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Armed & Teaching: Toppenish School Officials Carrying Guns

October 23, 2014

In the Toppenish School District, school administrators have begun carrying guns in case of a Columbine-like attack.  But it may not be the best idea according to one teacher who captured notorious school shooter Barry Loukaitis in Moses Lake 20 years ago.

Terry Murphy:  Moses Lake, 1996, fourteen-year-old, Barry Loukaitis goes on a shooting spree, killing two students and a teacher. Since that time, school shootings have become almost common place; from college campuses to grade schools. And just when it seemed like it couldn’t get any worse, it did.  

John Cerna:  Sandy Hook. The incident that happened at Sandy Hook for me and my community was the tipping point because it opened everybody’s eyes. How can we keep out children and our staff safe?

Murphy:  In the Toppenish School District, the answer to that question, is to let school officials carry guns.

Cerner: We’ve taken the stance where we’re arming our administrators. And right now we have 11 in the school district that are currently armed.

John Cerna is the Toppenish School District Superintendent

Murphy: John Cerna, Toppenish Superintendent, is one of them.

Cerna: If this should happen, I would be one of the first responders. And if I have to, I would give up my life.

Murphy: John Cerna has spent his life in Toppenish, located in the Yakima Valley…a landscape painted with rolling fields and a city painted with miles of murals. Scenes from the Wild West, and even the city slogan, remind visitors, you’re not in Seattle anymore.

Toppenish is located in the Yakima Valley in Washington state

Murphy: Cerna is a popular and highly respected school administrator. His hands-on approach gives him a bit of a rock star status, but on the range, he’s more like John Wayne.

Cerna: I’ve carried guns forever. I’ve been shooting since I was a kid, so for me it’s very routine. I respect guns. I’m not afraid of guns.

Murphy: Under the watchful eye of an expert, Cerna and his school administrators practice their skills. All are volunteers and most have firearm experience. We’re allowed to shoot video as long as we hide their identity.

Police officer hands Cerna a bullet at the shooting range during practice.

Cerna: I don’t want anyone to know who is armed. I don’t want them to have a target on their back, probably with the exception of me. And that’s okay because I’m old.

Murphy: In addition to training, Cerna shows us their bullet-proof vests. Over that, another vest identifies who they are when the police arrive. When it comes to school shootings, Cerna believes, it’s not a question of if, but when.

Cerna: It’s going to happen again. It’s unfortunate but I just hope it doesn’t happen anywhere. But if it does happen in Toppenish, we will have someone there before the police arrive. Usually when the police arrive, everybody is dead.

Murphy: Cerna and the Toppenish School Board did more than a year of research before they instituted this policy. According to Cerna, from the time a shooter enters a school and until the police arrive…life and death are measured in minutes.

Cerna practices shooting at a local outdoor shooting range.

Cerna: The national averages and the time it takes for police or the sheriff that may be the first responder is 12 to 14 minutes. The only thing we’re doing is buying time until a police presence shows up. Because we’re not the police, we’re just buying time.

Adam Diaz: We have taken guns off of students. We have taken guns off of students in the schools and out on the streets.

Murphy: Adam Diaz is Chief of Police in Toppenish. He showed us armed guards privately employed by the school district. They provide a layer of safety, but they could be a target for cutbacks.

Cerna: It cost us $150,000 a year to have security right now, and at some point it doesn’t become coast effective.

Diaz: I would like to see a police officer in every school. Do I know that’s not a reasonable option? It’s not.

Murphy: Confronting an active shooter is a big part of police training. As this simulator demonstrates: police need to know when shoot, and when not to shoot. It’s these split-second decisions that administrators may face. And that troubles critics. Jon Lane is one of them.

Jon Lane: I know they’re very well intentioned and I don’t doubt that at all, hopefully they’re well-trained. I’m a little skeptical they could have enough training. Even police officers who have extensive training don’t always make the best choices.

John Lane is a former teacher who de-armed the Moses Lake shooter Barry Lee Loukaitis in 1996.

Murphy: Lane is in a unique position to talk about school shootings. In 1996, this former wrestling coach and teacher faced the barrel of a gun held by Barry Loukaitis, the Moses lake shooter. After almost two decades, Lane still finds it difficult to talk about that horrific day. It began with gunshots coming from a classroom down the hall.

Lane: As soon as I opened the door I smelled the gun powder.

Murphy: Lane dove behind this desk. Then, Barry Loukaitis gave him a choice.

Lane: Barry said if I didn’t stand up, he’d start shooting more kids, so I knew it was something I had to do.

Murphy: Loukaitis allowed Lane to carry three injured students out of the classroom. Once Lane returned, the shooter lined up the rest of the students, and made a final demand.

Lane: He said he was going to put the gun in my mouth and take me hostage and end the situation. I told him I was too afraid and I couldn’t do it, and of course I was. But by that time I was close enough to him and I charged him and pinned him against the wall. By that time the police were there and came in.

Murphy: Hailed as a hero, and now retired, Jon Lane works in his community to promote positive change among youth.

Lane: I don’t have the answer. There’s lots of answers. It’s not just a gun problem. There’s other dynamics to it. It’s a family problem. It’s a social problem. It’s a faith community problem…violence in the media.

