Oct 27, 2022 - News

Colorado schools arming more teachers after Uvalde shooting

Teachers and school staff practice firing drills as part of a training course in June. Photo: John Frank/Axios

Teachers and school staff practice firing drills as part of training in June. Photo: John Frank/Axios

"Oh my God, he's got a gun," an instructor shouts.

Ten men and two women run into position. They pull pistols from their hips and fire two or three shots into the silhouetted head or body on a paper target at the Adams County law enforcement training facility.

  • One teaches literature. A handful are athletic coaches. Some work in maintenance. And others are principals.

What's happening: All are part of a growing cadre of school personnel who carry firearms in classrooms and hallways to help prevent the next tragedy.

  • "The only way you stop someone murdering children is to shoot them — compliance by fire," instructor Quinn Cunningham, an active-duty law enforcement officer, says afterward as they evaluate the drill.

Why it matters: The idea of armed teachers is part of the ongoing struggle in America to quell school shootings and represents one of the more controversial proposals, rife with deeply embedded political and social postures.

State of play: At least 41 school districts in Colorado permit teachers and staff to carry a concealed handgun, and the policy is getting renewed interest after deadly shootings at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and most recently a high school in St. Louis.

  • At least 15 more Colorado districts are considering allowing armed school staff, says Laura Carno, executive director of FASTER Colorado, the organization that runs trainings.
  • "School safety is very, very multifaceted. There are layers and layers of security. Having armed staff is … the last resort," she tells Axios Denver.

Yes, but: The practice — which is allowed under state law but requires local district approval — remains contentious and went unmentioned last week at the Colorado Safe Schools Summit.

  • Democratic state Rep. Tom Sullivan, a leading proponent of tougher regulations on gun storage and purchases who lost his son in the Aurora theater mass shooting in 2012, said the policy creates fear and sells a product. He also questions whether it makes schools safer. "It's a bunch of b.s.," he told us.

The big picture: School shootings remain exceedingly rare. The CDC reports that less than 2% of deaths among those aged 5 to 18 take place on school grounds.

By the numbers: Colorado's anonymous tip line Safe2Tell received 19,364 reports in the 2021-22 school year, according to an annual report released last week. 97% were valid.

  • That represents a 70% increase from the previous school year, which was partially affected by COVID-19.
  • 336 complaints involved guns, and 273 reported a planned school attack.

Zoom in: Most of the districts that allow armed teachers are small and rural, where law enforcement response times are longer. Public, charter and private school staff are all represented.

At a two-day level-two course in June — which Axios Denver was given exclusive access to attend — much of the training focused on becoming more proficient with a firearm.

  • The school staff practiced quickly pulling a pistol — most often a 9mm — from their holster and hitting targets from different distances. A video-game-like simulation tested their skills in high-stress situations.

Between the lines: The trainings are organized by FASTER Colorado, a roughly $50,000 project of the Independence Institute, a Denver advocacy organization that supports gun rights. FASTER has affiliates in Ohio and is expanding to other states.

  • The standards for the courses are largely set by school districts' insurers, but organizers say they go beyond those requirements. The training involves three levels, all taught by active-duty law enforcement, and ranges from advanced first aid to live simulations in school buildings.
  • To complete the FASTER Colorado level-one course to carry in schools, staff must pass the same police certification test for handgun proficiency, but the hours of training required are far fewer than for law enforcement officers — which is something that concerns critics.

What they're saying: Tim Kistler, the former superintendent in Peyton, a rural 300-student school district outside Colorado Springs, said 13 school staff members are armed.

  • Parents led the push to arm school staff, but one who expressed opposition pulled his children out of school.
  • "While we don't want to, we are the ones there and, basically, we are the protectors," Kistler said.

Related: John and Maria Castillo are now leading advocates for arming teachers ... Schools turn to Colorado-made tech to prevent shootings


Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Denver.

More Denver stories