GNADENHUTTEN — Superintendent Ira Wentworth says he is confident that district personnel who will be carrying weapons in Indian Valley buildings this school year have received the training necessary to protect children and teachers in an active shooter situation.
"I feel good that our people are prepared as well as they possibly can be to eliminate an unwanted threat that might seek to harm our students and staff," he said.
Indian Valley has joined several area school districts — Newcomerstown, Coshocton and River View — in arming staff members, which is a growing trend around the country as the frequency of school shootings increases.
"I still believe it's the right thing to do to keep our kids safe," said Newcomerstown Superintendent Jeff Staggs. His district armed staff at the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year.
Over the past five years, the Buckeye Firearms Association has helped provide firearms training to 1,100 staff from 225 school districts in 12 states, according to Joe Eaton, program director for the association. The vast majority of those staff members are from Ohio. One district, Mad River Local Schools in Montgomery County, sent 36 people through the program.
"Generally, it's one more layer of safety and security to their safety plan," Eaton said. "If you wait on outside help, that costs more lives and injuries. The experts say that time matters."
The Indian Valley Board of Education voted earlier this year to arm employees.
"We felt in this day and age we needed to be progressive in our thinking that security has to be at its highest level," said board President Bob Hall. "It's not something we were excited to do but felt like we needed to do it for the safety of our students and staff."
Added Wentworth, "By law, the only thing that's required is for a person to hold a valid Ohio concealed carry permit and have written authorization from the board of education. That's it. Our board decided that wasn't enough."
Over the summer, an undisclosed number of staff members underwent 43 hours of training to prepare them for this new role.
First, they went through 16 hours of training provided by Valkyrie Defense Group of Coshocton.
"A lot of their training was to get us to shoot from different distances, different positions with different speeds and really focus on the skills of accuracy and precision," Wentworth said.
The personnel then went through a program designed by the Buckeye Firearms Association called FASTER (Faculty/Administration Safety Training and Emergency Response). The course is provided by two companies in Ohio — the Tactical Defense Institute in Adams County and Chris Cerino Training Group in Medina County. The training took 27 hours to complete.
"There was some skill training in the use of firearms, but the FASTER course goes way beyond that," Wentworth said. "The FASTER course goes into the recognition of different incidents and appropriate ways to respond. So it's much more scenario-based."
There is also training in the psychological response needed if an unwanted event occurs, he said. In addition, a significant portion focused on first aid.
"The mantra of the FASTER program is to save lives," he said, "whether that's saving lives by stopping a threat that enters a school building or if there's been damage already done, on how to save lives."
Quick response is vital, Eaton said. "Even with a three-minute response time, at Sandy Hook Elementary, we still lost 20 babies that day.
"We've got to have somebody in the school who can immediately stop the killing, but we also have to have people medically trained," he said, adding that medical personnel won't enter a school building until after the police have been through it.
"We are giving the staff the medical skills so they can immediately start treating the victims," Eaton said.
The FASTER training helped Indian Valley personnel to qualify at Ohio Peace Officers Training Academy (OPOTA) standards. Wentworth explained that all law enforcement officers in Ohio have to qualify at what is called the OPOTA standard. It is a series of shots a person has to make —different shots with different time constraints from different positions. Officers have to make 80 percent of the 25 shots on target.
The FASTER standard is to take OPOTA's course and add three additional shots to it and require a standard of 90 percent of shots on target, he said.
"Technically, those who have qualified to participate in the school setting have qualified at a level higher than that is required of Ohio law enforcement," Wentworth said.
The district is also working closely with the Tuscarawas County Sheriff's Office.
"Some of our participants wanted to be able to carry a different firearm of choice at different times," he said. "OPOTA also requires qualification to carry a secondary firearm. Some participants have trained with Lt. Brian Alford, who is a licensed OPOTA instructor."
The training will be ongoing.
"It would be irresponsible of us if we let those skills and tactics that we have learned go dormant," Wentworth said. "So one particular important piece of our plan is the on-going training that will occur. We're just not going to walk away from everything that we have invested in, and that's where Tuscarawas County Sheriff Orvis Campbell and Brian Alford have been more than gracious in supporting us."
Participants supply their own weapons and do not receive any extra money from the district. They did not have to pay for the training, which was covered by the district. But Wentworth noted that Buckeye Firearms helps find grants to cover much of the training cost.
Three Indian Valley staff members who began the training dropped out before they were done because they were not comfortable with the responsibility, he said. "So the message was always, if you're not comfortable, no harm, no foul."
"The schools do a very good job of choosing the right staff to go through the program," Eaton said. "It's not for everyone. But in every school, there are certain staff who will run toward the sound of gunfire."
Wentworth, who is in his 24th year as an educator, said he never thought about arming teachers in 1994.
"It's sad, because I didn't get into it with the idea of having to go to this measure to keep kids safe," he said.
Jon Baker is a staff writer for The Times-Reporter.