Murphy: Among the students we spoke with in Toppenish, there seems to be a consensus about the policy.

Students at Toppenish high school say they feel safer with an armed administrator

Josue Rodriguez: I probably would feel safer with it. I don’t know what could happen here. Someone could come but we have a staff member who’s trained who could probably stop the situation.

Cerna: The reason why we’re doing what we’re doing is because we want to be pro-active. I believe our schools are very safe at this time.

Lane: I’m really concerned about in a school setting, poor choices might be made. Well intentioned, but I could see some collateral damage that might happen that would be hard to live with.

Diaz: Is there a risk? You bet. There’s always a risk with making decisions like these, but we have to live with them either way.

Murphy: The hope in Toppenish, and every other school in this country, is that school shootings will stop. But if it does happen here...John Cerna says he’ll be ready.

Cerna: I’ll give up m y life for my children, because I’m old. I’ve lived a great life. I’ve lived the dream. Give me a fighting chance. And, I’m a good shot.



Made possible in part by

Terry Murphy

Terry Murphy has worked at every TV station in Seattle for a wide variety of local and national shows, including: KCTS9 Connects, Evening Magazine, Dateline, Biography Channel, The Steve Harvey Show, special projects, public affairs and children’s programming. Her work has taken her everywhere from Alaska to Brazil. National and regional awards include American Women in Radio & Television, two Gabriels, PM Magazine National Honors, several regional Emmys and Academy of Religious Broadcasting awards. After almost 30 years in broadcasting, Terry still believes it’s a joy and a privilege to tell other people’s stories…especially here at KCTS9.

More stories by Terry Murphy

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I had 4 yrs active duty USAF Security Police, now Security Forces, with 1969-70 in southeast Asis, another 14 mths USAF Reseve same job, and 8 yrs Army National Guard Military Police. Starting in 1971 I was employed by Southern Pacific Railroad Police, a San Francisco Bay area city PD - In 1973 myself and several officers responded to a school shooting, suspect was a senior at the high school, and finally State Police/Highway Patrol-32 yrs there. Retired now. In listing the campaign funding of I-594 you failed to mention former New York city Mayor Bloomberg or his group Mayors against guns. I've read 594 and it does not allow the loan of a firearm to anyone unless the firearm is to be a gift and a background check is done, even to immediate famly. The I-591-591 debate person supporting I-594 talks about loaning guns to felons, etc. And then he compares it to loaning your car to a friend who may have a DUI. How would you know?. Using his statement, you should have to have anyone you loan your car to produce DMV evidence they have a clear driving record. As far as self protection, it is needed. In fact recently when San Francisco passed an ordinance limiting the size of a pistol magazine that can be possessed in SF by citizens, the city's research showed that when a citizen uses a firearm for self-defense or self-protection, the mere display of the firearm will suffice. If firing is required, most citizens legal shooting one involve 3-5 rounds. Also almost all of mass shootings take place at a "gun free" zone. The I-594 supporter also stated that approx 40,000 prohibited person were kept from acquiring firearms through backgroung checks. How many were prosecuted? Also any firearm purchased through a federally licensed dealer, and they all have to be, cannot be delivered without a background check.

I do believe in background checks for ALL firearms and a waiting period of 5-10 days. The high school senior - school shooting above - simply walked off campus, to a sporting good store that sold rifles and shotguns, bought a shotgun and ammo, and returned to the school.

I'll end for now. Please excuse the random thoughts.

I cannot believe the group sitting with Wang did not correct the red haired lady who perpetuated the misconception of gun show purchases. The error whether deliberate or she just did not do her homework discredits an otherwise objective debate. The fact that no one else immediately corrected her also degenerated the groups overall credibility. Some have bought into the idea that how a gun show is handled in another state is how it is handled here. These bills concern OUR state. In purchase, sell or even hold a firearm in a WAC sponsored gun show, one must be a current member and display his membership ID. To obtain the ID one goes through as NICS background check and then if purchasing from an FFL dealer goes through another right then and there. Another discrediting statement which hinted at bias was when the elder lady mentioned 'statistics' show firearms in the house are more dangerous than useful. This was almost word for word regurgitation of what a politician told a young rape victim not too long ago in a hearing. Quoting 'statistics' without reference is meaningless. One of the most recent statistics reports used by the current administration was derived from the Johns Hopkins study which received millions of dollars shortly thereafter by Michael Bloomberg. Statistics may also show that not everyone may be involved in a motor vehicle accident in their life, yet most carry the best insurance they can afford. The third myth is the 'loophole' myth. For a loophole to exist there must be an over encompassing law where a niche is detected within. Private sales and transfers are not loopholes, they lie outside the realm of dealer sales not within. These transactions are the legal disposition of a citizen's private property. A licensed dealer's sale is one done within the realm of conducting a business where the income of such provides a livelihood. Another major myth that more educated folks are not really looking into because it was derived from a bought and paid for study by a fancy named school is the one about the overwhelming majority of Americans would like universal background checks. On the face this may be true but where the problem lies is that among this 'majority' there are two major philosophies. One is to do individual checks per firearm, which requires a purchase. The other proposal is for a prospective buyer to obtain a generic background check which is not tied to the immediate purchase. The second is like getting a driver license without buying the car instead of getting a driver license each time you buy a car.