Schools chief on arming teachers: 'We can't wait for minutes to pass'

School superintendent David Hopkins will start the new academic year with the Sandy Hook school massacre still fresh in his mind. This year, he plans to heighten efforts to ensure the safety of his schools by using his staff as a first line of defense.

In a controversial move, more than 20 teachers and staff members at his Clarksville School District in Arkansas will be carrying concealed weapons when classes begin.

“When you sit down and have an honest conversation with yourself, and you put the political correctness aside, and you think if a gunman comes through the front door of your school, what do you do?” he said Thursday on TODAY.

His armed staff members will be able to use personal weapons they are now allowed to carry after undergoing 53 hours of training.

“Seconds count. We can’t wait for minutes to pass,” Hopkins said. “Something has to be done in a matter of seconds, and that’s what led us to the decisions that we’ve made to provide our own security force on our campus.”

School leaders across the country continue to grapple with how to best protect their students following the horrifying scenario that played out last December in a Connecticut elementary school.

The Sandy Hook shooting left 20 children and six teachers dead. It also was the latest of a string of deadly school-related shootings to spook parents and prompt some administrators to take more aggressive action to protect their campuses. In addition to Arkansas, six other states enacted laws allowing teachers and administrators to carry guns in school, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“So far, we’ve had overwhelming support from within our community and from across the county,” Hopkins said.

Participants in the program were selected by district administrators to be a part of an emergency response team and had the option to decline, but no one did, he said.

All participants were given a $1,100 stipend to purchase a handgun. The district expects to pay about $50,000 for ammunition and for weapons training that includes various role-playing scenarios involving campus shooters.

Students probably will know which teachers and staff members will be carrying weapons, in part because of all the press coverage on the story. But every effort will be made to hide the weapons, Hopkins said.

“We want it to be business as usual. We’re not putting these people in place to be police officers in our schools. That’s not their job,” he said. “The only time they would act in that role as a security officer in our school would be in the event that a madman came into our school, wielding a weapon, trying to do our students and our staff harm.”

Donna Chiera, president of New Jersey’s American Federation of Teachers, said on TODAY Thursday that having armed teachers in schools “would make an environment of fear” for students already overwhelmed with images of violence on television. It also may make them — and their parents — anxious about approaching or challenging teachers who may be armed. It also may prohibit parents from approaching teachers.

Curt Laverello, executive director of the School Safety Advocacy Council, which trains school officials in critical incident response, said he was glad schools are having serious discussions about how to protect their people but warned against taking extreme measures.

“There’s a big difference between having an armed teacher and having a well-trained law enforcement officer at a school or a school resource officer,” he said. “There’s a lot of things we can do in between that.”

Schools can establish good relationships with local law enforcement agencies and take extra effort to train their staff for unexpected incidents, he said.

“There are a lot of things we can do to straighten down the front end before we go to necessarily the extreme of arming teachers," he said.