LAURENS COUNTY, Ga. (CBS46) -- Laurens County, a rural community 2.5 hours south of Atlanta is making history in the state of Georgia, by adopting extraordinary school safety measures, to protect children from harm.
It is the first school district in the state to put guns in the hands of some of its teachers and staff members. Outside every school building in the county is a yellow sign that reads, in part: “Warning. Staff members are armed and trained. Any attempt to harm children will be met with deadly force.”
Laurens County Schools Superintendent, Dr. Dan Brigman spearheaded the initiative in 2018, after the horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, in which 17 innocent students and staff were killed. “Parkland woke me up as a superintendent,” he said. “I had a detailed discussion with not only our Board of Education, but with local law enforcement as well, about ways we can improve our response time and preserve lives in our buildings, God forbid a tragedy like that happens in Laurens County Schools.”
After weeks of research and planning, the initiative was voted on by the Board of Education in April of 2018. It passed unanimously and officially launched the following fall, for the 2018-2019 school year. Approximately 28 staff members participated year one. Now, in year two, (the 2019-2020 school year) there are 45 armed staff members.
One of the primary reasons for implementing the policy, known as GAMB, is because of how large the county is. Laurens County spans roughly 800 square miles, making it the third largest in the state; If an active shooter were to take aim at a school here, it could take 5-10 minutes (or more) for the closest law enforcement officer to respond. “If there is an active shooter, every second counts,” said Brigman. He says having trained staff members on-site and ready to respond to a threat could save countless lives.
"You may have 5 police officers on a street corner in Atlanta, where we wouldn’t have that here, so I think it all boils down to what would fit your community best.”
Staff members can volunteer to participate, or they can be nominated by a colleague. Each person goes through an extensive vetting process to be sure he/she is qualified, which includes a psychological exam and background check. Then, that person must go through rigorous training, which is conducted by Lt. Sidney Harrison, of the Laurens County Sheriff’s Office. The teachers start out with 40 hours of training in a classroom and on a firing range. “These teachers have the exact same training our deputies do. In fact, they have some training that is, I would say, about 3 levels above a deputy because they’re working with our SWAT teams, they’re going through schools with ‘simunition’ training, active shooter training, real life scenarios…” said Lt. Harrison. “I think a lot of people don’t understand the gravity of what we’re asking them to do. And from day 1 they didn’t flinch when I told them what’s expected of them in an active shooter emergency. They’re not to go run and hide. These teachers, that are on these crisis teams, they’re running TO the sound of gunfire, not away from it.”
After the initial 40 hours of training is complete, a team of law enforcement officials evaluate the participants’ performance. “We’ve had some individuals not make it successfully, and that’s understood, it’s not cut out for everybody,” said Brigman.
Once the staff members pass the initial training requirements, their obligation doesn’t stop there. They must perform monthly continuing education training sessions. They’ve got to prove on-going competency with various weapons, in various scenarios. "Anyone can stand in front of a paper target and shoot it, some better than others, that’s just the beginning stages, the teachers then are required to run through a ‘simunition’ training, they’re running on a bus loaded with silhouette targets, we have a hostage target in the very back of the bus, they’re having to make precise gunfire on a hostage target - it’s tough, it’s very tough,” said Lt. Harrison.
But is it too tough? Some critics argue it takes away from their primary job... Teaching. CBS46 sat down with one of the armed teachers to get her take on it. "It hasn’t affected me in that way, I would be more upset to know I was a sitting duck than if I went and helped,” she said. The teacher was given permission to do an interview with CBS46 on the condition of anonymity. As part of the program, no one is to know which staff members are armed. “We don’t need to be identified, if there were ever a threat, you may be their first target,” she said. When asked if she was ever nervous or hesitant to participate, she answered: “No. More excited than anything. I hope I never have to use it, but I’m excited to be offered this opportunity to be able to help out in the school.” This particular teacher is also a mom. She has children in the school system and says she is proud that her district has taken such a proactive and courageous step to keep students safe.
Being locked and loaded is not a responsibility these teachers take lightly, but it’s one they will gladly bare, if it means keeping these kids safe. "They love these children so dadgum much, they will lay their life down for them… that’s what the community needs to know,” said Lt. Harrison.
The measure has gotten overwhelming support from people in the community, according to Dr. Brigman. However, he says the folks who do criticize arming teachers, is primarily due to a lack of knowledge about how or why it’s done. “There’s a perception it’s like the wild west and the teachers are walking down the hallways with a 9-MM strapped to their side, and that’s not the case,” said Dr. Brigman. “The weapons are never visible, they’re in a locked storage cabinet, and the only time the weapons are accessed is in the event that there may be a threat.” He went on to say, “it’s very, very confidential, it’s very discreet, even some staff members may not know who is on these teams, we try to protect the identity and the confidentiality to preserve the process.”
In addition to arming teachers, the district has also doubled the number of School Resource Officers they have on staff and added a Clinical Psychologist to address any emotional issues students may be facing. The overall investment has totaled well over $500,000, according to Superintendent Brigman. “We try to take a wholistic approach to crisis management and these teams are not only in place in the event of a deadly threat, they’re in place in case we have a tornado, or natural disaster, these individuals are trained to provide immediate aid to the victims in the event of a disaster too, so it’s a multipurpose team.”
Laurens County has 2 high schools, 2 middle schools, and 4 elementary schools. CBS46 was not allowed to go on any of the schools' properties... But we wanted to talk to parents and students to get their opinions on the policy. We went to two different schools, around dismissal time, and parked near the exit to try to speak with people as they left. During our time there, we didn't come across one person who was opposed to the policy.
Parent Scottie Mullis tells CBS46 he feels much safer knowing teachers are armed and ready to protect his son, who is in 7th grade this year. “I think it’s a good idea. There’s so much danger out in the community now,” he said. “I’m proud that Laurens County took a stand on that and that our teachers are willing to do this to stand-up for our kids.” Mullis says gun ownership is common in South Georgia and many kids grow up hunting with their parents - which is perhaps why the measure hasn’t sparked as much controversy as it might in other school districts.
One group in particular that has vocalized opposition to arming teachers, is The Georgia Association of Educators. In May of 2018, a spokesman for the group provided the following statement to CBS46:
"The Georgia Association of Educators is already on record as being against arming teachers in classrooms and schools. The association strongly feels this is a step in the wrong direction. The bottom line is that the security of school campuses should be the focus of the security professionals and the focus of the teachers and students should be teaching and learning."
The state of Georgia passed legislation in 2014 giving local school districts the authority to adopt the GAMB policy, and arm its teachers. So far, two other counties in Georgia have followed Laurens County’s lead. Fannin County and Bleckley County both adopted school safety policies that include arming teachers, later in 2018.
Although he would not reveal which - Dr. Brigman says other counties have reached out to him to inquire about how the policy is working, as well. He anticipates more will follow suit in the months and years to come. At this time, CBS46 is not aware of any school districts in Metro Atlanta that have considered it.
Brigman, has decades of experience in school administration, and when asked why he thinks there have been so many school shootings in America, he responded: “It is a tragedy that we have to sit around and talk about this and go to these lengths to protect our children in schools, in churches, and other businesses and organizations. The society we live in is very unpredictable, and it’s a sad situation and I will give you my personal opinion about that… I see a breakdown in the family structure, students are having a hard time connecting with adults, and I see the absence of God in the home – I really see it as a faith issue.”
FULL GA STATUTE (O.C.G.A. § 16-11-130.1) HERE.