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Shawnee Mission parents question school district’s purchase of semi-automatic rifles

John Douglass: Why Shawnee Mission Schools police have access to assault rifles

The Shawnee Mission Schools director of safety and security explains the 2015 purchase of semi automatic rifles for school police.
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The Shawnee Mission Schools director of safety and security explains the 2015 purchase of semi automatic rifles for school police.

From his office at the Shawnee Mission school district administrative center, John Douglass, the district’s director of safety and security, points to a sitting area in the hallway about 25 feet away.

It’s the distance a trained police officer can typically shoot an assailant with accuracy, he says. Next, he points to a door farther down the hallway — a distance still much shorter than the typical hallway at a Shawnee Mission school.

“To expect that I could stop somebody with a pistol from here to there....” He doesn’t finish his sentence.

Douglass cites the rising threat of active shooter situations as the reason why the district’s police department has issued eight semi-automatic rifles to its district resource officers, who have operated separately from municipal police forces since 1972.

District resource officers, responsible for security across the entire district, help school resource officers, based in schools, keep students safe.

“This weapon is a very serious weapon for some very limited circumstances,” said Douglass, the former chief of the Overland Park Police Department. “You are never going to see it unless something really, really bad is happening.”

Still, after a recent local report about the 2015 purchase of semi-automatic firearms, a year after Douglass took over his post, many parents learned for the first time that the district keeps these weapons at all.

The news angered some parents who were unnerved by the presence of assault weapons on school campuses. Some parents questioned their effectiveness as a safety measure.

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“I don’t fully believe one person with a bigger, badder gun is really going to make a huge difference in an active shooter situation in a school,” parent Lisa Veglahn said. “Why did they feel it was necessary over other types of weapons?”

Some viewed the investment as excessive at a time when teachers have classroom needs and administrative salaries have swelled. Many couldn’t remember being informed or aware of the purchase in 2015.

“It’s pretty offensive to me as a taxpayer to feel like you don’t have any voice and you are being excluded from decisions that could harm your child or kill them,” said Melissa Patt, the parent of three students in the Shawnee Mission School District. “What else could we be spending our tax dollars on and getting the same safety results? Or is there evidence that it’s worth it?”

Others saw the purchase as necessary at a time when mass killings, especially those on school campuses, have captured national attention.

“While we will continue to hope and pray that these weapons are never needed and can continue to be locked in a safe, what if they are?” Shawnee Mission parent Matt Trusty wrote in a Facebook post discussion with other parents, which he gave The Star permission to share. “I would hope that in the event a real threat arose the person(s) deemed with keeping my children safe would have the tools and training to be able to do their job.”

A semi-automatic rifle can be considered an assault-style weapon — a broad term used often to describe semi-automatics and automatic weapons used by both police and military officers. Semi-automatic rifles fire one bullet each time the trigger is pulled, while automatic weapons or machine guns continuously fire if the trigger is held down.

According to district records, in September 2015 the district ordered eight Smith & Wesson semi-automatic rifles for the seven district resource officers and one supervisor, whom Douglass oversees, on the district police force.

The purchase cost the district $5,671.04. Douglass said the most recently purchased rifles are typically kept securely in district police officers’ cars. The school resource officers based in schools and employed by the city or county have also kept semi-automatic rifles securely in their cars as most patrol officers do, Douglass said.

While the Shawnee Mission School District appears to be the only school district in the metropolitan area that has purchased assault weapons, it is not the only school district whose police or resource officers have access to such firearms on a school campus.

Most local school districts, such as those in Lee’s Summit and Olathe, have partnerships with police departments which arm campus police officers with weapons that any patrol officer might carry. A police force’s ability to determine which weapons are appropriate is protected by law, said Laura Cutilletta, legal director for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

“The state tends to stay out of that decision and allow police chiefs to determine what’s best for that force,” Cutilletta said.

In Lee’s Summit, school resource officers carry .40 caliber Glock pistols, spokesperson Janice Phelan confirmed. Blue Valley spokesperson Kaci Brutto said Blue Valley campus police and school officers carry the same pistol, and are not issued rifles. A Kansas City, Kan. schools spokesperson reiterated the same.

“We have never purchased or kept any long rifles or semi-automatic rifles on our campuses,” said David Smith, spokesperson for Kansas City, Kan. schools. That district also has its own police force.

One reason many local school districts don’t need to consider whether to arm school officers with rifles is because in some cases the officers already have access to such weapons as members of local police departments.

While Olathe schools have never purchased assault weapons for the district, school resource officers in Olathe have access to semi-automatic rifles because, as members of the Olathe Police Department, they are issued the same equipment as any other patrol officer, police spokesperson Logan Bonney said.

“Officers with the Olathe Police Department are issued .40 Cal Glock pistols and additional equipment including semi-automatic rifles are provided to officers,” Bonney said in an email.

While comprehensive studies of mass killings in America don’t clearly indicate assault weapons as the most common firearm used by shooters, assault weapons have been used in some of the most high-profile shootings in the nation.

According to a study released last year by the Congressional Research Service, a legislative branch agency within the Library of Congress, handguns have been more frequently used in public mass shootings. Researchers defined “public mass shootings” as the killing of four or more people in a public place.

Researchers looked at public mass shootings from 1999 to 2013 to draw their conclusions. Of more than 300 incidents, researchers said, roughly 9 percent of shooters used weapons that are considered assault weapons.

But some of the most high-profile shootings in the United States have involved semi-automatic rifles, including many that have occurred since 2013. The shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. used a Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle. Last summer, a man used a semi-automatic rifle and pistol to kill 49 people and injure dozens more at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

“Police have long determined that we have to be equally matched when it comes to protecting from active shooters,” said Douglass, who said his officers go through the same training, regulation and requirements that any police officer in Kansas goes through.

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That’s comforting to at least one former student.

“These officers are trained to take action in high-stress situations,” said Trevor Rine, who graduated from Shawnee Mission Northwest last year. “If any active shooter was to come to a school and want to cause harm, I believe it’s important for our officers to have the best weapons possible to handle the situation.”

Patt worries that adding more weapons to a school setting might not solve the problem, especially in a chaotic situation. And she worries the fear and concern around stopping active shooting situations shifts focus away from the various other ways that gun violence impacts communities.

“As a nation, we should be asking why is it that our answer (to gun violence) is to go get more guns in the school,” Patt asked.

For Veglahn, the issue is more of a reminder of how school security has changed, and how important she feels it is that parents get more information about the training and protocols that school and district resource officers utilize, whether or not it’s in an active shooter situation.

“It was kind of enlightening for me as a parent this week to think that the nice guy who buzzes me in at my kid’s school is armed,” Veglahn said.

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