Surrounded by miles of empty countryside, the small community of Hanover is something of an island on the high, rolling plains southeast of Colorado Springs.
When trouble strikes, the close-knit hamlet of ranchers and farmers can wait up to a half hour or more for sheriff’s deputies to arrive.
That bothered Hanover school board member Michael Lawson. He felt the district’s two schools and roughly 270 students were vulnerable to would-be attackers. Then there were the dozens of marijuana growers in the area whom he alleges have links to “Cuban and Colombian” drug cartels.
Reports of foreign nationals illegally growing marijuana are widespread here in El Paso and neighboring Pueblo counties. Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers told the Colorado Springs Gazette in May that Cubans involved in organized crime were illegally growing pot in homes throughout the area. And last spring, the Drug Enforcement Administration arrested six Cubans in an illicit growing operation in Pueblo County.
Local law enforcement officials say they can’t connect the marijuana grows near Hanover to foreign cartels.
But Lawson felt something needed to be done.
The vote came on the fourth anniversary of the Newtown, Conn., shootings that killed 20 students and six staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
“The timing was a coincidence,” said Lawson, a volunteer fireman and National Rifle Assn. firearms instructor.
He said the district can’t afford its own police force or armed security so it had to look for other options.
School Board President Mark McPherson opposed it.
“I don’t feel we can train a teacher to respond effectively in that situation by giving them a 40-hour course,” he said. “That isn’t enough for them to execute with clarity and in an expert manner in a situation that normally calls for a professional.”
The district, about 30 miles from Colorado Springs, has secured doors, cameras and an armed school resource officer shared with five other schools. McPherson also said there was no evidence linking local marijuana growers with drug cartels.
“We will come together as a team and look at policies, training and who will pay for it,” he said.
As school shootings have mounted across the country, so has debate over how best to prevent the next slaughter. Some see the solution in tougher gun laws, while others believe the answer lies with more guns in properly trained hands.
State firearm regulations vary wildly when it comes to who can carry a gun on a K-12 campus. Some limit it to police and security guards while others, like Colorado, allow teachers and staffers with concealed carry permits to bring guns to school.
The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence reports that nearly all states forbid firearms in K-12 schools but only 39 states and the District of Columbia apply this to those with concealed carry permits. Twenty states have restricted guns on college campuses.
California requires written permission from authorized school officials before anyone with a concealed carry permit can bring a gun onto either a K-12 or college campus, according to the law center. Currently, three California school districts allow teachers and staff to carry a gun on campus. And there are efforts underway in other states, like North Dakota, to give teachers similar rights.
“I think it’s a high risk, high liability proposition,” said Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm specializing in school security. “You’re asking teachers, principals and support staff to perform a law enforcement function they aren’t trained for.”
Trump, no relation to the president-elect, is skeptical of such plans.
“Who will be responsible on a daily basis to make sure employees are trained? And to what standard?” he asked. “Are you going to take the school custodians and give them a once a year training so they can learn to shoot straight?”
And there are psychological issues involved.
“Do you have the mind-set to shoot a kid that two hours earlier you were teaching math to?” he asked.
None of those questions seem to bother David Thweatt, an early advocate of arming teachers and currently superintendent of the tiny Harrold, Texas, school district with about 120 students.
Harrold, like Hanover, is 30 miles from help in the event of an attack. So in 2007, Thweatt created the “Guardian Plan.” School staff with concealed carry permits could bring guns to school after being approved by the school board. They also underwent regular training.
“The only people who get more shooting instruction are our state highway patrol,” he said. “We want accuracy, we want placement, we don’t want collateral damage.”
Thweatt scoffed at emergency plans in many schools.
“Most schools lock the doors and hope for the best,” he said. “If a bad person comes to our school that person is leaving in a body bag and your kid is coming home safe.”
Hanover isn’t the only Colorado school district to allow armed staffers. The school board in rural Fleming voted unanimously in July to do the same.
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a national gun control group, rejects this approach.
“In 2014 an Idaho State University professor’s hand gun discharged and he shot himself in the foot,” she said. “A teacher in a private school in Pennsylvania left her gun in the bathroom where it was found by kindergartners.”
Trying to turn teachers into sharpshooters, she said, “is obscene and perverted and frankly the wrong solution.”
But residents of rural areas can feel helpless in the face of a potential attacker. The Hanover school district sits in El Paso County, which is larger than Rhode Island and patrolled by local sheriff’s deputies. That includes four in the Rural Enforcement and Outreach Unit.
Deputy Jeff Schulz is one of them. He said response time had dropped significantly since the unit was formed two years ago.
There have been no attacks on local schools and Schulz said the only major pot bust done by the sheriff’s department was in October, when a marijuana grower was caught with more weed than legally allowed. His office has identified 45 marijuana grows in eastern El Paso County.
“There is stuff that happens out here but we can’t correlate that with marijuana grows,” he said. “But where you have drugs, you have violence.”
Before Wednesday’s vote, the school board sent a survey to students, parents and community members asking, “Are you in favor of arming staff?” The results were tight with 126 in favor and 123 against.
Many left comments. A student said it was fine as long as a teacher doesn’t “go crazy and kill us.” Another called it a “stupid idea;” one vowed not to attend school if it passed.
Terry Siewiyumptewa, 50, a parent of a Hanover student, is a supporter.
“If I need a deputy it will take 30 to 45 minutes to get here,” she said. “How long did Sandy Hook take? Thirteen minutes? And 26 people were dead? So now you understand our problem.”
Kelly is a special correspondent.