Even before a gunman opened fire at a Florida school last week, killing 17, a national effort had been underway to arm and train teachers and administrators to defend against mass shootings.
That effort has gained momentum in recent days. Legislators have moved to permit concealed weapons in schools. Sheriff’s offices have offered to train school staff members in armed response.
But one assistant high school principal who survived a school shooting — after loading his Colt .45 pistol, then chasing and detaining the suspect at gunpoint — says the idea is misguided.
“Teachers have to teach and that’s what they should be doing,” said Joel Myrick, the former assistant principal at a high school in Mississippi. “It doesn’t matter what a pistolero you are, or think you are, you don’t need to be in school in charge of protecting children.”
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Myrick also was principal was Hancock High School in Hancock County, and he now teaches at the vocational center there.
Before Columbine, Sandy Hook or Stoneman Douglas — indeed, before school shootings became devastatingly routine — there was Pearl High School, near Jackson.
Myrick, 56, remembers the day clearly — Oct. 1, 1997 — as well as the exact time the first shot rang out, 8:06 a.m., but it is still a tough topic for him to discuss. He had acute stress for about six months afterward. Nightmares. Misery, he said.
“That’s one of the first things I thought about when I heard about Florida. Thousands of people whose life will never be the same,” said Myrick, a longtime educator who now teaches polymer science at a technical high school in Hancock County, Mississippi. “It kind of exhausts me to talk about it.”
At Pearl High, the gunman was Luke Woodham, a 16-year-old student who woke up, stabbed his mother to death, then came to campus carrying a .30-30 lever-action rifle, traditionally used for killing deer.
Myrick was crossing a school commons when he heard the first shot, immediately recognizing it as gunfire. When Woodham shot a student in the gut, then turned to reload his gun, Myrick ran to his truck, where he kept a pistol.
“I’ve always carried one since I started driving,” Myrick said. “I always kept a gun or pistol of some kind in my truck. Unloaded, stowed away. Not ready to fire.”
He loaded and took aim at Woodham, but did not fire out of fear of hitting someone in the background. “I knew not to shoot because the backstop was not safe,” he said. “I didn’t just go blasting away.”
After seeing Myrick pointing his gun, Woodham retreated from campus, got in his car and began to drive away. As Myrick ran after him on foot, the car spun out and came to a stop 20 steps away from Myrick. He had his gun trained on Woodham when the police arrived.
Two students, including Woodham’s former girlfriend, were killed and seven others injured. Woodham is serving a life sentence at the Mississippi State Penitentiary.
Despite Myrick’s firm stance against arming faculty members, he has long advocated placing trained personnel, possibly retired law enforcement officers, in every school, as a deterrent. “We protect our banks that way,” he said. “We protect things we love. America protects things it loves. We don’t care if it’s expensive.”
Myrick said he was not a member of the National Rifle Association. “And not because I don’t think the Second Amendment is important, but there’s got to be some common sense,” he said.
Grief and shock after school shootings have long given way to fierce debates over gun control and firearms in schools. But calls to arm teachers grew especially loud after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 first-grade children and six staff members were killed.
An NRA task force recommended in 2013 that schools increase their police presence, install security guards and designate staff members — including teachers and administrators — to be armed and trained. In introducing the NRA recommendations to reporters, Asa Hutchinson, now the Arkansas governor, invoked the Pearl High School shooting and Myrick.
The task force also suggested that states relax restrictions on who can carry guns at school, an idea that is gaining support in a number of states.
The American Federation of Teachers, an education trade union, has opposed training teachers and other school personnel — an idea that has also taken hold in Missouri — saying it would not keep children safe but instead flood schools with more guns.
An Ohio group, the Buckeye Firearms Association, has trained 1,300 school personnel in that state alone. The group’s program, called Faster Saves Lives, is spreading to 11 other states.
Dean Rieck, executive director of the association, said the idea for Faster Saves Lives began about five years ago, after Sandy Hook.
“In Ohio, people thought we were nuts to suggest this,” he said. But five years later, schools are contacting the organization asking for the training, he said. The group has held classes in 76 of 88 Ohio counties, he said, with some schools requesting only trauma first-aid training.
Participants in the gun training are school personnel who already have concealed-carry permits.
“It puts very well-trained concealed-carry people inside the school,” Rieck said. “If something happens, they’re able to respond faster. That’s the entire point of the program.”
Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers and a former teacher, disagreed. “I think it masks what the real problem is,” she said. “It places an unfair burden on teachers. Let’s talk about what type of guns should not be available to people.”
That was a topic Myrick, who vividly recalls the damage that a relatively slow lever-action rifle caused on a high school campus, wanted to discuss, too. “If Luke Woodham had an AR-15, he probably would have killed 20 people instead of two,” he said. “There’s not a soul on the planet who needs an AR-15 except military.”
The Sun Herald contributed to this report.