PORTLAND – The superintendent of the Jay County School Corp. pointed to the water tower across the street from his office.
Painted on the tank is the image of an early-American settler carrying a long rifle – a minuteman, or member of the volunteer militia who were ready to fight at a minute's notice.
“That's not a shocking image here,” Jeremy Gulley said. The minuteman has been a mascot for the schools, whose sports teams are called Patriots.
“Ownership of guns in this area of the state is prevalent,” Gulley, 44, said about east-central Indiana. “Like most folks, I grew up rural and I was around firearms all my life. My dad taught me how to use them; he taught me how to respect them.”
He even carries guns for his other job: commanding officer of the Indiana National Guard's 1st Battalion, 293rd Infantry Regiment, which is based in Fort Wayne.
“I am a citizen, and I am a soldier, and I can't divide that,” he said. “So I bring that perspective to the work I do here” at Jay County School Corp.
Guns are on Gulley's mind a lot these days. The weekend after a 19-year-old gunman used a semi-automatic, military-style gun to kill 17 people at a school in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine's Day, Gulley put together a nine-point plan aimed at improving security for his school district's nine buildings and 3,200 students.
The strategy includes the creation of a countywide threat assessment team; limiting entry points and increasing video surveillance at schools; equipping buildings with bullet-resistant doors and windows; supplying real-time video and audio feeds to the county sheriff's office; and recruiting retired, armed police officers to beef up school security. The plan also calls for a full-time, armed school resource officer; the position now rotates among multiple police officers.
And there is this: “Provide an onsite armed response capacity within each school.” Gulley's proposal, if approved by the district school board, would give certain teachers and staff access to district-owned firearms stored in safes at schools. Volunteers would have to receive firearms training, including for active shooter situations, from police.
Gulley's models for gun safes are school districts in suburban Dayton and Sidney, Ohio, which have attracted national media attention for giving handgun access to trained employees, including teachers. The biometric safes – unlocked by fingerprint scans of designated people – are Gulley's answer to whether teachers should be armed at school.
“I have supervised soldiers for a long time. And I'm concerned about the possibility of accidental discharge or loss of a firearm” if teachers are armed, he said. Gun safes are “a responsible approach that mitigates those risks but still provides the capability to confront and defeat the active shooter threat,” he said.
“It is unconventional. There are 286 school districts in the state; I don't know of any that have implemented this,” Gulley said.
The Jay County school board is scheduled to begin discussing Gulley's plan at its Monday meeting. Although Indiana law allows school employees to possess firearms on school property, only one district permits it, according to news reports: North White School Corp. near Rensselaer in northwest Indiana, where administrators can carry concealed guns after completing training.
Sheriff 'on board'
Since drafting the security strategy, Gulley has shopped it around the community. He posted the measure online four days after the Parkland shootings and then began soliciting input from Jay County High School students, the district teachers association leader, law enforcement officers and the county safety commission.
Gulley said results of an online survey showed 97 percent of respondents believe the plan is “the right direction” for school security.
“Jeremy has definitely done his homework,” Jay County Sheriff Dwane Ford said in a telephone interview. “We're on board with his plan to increase the security in the schools.”
Ford said the sheriff's department would join the school district in selecting which teachers and staff members have access to a gun safe.
“It's not like we're arming every teacher in the school, or even several teachers in a school. And there's a lot of training that has to be done before that would even take effect,” he said.
Paul Szymczak, president of Jay Classroom Teachers Association, said there is a wide range of opinions about Gulley's plan among the district's 170 teachers.
“There are people who don't think that Mr. Gulley's plan goes far enough, and there's a lot of people who think it goes too far in adding guns to the schools,” said Szymczak, a high school social studies teacher.
He said some teachers would prefer to carry guns during school hours so they would have immediate protection in the event of an attack. The teachers association has not taken an official position on Gulley's security strategy but does say in a statement that it “appreciates the efforts of Superintendent Jeremy Gulley in planning to make our students and schools safer.”
Szymczak pointed out that gun safes are just one of Gulley's proposals.
“There's a lot of other good things in that plan that we are looking at getting implemented sooner rather than later,” he said. “Everybody appreciates that we are taking (security) very seriously and doing our very best to make our schools safe, make our kids safe and make our teachers safe.”
Szymczak also said, “We have to adapt and change to what's going on in the present, and I think Mr. Gulley's plan is a reflection of that.”
On Wednesday, a month to the day after the Parkland shootings, a panel that included Gulley, Ford and Jay County High School students discussed the nine-point plan at a school forum. Sophomore student Devin Harris said he has felt safe while in school, “but at the same time, in the back of my mind, I know that something could potentially happen.” Harris said Gulley's security proposals made him feel “a lot better.”
Gulley has been Jay County School Corp. superintendent since 2016. During an interview at district administrative offices, he acknowledged he owns firearms but would not say what kind.
How many guns does he have?
“It would be imprudent for any gun owner to say that. Let me answer it this way: Enough to protect my family,” he said.
He does identify two – an M-4 carbine rifle and a 9 mm Beretta pistol – that he has in his role as a battalion commander for the National Guard. Gulley is a lieutenant colonel and has been deployed to Afghanistan and Bosnia.
Before 2008, the school district headquarters was a National Guard armory. Gulley began his military service there in 1992.
His superintendent's office is the same space he used when he was a Guard company commander.
Gulley trains with the Guard monthly, usually at Camp Atterbury in southern Indiana. He supervises 700 soldiers in his battalion. In 2010-11, when he was principal at Huntington North High School, Gulley deployed to Afghanistan as part of a mission to help schools improve their agriculture education. While there, Gulley was leaving a meeting when a nearby U.S. soldier was shot by a sniper. The soldier's body armor saved his life.
Another time, Gulley felt the shock waves from a car bombing.
“I, like all my fellow soldiers in our unit, came under enemy fire, mostly indirect fire of rockets,” he recalled.
Gulley said his school security strategy “is really not written through the lens of a superintendent. It's written through the lens of a 26-year infantry officer. That's the way I looked at it.”
He has yet another perspective on guns, gun violence and school safety: that of a parent. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children, ages 16, 15 and 10.
“I like seeing a police patrol car in front of the building when my kids are dropped off” at school, he said. “I understand the anxiety that's out there.
“And I understand the attention that these recommendations may bring,” he said about his security plan. “But I'm at peace with it, and I think it's thought-through, and I think it's involved the right people. And I respect the board to make its decision on that recommendation.
“I as a parent would be OK with that, if I knew that somebody could protect my kid,” he said.
The cost of revamping buildings and adding security features to protect against a possible attack by a gunman are going to be substantial, Gulley said, and might require financial assistance from outside the school district.
“I think our people here expect something to be done, and I think they have a will to support securing the schools,” Gulley said.
“We are going to look differently when we are done with this,” he said, “and that's what the people want, what parents want, what the community wants.”