Our Voice: Armed school employees right move for Toppenish

June 16, 2014 

Our community, region and nation are reeling from a slew of recent deaths involving guns.

At the same time, some are looking to arm themselves in an effort to prevent such tragedies.

One such place is the Toppenish School District, where beginning in September, school employees will be allowed to carry firearms.

Earlier this year, the school board approved the policy, with the condition that the volunteers take 16 hours of training, obtain a concealed weapons permit and undergo a background check. So far, 11 administrators have volunteered to respond with their own weapons in the case of a school shooting.

The decision was prompted by the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in 2012. A gunman killed 20 children and six adults before he shot himself as police approached the Connecticut school.

In school shooting situations, waiting for the police response -- no matter how rapid -- can cost lives. In a rural area, the police response can take longer, and the thinking is that administrators can respond more rapidly.

The goal in Toppenish is to have an armed and trained employee in each school. The district also employs six armed guards to cover its eight campuses.

Superintendent John Cerna is one of those who has volunteered. "I don't mind giving my life if I have a fighting chance," Cerna said.

Local police were involved in discussions about how to best carry out the policy. Their main concern is being able to identify who is an attacker and who is an armed school employee. We'd like to see annual training to ensure the volunteers remain ready to respond appropriately in an emergency.

The Prosser School District adopted a similar policy earlier this year, but it was never implemented. Prosser's superintendent is uncomfortable arming employees and administrators. One security guard is armed, and he is a retired sheriff's detective.

Though there aren't statistics to show how many school districts in Washington and elsewhere have adopted similar policies, the topic is worthy of discussion.

With large student populations at most schools, it's possible for one or two people armed with weapons to cause a huge amount of damage in a very short time.

We recently saw at Seattle Pacific University how the actions of one brave individual can prevent further tragedy when a student serving as building monitor used pepper spray and brute strength to subdue an armed man who had already killed one student.

A young man became a reluctant hero by taking action against an attacker in that situation. He has not sought fame for his action and his only statement included the unfortunate insight that "a hero cannot come without tragedy."

We hope we never see another school shooting tragedy. But the odds are not in our favor.

We admire the administrators in Toppenish who are willing to put the lives of their students as their top concern, and back that up with the training and other requirements required in the policy.

We wish it hadn't come to this point, but we understand why the school board and administration have made such a difficult decision.

We hope none of the volunteers ever have to use the training on a school campus, but if one does, he or she will be prepared and have a full understanding of what it means to stop the threat.

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