) or instance like that.”

The closest call was when a student brought a gun to the high school in 2017 when he felt threatened by gang members. According to media reports at the time, other students informed school officials, who ordered an evacuation. The gun was found in the backpack of a 14-year-old freshman, and he was arrested.

Cron and Humble said Sidney City Schools implemented a security plan a few years ago that features locking doors, cameras, radios and phones in addition to safes.

Cron said school officials “don't want to react afterwards. They want to be able to stop something before it happens.”

Humble added: “And we want to change what would be considered a soft target into a very hard target.”

Mad River Local School District in Riverside, Ohio, east of Dayton, has gun safes. Superintendent Chad Wyen declined a request for an on-site interview, but responded to emailed questions.

Wyen said his district has a 32-member response team with access to the safes. Members have received 46 hours of training and participate in monthly shooting drills and a yearly school shooting simulation.

Asked whether administrators, staff, faculty and students feel safer, Wyen wrote, “Yes, it has become part of our culture.”

Over two years, he received only two calls from people who disagreed with the security program. Extensive training for arming designated employees “plays a big role in staff, student and community acceptance,” Wyen wrote.

Increased risks with concealed

Jay County School Corp. employs 463, including 222 teachers. Gulley said that when he sought volunteers to apply for gun-safe access, 48 employees responded within two days – more than 10 percent of the workforce.

Gulley, the county sheriff and a retired state police officer, interviewed people they thought were good candidates, giving priority to employees with military and emergency response backgrounds. Candidates went through psychological screenings and 40 hours of gun training from a team that included SWAT-level police and people with war combat experience. They trained inside schools with simulated ammunition.

The selection panel weeded out candidates according to their performances, and some dropped out, Gulley said. Those who made the cut, who can open the safes and arm themselves, must complete 38 hours a year of additional training in shooting, tactics and first aid.

Gulley said each of the district's nine buildings might have multiple gun safes and multiple employees who can access them. Those employees will be able to respond to an active shooter much faster than a police officer can get there from perhaps miles away, he said, although not nearly as fast as teachers could if they were allowed to carry concealed firearms.

But with gun-carrying teachers come increased risks of accidental gun discharges and the loss of firearms, Gulley said.

“I wanted to provide a capability and control the risks of that. And the answer that I chose here was a gun safe,” he said.

“To me, this was not about philosophy and not about politics,” Gulley said. “This was science. It came down to that.”

bfrancisco@jg.net