As students head back to campus this month, school safety is a growing part of the equation facing administrators and parents. 

In Madison County, N.C. Sheriff Buddy Harwood has announced that six schools in the county will have a locked up semi-automatic rifle along with ammunition and equipment to break through a barricaded door. The county school superintendent and county school board have been meeting with the sheriff’s office about the safety measures. The schools’ resource officers have undergone training at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College.

“I hate that we’ve come to a place in our nation where I’ve got to put a safe in our schools, and lock that safe up for my deputies to be able to acquire an AR-15. But, we can shut it off and say it won’t happen in Madison County, but we never know,” Harwood told the local Asheville Citizen Times.

In Ohio, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine recently signed HB 99, which allows individual school districts to decide whether or not they permit staff members to be armed on school grounds. It requires minimum training for people authorized to carry firearms in schools, mandating up to 24 hours of school-specific training. 

Arming school staff members is a trend picking up steam, particularly in more rural areas, where police are too far away to stop the violence and save the injured. 

“They are their own first responders,” said Laura Carno of FASTER Colorado. “Rural school districts are the early adopters because they are often 30 minutes or more from law enforcement.”

FASTER Colorado offers intensive firearms and medical training for school staff members. Carno, the executive director, estimates that there are about 5,000-armed school staff on campuses across the country, but knowing exactly how many and where they are is kept very private.

In the most recent state budget, school safety will receive an additional recurring $15 million for the School Resource Officer Grant program, specifically for elementary and middle schools, and an additional $32 million for School Safety Grants to support students in crisis, school safety training, and safety equipment in schools. 

However, those resources may only be one piece of a complex plan to ensure that schools are ready to save lives if the unimaginable school violence happens in N.C.

North Carolina does not allow firearms at school, even for staff members with the training and a lawful concealed carry permit off campus. But armed school staff programs are increasing in states that allow it. In 1990, the federal government passed the Gun Free School Zone Act , which makes it illegal to carry a firearm onto k-12 school property. FASTER has joined with other stakeholder groups to urge Congress to repeal it. Thirty-four states have passed laws making exceptions or exemptions to the federal law for trained staff members or volunteers who are part of a school security team.

“The first step that you need to look at is how do we in North Carolina move that law so that North Carolina children in school are as potentially safe as children in those other 34 states,” said Carno in a presentation to the Shaftesbury Society at the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh on Monday.

Firearm training is one piece of an “all of the above” safety plan, according to Carno. Physical safety mechanisms, threat assessments, and the often-overlooked trauma medical training are also critical to saving lives.

“What happens if the unthinkable happens? Medics are ten minutes away, and people could bleed out if there is no trauma training,” said Carno. In the FASTER program, some staff volunteer to train on a firearm, but others volunteer for the trauma medical team if they don’t want to be armed.

“The training is very difficult, and not everybody passes, and we are ok with that,” she said.

In the wake of May’s shooting in Uvalde, Texas, a state probe uncovered “shortcomings and failures of the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District and of various agencies and officers of law enforcement” that contributed to one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history. The 77-page report said that the Robb Elementary School principal knew about security lapses at the school and did not address them. She has been reassigned. The Uvalde police chief is still on unpaid leave. 

Carno’s goal is to put a much closer line of defense between the killer and the students. 

Studies of past school shootings show that unarmed teachers and staff frequently sacrifice their own lives for those of the children in their schools. 

“We can tell by every one of these shootings that people like coaches, teachers, counselors, principals, they run toward the sound of guns to protect children, unarmed, and they do this over and over. They have the mindset to save children,” Carno said, pointing out that teachers have a right to defend themselves and their students from a lethal threat. 

“It is proper for us to consider the rights of those school staffers, who already have a tough job, they are teaching our kids, to protect kids and live,” she added.

However, not all teachers want to be armed. A study from Texas in the days after the Uvalde shooting found that 76% of Texas teachers would not want to be armed at school, but 90% of them are worried about a classroom shooter. Of the staffers participating in the FASTER training, only about 40% of them are teachers. The remaining 60% are administrators, coaches, bus drivers, custodians, or lunchroom staff. Most of those participants already had some firearms training. 

The majority of police now support the effort. In a study from Police One, a law enforcement industry publication, 61% of police now say armed school staff will make children safer.