FASTER aims to train more Colorado teachers to take arms against school shooters

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ADAMS COUNTY | It was deafening when a dozen teachers, parents and school staffers from across Colorado stepped up to the yellow line of a gun range and fired five rounds from their handguns, in tandem.

Empty shells bounced like hail across the tight line of shooters. The shells already covered the ground from the day’s exercises of training about two dozen volunteers to stop a school shooter.

The shots were on-target. If the teachers weren’t already authorized by their school districts to carry a handgun in their school, they likely would be after passing the final shooting test.

Shooters fired countless more bullets before the end of the FASTER Colorado training, the three-day school defense seminar last week that aims to refine teachers’ rescue and handgun skills to use as a last resort against a school shooter.

It’s a controversial idea that often pits gun-rights advocates against gun-control proponents. The polarizing idea is that teachers and other school employees can be trained to take out a school shooter on campus. It’s an untested idea as there’s no public account of a school shooting taking place in the same building as an armed teacher.

A superintendent of a small school in rural, eastern Colorado was among the registrants.

“We live in a society that is part of a fallen, broken world,” he said of the violence in schools.

He said that he and his community would not allow their schools to become a target of violence, and in-school defense seems logical to him. He did not disclose his name for fear of retaliation of some kind, although he did not specify what that would be.

If the superintendent passed the final shooting test of the course, he would join about 170 others who have graduated the FASTER program. FASTER is an acronym for the Colorado Springs based group Faculty Administrator Safety Training and Emergency Response.

Last weekend, the volunteer shooters and their law enforcement instructors gathered at the Flatrock Regional Training Center in Adams County on the plains north of Denver International Airport.

The sleek facility is home to the Adams County Sheriffs deputy handgun training and includes two firearm ranges.

It’s a logical site for law enforcement officers – not representing their police agencies, they said – to put the volunteers through a handgun test similar to the one that cops take.

This crop of volunteer defenders gathered in one of the ranges wearing protective eyewear and sound-cancelling ear muffs. The group was almost exclusively white and balanced between men and women.

The group wasn’t green when it came to guns.

By and large, they already held concealed carry permits and brought their own handguns. They touted certifications from the the Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training handgun test that cops must periodically pass.

With their guns holstered, they listened as veteran police officer Graham Dunne explained how to shout commands at a suspect who might have a weapon.

Sentinel Colorado was granted access to the gun training on condition that the police agencies of its trainers remain anonymous. Dunne said he is a police department sergeant in the Denver metroplex, but he did not elaborate for fear of linking his department to the teacher gun training.

Dunne instructed the group to train their handguns on their target’s groin, keeping the suspect’s arms in their field of vision, and shout: “Put your hands up! Don’t move.”

A dozen of the students walked up to the yellow line once again and trained their handguns on their targets. At Dunne’s direction, the group repeated the command in unison.

Dunne shouted that the target was not responding and appeared to be lifting up his shirt to pull out a weapon. He commanded shooting five rounds, and the line sounded off.

Unlike typical handgun training, this imaginary suspect is a school shooter, and likely a juvenile.

The volunteers and organizers were all driven by a weighty sense of responsibility. In their view, their school staff, students or other community would be helpless in a school shooter scenario without their protection.

That’s a personal belief for Evan Todd, who was shot as a student at Columbine High School during the infamous 1999 mass shooting.

He said he was wounded and then hid under a desk in the school library while the two shooters mocked and executed other students. Todd said he persuaded the shooters to let him live.

That time period – between the first shots to the law enforcement response – was agonizing for Todd. He’s now an advocate for allowing trained, volunteer teachers to carry guns in schools.

“These people are not cowboys,” he said of the volunteers. “They are not reckless. They are not wild…. These are people who chose to become teachers, who are some of the greatest among us.”

FASTER is also based on a notion of profound sadness at the state of violence in U.S. schools and places of worship. Volunteers believed that school shootings would probably continue in spite of attempts at limiting the public’s possession of certain firearms and weapon components. Allowing armed teachers is a measure of last resort, said Todd and several students.

One of the registrants sharing that feeling was Julie Park, a Colorado Springs resident. She wore a shirt and hat that read “Girls with Guns.”

She said she lives in fear of a shooting when her local homeschool parenting cooperative meets in a church. She’s been a gun owner for years and also teaches handgun basics courses. She bought a gun after someone tried to break into her home one night, she said, and she is training to keep her skills fresh to protect her community.

However, any trepidation the volunteers may have about violence was invisible on the gun range. The shooters appeared confident and comfortable with their handguns.

It’s possible that the students could have to use their handgun and medical skills in a school someday. In Colorado, it’s legal for school districts to authorize trained school staff individuals to carry guns for protection, according to FASTER executive director Laura Carno.

She declined to say which districts have authorized teachers to carry guns, but she noted that schools in nearby Bennett have had glaring signs on school doors announcing that staff could be armed. Carno echoed the rural superintendent’s concerns and added that school officials can have second thoughts about publicizing whether school staff are armed.

The three-day training schedule – marked in military time – included a bevy of handgun skills, trainings in a simulator and also direction from a medical expert about treating injuries such as bullet wounds.

Carno said that bits and pieces of the different topics included how to identify the right target in a shooting.

Critics say that school shootings are notoriously chaotic, and that armed staff could accidentally shoot innocent students or law enforcement responders.

Darrel Stephens, a former police chief and executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association, said that most of his group’s leadership agree that arming teachers is bad public policy. They say a glaring problem is created when police rush to a school’s rescue and have to determine in chaos which person with a gun is a bad guy.

“Armed teachers create an additional challenge for officers responding to an active shooter situation because they must determine if they are confronting the shooter or a teacher,” Stephens told Sentinel Colorado.

Police officials and others point out that even casual crime scenarios require intensive police training. The ability to handle crisis school shootings requires years of training and experience, not hours on a gun range.

Other critics fear that the handguns will be misplaced or stolen. Critics point out that teacher guns, even if effective, would have to be in the same place as the shooter. In a large school, that could be highly unlikely.

In a recent news release, gun-control advocacy group Colorado Ceasefire cited the recent STEM School shooting in Highlands Ranch as evidence that arming teachers is a flawed plan. Investigators have disclosed that the school’s hired security guard, a civilian and former Marine, fired his weapon at a Douglas County Sheriff officer in part because he saw a gun — even though it was held by a deputy. Critics say chaos during such a shooting is nearly impossible for police with years of experience to safely manage and that amateur gun owners could make a situation worse and not better.

Carno said that properly training shooters is crucial. Saying that the errant school guard at STEM likely might not have followed protocols was a lesson for teachers this week to use during their training.

While the FASTER students believe they could be a line of defense against a barrage of bullets, critics of allowing armed teachers in schools include many teachers themselves.

In March 2018, a Gallup poll of nearly 500 K-12 teachers across the U.S. found that almost three-quarters of sampled teachers opposed teachers and school staff receiving special training to carry guns in school buildings.

That’s in part because the sample body believed that teachers would not be effective with a firearm and that schools would become less safe.

Undaunted, the new FASTER graduates say they aim to change that.