CLARKSVILLE, Ark. » The slim, black 9-millimeter handguns school Superintendent David Hopkins selected for his teachers here weigh about a pound and slip easily into a pocket. Sixteen people, including the janitor and a kindergarten teacher, wear them to school every day.
Although state law prohibits guns on campus, Hopkins found a way around it.
Like rural educators who are quietly doing the same thing in a handful of other states, Hopkins has formulated a security plan that relies on a patchwork of concealed-weapons laws, special law enforcement regulations and local school board policies to arm teachers.
Without money to hire security guards for the five schools he oversees, giving teachers nearly 60 hours of training and their own guns seemed like the only reasonable, economical way to protect the 2,500 public school students in this small town in the Ozark foothills.
"Realistically, when you look at a person coming to your door right there with a firearm, you’ve got to have a plan," Hopkins said. "If you have a better one, tell me."
In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., rampage in December, 33 states considered new legislation aimed at arming teachers and administrators, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Only five enacted laws that expanded the ability for public educators to arm themselves at school.
Still, some teachers and administrators around the country have carried guns for years under state or local laws that impose few restrictions on where concealed weapons can be carried.
"It’s a fairly common practice among the schools that do not have sworn officers," said Asa Hutchinson, a former congressman and a candidate for governor in Arkansas. He recently led the National Rifle Association’s school safety initiative, which produced a 225-page report that advocated armed security officers or, in some cases, armed teachers in every public school.
Hutchinson said he recently spoke with a superintendent in Arkansas who had been carrying a firearm for 10 years. The district was among 13 here, including Clarksville, that have special permission to use rules designed for private security firms to arm their staff members.
Just before the school year began, the state suspended the practice temporarily after Attorney General Dustin McDaniel issued an opinion that school districts could not act as private security companies. This month, however, a state board voted to allow the districts to continue using the law until the Legislature reconsiders the issue in two years.
The numbers of teachers who carry guns in the nation’s 99,000 public schools is impossible to calculate, school security experts, education officials and people on both sides of the gun debate agree. It is likely 10 percent or less, by some estimates, but the number is growing.
"It’s been creeping up on us without a lot of fanfare," said Bill Bond, a school safety specialist for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Bond was the principal of a Paducah, Ky., high school in 1997, when a 14-year-old boy shot and killed three students and wounded five others.
Like many others, Bond says arming teachers is the wrong approach to preventing school shootings. But some educators, especially in rural districts, have been quietly carrying guns to school for years by making use of permissive state gun laws.
In Georgia and Missouri, guns can be on campus as long as they are in a locked car. In Massachusetts, Louisiana and Nevada, a teacher can carry a gun on campus with written permission from school officials.
Hawaii and New Hampshire do not have any prohibition against weapons on school property for those with concealed-carry permits.
And for more than a dozen years in Utah, anyone with a permit to carry a concealed weapon can take a loaded gun to school without even telling the principal.
This year, for the first time, dozens of states have considered more formal approaches to regulating the ways educators may arm themselves. Only a few have moved ahead.
In Kansas, a law that took effect in July allows school districts to select employees with concealed-carry permits to bring guns to school. But Denise Kahler, a spokeswoman for the Kansas State Department of Education, said she was not aware of any districts that were pursuing it.
In Tennessee, where a similar law passed, insurance concerns stopped some districts from arming teachers. Lee Harrell, director of government relations, labor relations and policy for the Tennessee School Boards Association, said this week that he was not aware of any districts that were arming teachers.
The most sweeping new law is in Texas, where the Protection of Texas Children Act went into effect Sept. 1. Teachers who want to serve as armed school marshals must have a license to carry a concealed weapon, pass a mental health evaluation and be trained specifically to respond when someone with a gun is inside a school shooting students.
The program is still being developed, and unlike the Arkansas effort, teachers would have to keep the guns under lock and key and only one school marshal would be allowed for each 400 students.
Meanwhile, in states where the laws do not prohibit teachers from carrying guns, teachers and other school personnel are seeking private training in increasing numbers.
"I think the number would shock people," said Jim Irvine, a firearms trainer in Ohio who has taught 168 teachers to carry guns in school since he began a program specifically for educators this year.
Irvine said he knew of several districts whose teachers and administrators were armed or training to be.
"Our law has always been that it’s up to the individual school district," he said. "It’s not new, but it’s new in popularity."
One is the Newcomerstown Exempted Village School District, in rural eastern Ohio, where the school board in June approved a policy that allows employees who have a concealed-weapon permit and specialized training to go to school with a gun.
Part of the strategy is to keep the identities of which teachers have guns under wraps so neither students nor potential attackers will know where the guns are, so Jeff Staggs, the superintendent there, is not talking much about it.
But, he said in a recent interview, "the community feels overall that their kids are safer in the district this school year."
Still, in Arkansas and other states, the notion of arming teachers is meeting strong resistance.
"The idea that a single relatively untrained teacher is going to bring this person who is heavily armed down is a stretch," said Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. "The idea is to keep the guns from the hands of the shooter."
Those who have spent their lives in the classroom have similar concerns.
"No teacher that I know of could ever receive enough training," said Steve Gunter, a retired history teacher in Bentonville, Ark.
"If I had a gun in my room with some of these students where I taught? They’d get it from me and shoot me," he said. "They’d say, ‘Mr. Gunter, you gave me an F? Here’s your F.’"