A Utah teacher is shown how to handle a handgun at a concealed-weapons training class in 2012. (George Frey/Getty Images)
Gerald Cantu, the civic engagement director for the Dolores Huerta Foundation, points to a full-page ad in the Bakersfield Californian paid for by a coalition of advocacy groups.
The ad asks the Kern High School District board, which oversees 18 campuses for 35,000 students in and near Bakersfield, to reverse recent votes allowing teachers and nonstaff to carry guns into the classroom.
The coalition, which includes Building Healthy Communities, United Farm Workers, California State University Bakersfield Center for Social Justice and the Kern Education Justice Collaborative, has also started an online petition against the gun policies.
The district is the fourth in the state and the largest thus far to allow some staff or teachers to carry guns on campus. At this point, there are no specific guidelines, but only teachers with concealed weapons permits and at least 40 hours of training will be eligible.
And while there is support for the policy in Kern County, groups like the Huerta Foundation are hoping the trustees will take a second look at allowing teachers to carry guns.
“It just creates a terrible school climate, you know, where children potentially may be entering classrooms in which their teachers have guns,” Cantu says. “That’s not the kind of message we want to send to children.”
The board called a special session last month to pass the resolution allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons on campus. The 3-2 vote came just two weeks before one of the trustees in favor of the policy left the board. Critics like Cantu say that was sneaky.
But Trustee Mike Williams says the board had studied the issue publicly for months and chose to vote on it before the new trustee took office.
Otherwise, he says, “we’ll have a new trustee who is not at all caught up on this and we’ll probably have to start the process somewhat over for their benefit.”
Williams says he believes teachers with guns provide another layer of defense in case of a school shooting.
“The last thing I want as a trustee is to believe that I took away a tool that might have saved lives,” he says.
Earlier this year, the board voted to allow nonstaff members of the public to carry concealed weapons on campus as long as they have the proper gun permits, permission from the district superintendent and liability insurance. The rule applies to just about anyone: parents, vendors, even those who rent space on campus.
“There’s a lot of things that happen on school property that aren’t school-related,” says Williams. “For example, we have churches that meet on Sundays. And one of our former trustees was a minister and they received threats."
That former trustee is the Rev. Chad Vegas, pastor of Bakersfield's Sovereign Grace Church. He’s the one who just stepped down from his seat after voting yes on the gun policy.
According to the district, at least 18 people have received permission to carry firearms on campus, including several members of Vegas’ church. Vegas did not respond to phone and text messages seeking comment.
While district trustees say those who hold concealed weapons permits have a right to keep their guns with them while on campus, folks like Gerald Cantu question the policy's safety.
“Imagine a situation where there’s some tension between a teacher and a parent, and you throw guns into the mix," Cantu says. "That’s not something you want to see."
Some teachers, like Terri Richmond, don't like the board's focus on gun rules. She says the trustees should spend more time on education.
“My textbook is 13 years old,” says the social studies teacher. “I’d like to see some work on that instead of worrying about a handful of people that maybe have a connection with one of the board members, Mr. Vegas.”
Richmond's husband, David, teaches high school history and government. He lost a brother to gun violence and vows he will no longer go to staff meetings or parent-teacher conferences unless the district assures him no one is carrying a weapon.
He knows he could get suspended for that and if he does, he says, he’ll consider a lawsuit.
“So yes, I will have to face the loss of my job and that is very scary at my age," says David, who is 57. "I don’t want that to happen. But Terri and I have talked, and if that’s what has to happen in order for us to get our day in court, then that’s what’s going to have to happen.”
But there are plenty of people in Kern County who agree wholeheartedly with allowing guns on campus. In fact, at the most recent board meeting, a staff member, Susan Wooden, complained that permits to carry guns on campus shouldn’t be limited to teachers and administrators. After all, she says, bus drivers and food service employees are also around students.
“This was burning in our craw because once again we look like we’re the third-class people here,” she told the board.
The board said it would consider the request, but first it will take months to establish guidelines for teachers carrying guns on campus.