WEST PLAINS, Mo. » At 8:30 on a cloudy, frigid morning late last month in this folksy Ozark town, the superintendent of an area school strolled through the glass doors of the local newspaper office to deliver a news release.
Hours later, the content of that release produced a front-page headline in The West Plains Daily Quill that caught residents off guard: "At Fairview School Some Employees Now Carry Concealed Weapons."
That was how most parents of Fairview students learned that the school had trained some of its staff members to carry weapons, and the reaction was loud — and mostly gleeful.
"Sooo very glad to hear this," a woman whose grandchildren attend Fairview posted on the Facebook page of The Quill, adding, "All schools in America should do this."
As federal and state legislators continue to debate gun control and school safety measures in the months after the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., communities around the country are wasting little time taking safety issues into their own hands. Some schools have hired armed guards. Others have implemented buzzer systems at their doors.
Very few have gone so far as training teachers and other faculty members to carry weapons, and support for such measures seems to be lukewarm. Bills to allow school employees to arm themselves are stalling in most of the roughly two dozen states where they were introduced this year.
But the community making up the 600-student Fairview School, where a sign at the main entrance reads "Drug Free Gun Free School Zone," represents a culture in which the idea of guns in classrooms is not necessarily intimidating. Hunting a variety of game like deer and turkey is as routine a form of recreation here in the craggy, wooded Ozarks of south-central Missouri as beer and baseball is in some parts of the nation.
By the time they are 6, many boys and girls already have learned how to safely handle a weapon and have shot their first deer. Some live in homes where guns are not under lock and key, or on vast prairies where they shoot skeet with their families.
Sherri Roy, who has four children at the school, said in an interview that she "was really pleased" that some staff members were armed.
"If I didn’t know anything about guns, if I wasn’t raised with it, I’m sure I would be more uncomfortable," she said. "But in this area guns are pretty much a normal, everyday part of your life."
But even in a place where hunting rifles are a staple of most households, attitudes about armed teachers are diverse.
Fairview is one of five schools on the outskirts of West Plains, serving families mostly living outside the city. Administrators at some of the other rural schools have shunned the idea of allowing staff members to carry guns.
Though it would take the Howell County sheriff’s department at least 15 minutes to respond to any trouble at Glenwood School on the outskirts of West Plains, Karen Moffis, the principal, said that allowing employees to carry guns would be more dangerous than beneficial. Instead, the school is looking to better secure its entrances and is considering hiring an armed guard, she said.
And it is not that she is uncomfortable around guns — she got her first when she was 6 years old. A teacher at the school gives lessons on firearms safety on campus after hours.
"Traditionally in this area, schools have already been a very safe and welcoming community," Moffis said. Referring to teachers having guns in the classroom, she added, "Nobody’s ever thought about needing that kind of thing at school."
Fairview, which runs from kindergarten through eighth grade, is a lot like any other grammar school. Colorful linoleum tiles line the floors, projects made of construction paper are taped to the walls, and the cafeteria, on a recent day, reeked of nachos.
After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown that killed 26 people, administrators at Fairview said some parents approached them about allowing teachers to carry guns. Becky Wright-Welty, whose 13-year-old son attends the school, said she asked Fairview School District’s school board members: "What are we doing about security? I want to know."
One of the biggest concerns of administrators and parents was that the quickest the Howell County sheriff’s department could reach Fairview, the district’s only school, would be nine minutes.
The school board, which includes a former county sheriff, worked out the details of liability coverage with Fairview’s insurance provider. Then it authorized some of the school employees at an open meeting in late February to undergo a training program that would certify them to carry guns on campus.
Those employees took a 40-hour training course during spring break last month through a company called Shield Solutions, whose instructors included local SWAT team members. The training, which was paid for by the school, included firearms and situational drills.
The employees, who have furnished their own guns, each also had to pass a background check, a drug test and a mental evaluation — all of which must be repeated annually, as well as additional firearms training and recertification.
"It’s not a ‘Well, here’s your gun; carry it,"’ said Vic Williams, the Fairview superintendent. "It’s very closely monitored. It’s not a Clint Eastwood-type deal."
At the first school board meeting after spring break, the board sanctioned those who had passed the training — and were then also considered Shield Solutions employees — to carry weapons at school. Most of West Plains learned the news from the front-page article in The Quill on March 21. Four days later, the district sent a letter to parents addressing concerns.
"I was really upset more about the way it happened, the back door," said Eileen Wilson, 53, adding that she was considering removing her daughter, who is autistic, from Fairview. "I just don’t think something of this magnitude is something you just put out in a press release. ‘Oh, by the way, we got 10 people packing weapons now in school."’
School officials would not say how many employees were armed or who they were. They maintained that the process was transparent.
"I didn’t think about it being that groundbreaking," Dea Daniel, a board member, said of the discussion to train teachers on guns. "That same meeting we talked about how we could secure our windows or our doors. There was a lot of discussion. That was just one of the many safety issues we talked about."
With few exceptions, school officials said, parents have reacted positively.
One of the school employees who carries a gun said in an interview that "it was a little strange putting it on the first couple days," but that it had come to feel normal carrying the gun in school.
"You put your pants on, you put your belt on, that’s just what you do," the employee said on the condition of anonymity. "Nothing awkward about it at all. I’ve been hugged many times before and since, and it’s never been any kind of an issue or question."