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Utahns weigh in on 'rigorous firearms training' for school employees

President Donald Trump, joined by Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Carson Abt, right, and Julia Cordover, the student body president at the school, pauses during a listening session with high school students teachers and others in the State Di
President Donald Trump, joined by Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Carson Abt, right, and Julia Cordover, the student body president at the school, pauses during a listening session with high school students teachers and others in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018.
Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — The president of the Utah Education Association calls the Trump administration's plan to work with states to provide "rigorous firearms training" to school teachers and other employees who volunteer to be armed "absurd."

The leader of a Utah guns rights organization, meanwhile, says President Donald Trump should leave the matter to the states.

"If a state wants to provide additional training for school employees, that's up to that state. But what level is sufficient? Are we training them to the point that we're going to expect them to roam the halls looking for an active shooter if they hear gunshots? I disagree with that. I think their job is to teach, but they still have a right to protect themselves," Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, said Monday.

The council conducts free concealed carry permit classes for school employees, including an annual opportunity for training over schools' fall break.

"We expect them and suggest strongly that they perform exactly as the school district or principal of their school has suggested, which is typically 'Close the door. Lock it. Turn off the lights. Pull the shades and get the kids to an opposite corner,' " Aposhian said.

"If the room is breached by the shooter, then they at least have one extra option that the other teachers wouldn't have to protect themselves."

UEA President Heidi Matthews said during an active-shooter situation, "things are happening too fast and too urgently. Arming teachers is a level of risk we cannot take with regards to the safety of our students."

"Teachers have a full-time job teaching," Matthews said. "That doesn't include staying up on all the necessary training that you would need to be actively armed in a school."

Firearms training for school employees is among a series of proposals advanced by the Trump administration following the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, during which 17 people were shot and killed by a former student.

Trump's proposal to arm teachers has stirred controversy and was strongly opposed by the National Education Association.

In Utah, teachers and administrators are allowed to have concealed weapons in their possession at school. Schools are not allowed to inquire whether employees are carrying concealed weapons.

However, most school districts have policies that emphasize the use of a concealed weapon "is outside the scope of employment," Matthews said.

Liabilities or claims related to an employee's decision to carry, threaten use or use a weapon is the sole responsibility of the employee without protection from or the school district, policies state.

Any kind of expectation or requirement that teachers undergo training and carry concealed weapons "is just a level of liability and risk that is not going to entice people to enter the classroom during our current teacher shortage," Matthews said.

Earlier this month, however, hundreds of teachers, school employees and college students attended a free one-day training offered by the Utah Gun Exchange and the Shooting Sports Council. It is believed to be largest concealed carry class ever offered in Utah, Aposhian said.

The free instruction attracted an estimated 800 attendees, according to the Gun Exchange's Facebook page. Attendees learned firearm safety, handling, transportation, storage and laws, and basic tactical skills.

Matthews, who was recently named to the Utah School Safety Commission assembled by Rep. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, said there are no simple answers to keeping schools safe places to learn and work.

She said she looks forward to working with other members of the commission, of which Aposhian is also a member, to come up with thoughtful, evidenced-based recommendations for policymakers.

In several cases, school shooters had been bullied at school and didn't feel a part of their school communities, Matthews said.

When class sizes are too large, students don't get to know their teachers at the level that they consider them trusted adults, something that contributes to a positive school climate, Matthews said.

Restorative discipline practices are also important, she said. The approach holds misbehaving students accountable for their conduct but seeks to address the underlying causes of their behavior.

"We just don't expel them for breaking the rules," Matthews said. "We need to have restorative practices to help them make better decisions and keep them in school."

On Wednesday, students in Utah and nationwide plan to walk out of classes to honor the Parkland school shooting victims and demand action.

They're basically saying: "'You're the adults. Do something.' And we have to listen," Matthews said.