Every year, an unusual item is on the Lakeland Joint School District’s shopping list: ammunition.
The bullets and shells are for the district’s four armed guards, who work with three school resource officers to patrol and protect Lakeland’s 11 schools. The district initiated the program in the fall of 2018, becoming the first in Idaho to bring armed guards into schools. Twin Falls School District is set to follow suit after its board approved a similar initiative last week.
Arming staffers beyond school resource officers isn’t entirely new — at least four Idaho schools or districts had allowed certain staff members to carry guns as of 2018 — but it isn’t the norm either.
As national school shootings drive districts to bolster student safety, novel practices like bringing armed guards into schools could become more commonplace. Lakeland’s program provides a preview into the future of school safety if armed guards become more prevalent.
Lisa Arnold, the district’s superintendent, said the program has been successful and sees strong community support.
“I would be driven out of town with spears and ropes if I tried to take [the armed guards] away,” she said. “It puts people’s minds at ease that we have these people at schools.”
But there’s a difference between Lakeland’s program and Twin Falls’ proposed program: while Twin Falls will work with a private security company to contract its guards, Lakeland did not have such a company available nearby. Instead, it had to work from the ground up to vet, hire, and outfit its own guards.
The district has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the program and plans to add more guards in the future. According to Arnold, getting armed guards in schools has been a logistical nightmare but is worth the peace of mind.
Lakeland’s homegrown program is the first of its kind in Idaho
After 17 people died in a 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL., signs reading “gun free zones” in front of Lakeland schools bothered some in the community.
The signs seemed like an open invitation for shooters to walk in and inflict violence, some community members said.
So the district changed the signs, which now read: “Certain LJSD personnel can be legally armed and may use whatever force is reasonable and necessary to protect students.”
There were also calls to arm teachers, but the district wasn’t keen on that idea.
“If they’re having to pay attention to noises that don’t sound right or what’s off, they’re not paying attention to kids or teaching,” Arnold said.
So instead, the district hired armed guards who could supplement the existing school resource officers. At the time, that was unheard of.
“Initially, districts around us thought we were crazy,” Arnold said. “The liability makes people a little bit nervous.”
And liability was a major hurdle. The district worked with its attorney and insurance carrier, who determined that the district would need to follow the same hiring practices as law enforcement agencies — candidates would need to undergo a polygraph, a psychological evaluation, and medical, physical and drug testing. They’d also need to qualify on a shooting range.
In addition, the district worked with law enforcement to write policies and protocols. It was a huge endeavor, Arnold said.
The district also had to buy rifles, handguns, bulletproof vests, uniforms, duty belts, body cameras, ammunition, and a gun safe. The salary and benefits for each guard costs about $60,000 to $70,000 and outfitting each guard costs another $2,000. The district has funded the positions and gear through its staffing budget and supplemental levies.
But, Arnold said, having the guards has been worth the cost and effort.
Armed guards are just seconds away in emergencies
In January 2020, a teacher at Lakeland Senior High School erroneously thought she heard gunshots and called a lockdown.
Within minutes, law enforcement officers from the FBI , Idaho Fish and Game, Idaho State Police and at least four different local police departments arrived at the school.
“The cavalry came,” Arnold said. “Anyone who had a weapon was there.”
Even so, it took six minutes for the first law enforcement agent to get in the doors. The armed guard on site was at the threatened classroom in just 30 seconds.
“And that’s why we have armed guards,” Arnold said. “Seconds save lives.”
But Arnold cautioned that the program only works because the right people are in place.
“I’m 100% confident that they would put their lives in danger to take care of a threat in our buildings,” Arnold said of the guards, who are all retired law enforcement officers. “It’s sad what we have to do these days, but it gives me peace of mind.”
Dennis Sanchez, the Chief of Police for the Spirit Lake Police Department, said his department (which provides one of the district’s three SROs) is supportive of the armed guards. He said they work closely with local police officers.
“They both work in concert together and that’s a great thing because both are important,” he said. “We’re very comfortable with that program right now.”
Gun safety is a top concern
Mike Munger, the program manager for the Idaho Safety and Security Program, said his organization doesn’t take a position on armed guards or teachers in schools.
However, it does encourage school boards who pursue those options to ensure armed individuals train with local law enforcement. Doing so minimizes risks like accidental firearm discharges.
Munger didn’t know of any accidental firearm discharges in Idaho’s K-12 schools. There has been at least one such incident at one of Idaho’s higher institutions, though. In 2014, an assistant professor at Idaho State University was giving a lecture when a pistol he was carrying in his pocket discharged and shot his foot.
“It is always a concern. A negligent discharge is still a discharge in a school setting,” Munger said. “It’s one of the reasons we’re always asking questions about coordinated training.”
The Garden Valley School District has been public about its policy to allow teachers to carry guns. It’s important that local law enforcement knows which teachers carry guns so that in the event of a shooting those individuals are not mistaken as the shooter, Munger said.
Garden Valley teachers who carry guns to school also train and qualify at shooting ranges alongside local law enforcement.
“It’s really important that they show proficiency with their weapon,” Munger said. “It should go without saying, but we want to make sure people can hit what they aim at.”