To provide a nonpartisan, statewide learning experience

designed to explore the key questions and big ideas that will shape the future of Iowa.

Iowa schools not choosing to arm teachers

State education chief says no districts are investigating that option

Jun 17, 2019 at 2:25 pm
    Eli Hotchkin, director of the University of Iowa threat assessment program, speaks Friday at an Iowa Ideas panel on school safety. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

    CEDAR RAPIDS — Iowa school districts have the local authority to arm classroom teachers and school personnel as a way to deter school shooting incidents, but the state’s education chief said Friday none of the state’s 333 public districts are including that option in their state-mandated emergency plans.

    “No superintendent or district has approached me and has not, to my knowledge, approached our department asking about that option,” state Department of Education Director Ryan Wise said during an Iowa Ideas conference discussion of safety in Iowa schools and on college campuses.

    Instead, Wise said, Iowa school officials are developing and practicing emergency plans that balance a welcoming learning environment with safety concerns.

    In the wake of school shootings in Florida, Connecticut and Colorado, Iowa lawmakers passed Senate File 2364.The law requires K-12 public and non-public schools develop confidential, “high-quality” school safety plans for each classroom building no later than June 30, 2019.

    The plans must include responses to active-shooter situations as well as natural disasters.

    School officials are required to conduct at least one emergency drill in each building. Districts can choose how to implement the requirements in coordination with local law enforcement.

    Wise said many schools already had such plans and safety measures in place, but the new yearlong focus — sparked by the February shooting in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people died — has “upped the sense of urgency” for more awareness and action.

    Iowa had a weapon-related incident in August when a 12-year-old boy brought a loaded gun into his classroom at North Scott Junior High in Eldridge.

    No shots were fired, no one was injured, and a teacher at the school disarmed the student before police arrived. The boy has been charged with attempted murder.

    While some people suggest that arming school personnel could deter such attacks, Wise said his department is urging K-12 districts, community colleges and area education agencies to “take a broader view” of ensuring safe environments.”

    The goal, he said, is thorough plans “that account for a range of potential emergencies and prepare school personnel for how to react in the face of those threats if they become imminent.”

    Wise, who serves on various national advisory boards, said he has had discussions with other states that have looked at the possibly arming teachers.

    “There are a lot of considerations before any district could move in that direction,” he said.

    For starters, he said, the local school board would have to be fully committed to the policy and backed by the district’s legal counsel, local law enforcement and the district’s insurance carrier.

    “So that’s a pretty high bar if you’re going down that direction to ensure you’re really invested,” Wise said.

    After that, the school board would have to decide who was going to be armed and how they were going to be trained.

    Wise said some districts have located school resource police officers in buildings and put in place other security procedures to increase safety.

    University of Iowa

    Eli Hotchkin, director of the University of Iowa’s threat assessment program, said university officials also have implemented a plan to improve communication channels and identify potential threats.

    Officials have tried to break down “silos” that prevent various entities on campus from identifying warning signs, he said.

    They also have a core team that is “really our boots on the ground” to intake cases, assess them and establish interventions for possibly violent individuals.

    A larger advisory group of campus partners meets regularly to share information about case, he said.

    “These targeted acts of violence don’t occur in our communities every day, but when they do occur, they’re horrific, and they really have an effect on all of us to do something,” said Hotchkin.

    He said the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 — when a senior student with mental health issues killed 32 people on campus — “changed the world for higher ed within threat assessment, within the way we look at how someone poses a risk.”

    l Comments: (515) 243-7220;

    Direct Iowa Ideas updates sent to you for free.