One Tri-City area school district already allows some employees to carry guns to prevent and protect against a school attack.
Could others follow suit? Could Tri-City teachers, principals or security workers begin carrying guns in schools, along with their books and badges?
The topic — which has sparked hot debate across the country after 17 students and staff were killed in a Florida high school shooting — has been raised at recent school board meetings.
In some cases, Tri-City districts are looking at whether arming employees could play a part in keeping schools safe.
But none of the largest districts — Pasco, Kennewick and Richland — are taking immediate steps to allow teachers or others to carry guns.
“I really think the public should have a lot of say-so,” Kennewick School Board member Ron Mabry said during last week’s meeting. “Me, with my kids in a classroom — I would be really afraid that there’s a weapon in the classroom all the time. But at the same time, I’d be afraid that something bad could happen to my kids if someone came in (to do harm). I’d be torn both ways.”
Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg and Richland schools Superintendent Rick Schulte think it’s a bad idea.
But, it’s already happening in the Kiona-Benton City School District, where some administrators are allowed to carry guns as a safety measure.
“I believe it’s more of a deterrent, to be honest. Whoever is thinking about being an active shooter has to take that into account that they’ll be met with force,” said Ki-Be Superintendent Wade Haun.
President Trump has weighed in, tweeting his support. Others are critical, including Gov. Jay Inslee, who confronted Trump over the issue at a recent White House meeting.
What’s without debate is that it’s a scary time for school officials, parents and students alike.
The Tri-Cities has escaped tragedy on the scale of the Parkland high school shooting, but it’s been pummeled recently by threats of school violence.
Me, with my kids in a classroom — I would be really afraid that there’s a weapon in the classroom all the time. But at the same time, I’d be afraid that something bad could happen to my kids if someone came in (to do harm). I’d be torn both ways.
Kennewick School Board member Ron Mabry
In two recent days alone, numerous school-related threats from Prosser to Pasco rattled nerves.
A handful of parents showed up to a Kennewick School Board meeting last week with questions on everything from the frequency of lockdown drills to the security of school entrances.
Superintendent Dave Bond also talked about the district’s numerous safety and security features and measures.
He said many concerned parents have reached out in recent weeks, raising ideas from closing the high school campuses, to installing metal detectors, to changing fire evacuation protocols, to arming school employees.
Chief Hohenberg told the Herald arming school workers would do more harm than good.
While almost anyone can be trained to use a gun, wielding one in a crisis is a different animal, he said.
The more guns you introduce into the schools, the more opportunities there are for accidental discharges, shooting the wrong person. ... It creates a whole host of problems.
Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg
And, “the more guns you introduce into the schools, the more opportunities there are for accidental discharges, shooting the wrong person. And the other thing that I worry about is, if you did have an active shooter, what happens when law enforcement responds?” Hohenberg told the Herald, noting it could lead to confusion. “It creates a whole host of problems.”
Hohenberg couldn’t be at the school board meeting, but sent some of his commanders to share those concerns.
Board members didn’t get into an in-depth discussion on the topic, instead largely listening to parents and police. They wanted more information on the safety suggestions raised.
They also wanted information on making immediate improvements to the entrances of the district’s older schools. The new schools already have safer entry ways.
In Richland, parents attended a recent school board meeting to talk about school safety, with most saying they’re opposed to the idea of arming employees. The board didn’t discuss it.
Superintendent Rick Schulte told the Herald he’s against the idea.
“Schools are asked to do an awful lot. We have nurses, counselors, mental health professionals. We feed our students. Law enforcement should not be the school district’s responsibility,” he said.
Schools are asked to do an awful lot. We have nurses, counselors, mental health professionals. We feed our students. Law enforcement should not be the school district’s responsibility.
Richland Superintendent Rick Schulte
He’d like to see more money for mental health counselors in schools, pointing to Benton County’s public safety sales tax as a possible source.
The county currently is sitting on more than $12 million in reserves from the tax.
“What I hear from principals, teachers, counselors and even students — the main area where we can actually help the safety and well-being of our students is with more mental health counselors,” he said. “I would really like the county’s (public safety) sales tax to be used for that purpose. It’s something that would help not only (in situations like Parkland) but also the problem of student depression and suicide.”
In Pasco, the district is engaging in a comprehensive review that includes “safety, security, and social and behavioral services,” officials said in a statement.
The idea of potentially allowing some staff to carry weapons would fall under that review, said Shane Edinger, district spokesman.
“We’re getting a lot of (safety) input and suggestions from school principals, parents and other community members, and all of that input will be considered as part of that comprehensive review,” he said. “The district’s goal is to ensure that our schools are safe, and that we give our students a great learning environment where they can thrive.”
If you have those relationships and students feel safe being able to come to an adult in the district, then we can address those issues. If they need help, we can help them. As long as they feel safe and that somebody cares about them — in my mind, that’s first and foremost.
Ki-Be Superintendent Wade Haun
Under state law, schools generally are gun-free zones. There is room for school employees to carry guns for security purposes, provided they go through extensive training.
Kiona-Benton City passed its policy in 2015, motivated by events such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
It allows designated school administrators who volunteer to carry a 9mm or .380 pistol.
They must go through extensive and ongoing training, and a psychological review may be conducted.
Haun said it’s been successful so far, in large part because of the regular training.
Some administrators have opted to carry weapons under the policy, although Haun declined to say how many for security reasons.
The gun program isn’t the only step district officials are taking to ensure safety — far from it, he said.
From developing emergency plans for various scenarios to working closely with the Benton County Sheriff’s Office, which covers Benton City — safety is the top priority, he said.
School staff also work hard to connect with students.
“That’s a big factor in all of this,” Haun said. “If you have those relationships and students feel safe being able to come to an adult in the district, then we can address those issues. If they need help, we can help them. As long as they feel safe and that somebody cares about them — in my mind, that’s first and foremost.”