A gun-toting student or intruder is often the focus of school safety concerns, but a Douglas County high school shut down Thursday because of an unexpected safety threat: a veteran teacher with a handgun.
Lithia Springs High School closed after a teacher shot himself in his classroom office before students arrived.
It’s illegal for anyone except police officers and a select list of officials, such as prosecutors and judges, to carry a weapon into a school, with one exception: Local school districts have been able to authorize teachers and other personnel to enter school buildings armed since state law was changed in 2014 to allow it.
The Douglas County School System said it has not changed its policy to let teachers have weapons in schools.
But around 7:15 a.m., the teacher shot himself, Sgt. Jesse Hambrick with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office said.
It was still not clear Thursday evening whether it was intentional or accidental.
The teacher was able to make his way from his office to another area of the school, where a school employee came to his aid. Another colleague called 911, Hambrick said.
The teacher, whom Hambrick said had worked for the school district about 18 years, has not been identified. He was taken to an undisclosed hospital, where he was in stable condition Thursday afternoon, Hambrick said. Authorities found the handgun.
Phil Hartley, a school lawyer whose firm Harben, Hartley and Hawkins represents about two-thirds of Georgia’s 180 school districts, said few districts have changed their policies to allow armed teachers.
“I don’t know of hardly any school districts that have,” he said. “I know of a couple that have passed specific policies, for example authorizing the security guard by the central office to carry a gun.”
Among metro Atlanta’s school districts, DeKalb and Fulton counties said they also had not adopted policies allowing teachers to carry guns. Other districts could not be reached for comment.
Bans are one thing; detecting violators is another.
There are no metal detectors at Lithia Springs, Hambrick said. About 1,500 students attend the school.
Neither DeKalb nor Fulton counties regularly deploy metal detectors to check teachers as they enter school buildings, though DeKalb does conduct random screenings. In these districts, a teacher who illegally carries a weapon into a school could face criminal prosecution and termination.
It was not known Thursday afternoon whether any charges would be filed. The sheriff’s office said it was conducting a criminal investigation.
Historically, school safety efforts have focused on preventing students from bringing weapons in, said Ken Trump, president of the Ohio-based consulting firm National School Safety and Security Services.
He predicted the Lithia Springs shooting will spark a multifaceted community conversation about school safety.
“Parents are going to want to know, ‘How did this happen?’ ” he said.
The district should try to identify the “root factors” that led to the teacher bringing the gun to school, he said.
“The question is why? Not to justify the person doing so, but were there any red flags, warning signs that could have prevented that from occurring?” Trump said.
The sheriff’s office has trained for such incidents, and school resource officers responded to help secure the site.
As buses arrived for school, which starts about 8:40 a.m., administrators shuffled students to the gym before anyone headed to class.
No students were in danger and none saw the shooting, officials said. Students waited in the gym for buses to return to the school or for parents to pick them up.
By late morning, all but a few students had left the campus, and the cleanup process began in the building. Quick work from deputies and school leaders kept the scene calm despite the constant chatter from students about what had happened.
“The most important thing we do as a school system is to keep our staff and students safe,” Superintendent Trent North said.
North, who took over the superintendent job June 1, asked for prayers for the school community, including students and teachers.
“You have family,” he said. “When one of your family is hurting, you hurt as well.”
He did not respond to requests for additional information.
The shooting prompted a statement from the Georgia chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Volunteer chapter leader Lindsey Donovan said it “underscores that school shootings are all too common in this country.
“As a mom, I want to know that my kids are safe at school,” she said.
Word of the shooting spread quickly through social media, where Austin Miller — a 2010 graduate of Lithia Springs — was shocked to read the news.
Though he’s now a college graduate working in graphic design, Miller said he was in touch with several former classmates Thursday after hearing the news.
“We’re all in shock,” Miller said Thursday. “We are all sending up prayers for him.”
Classes are expected to resume Friday at the school. Grief counselors will be there when students and staff return, Hambrick said.
— Staff writers Ty Tagami and John Spink contributed to this article.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
With the largest team in the state, the AJC reports what’s really going on with your tax dollars and your elected officials. Subscribe today. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.
Your subscription to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.