In decision to arm school police officers with assault rifles, Shawnee Mission stands apart from local peer districts

A Smith & Wesson M&P 15 similar to the ones purchased by the Shawnee Mission School District in 2015. Photo via
A Smith & Wesson M&P 15 similar to the ones purchased by the Shawnee Mission School District in 2015. Photo via

When former Overland Park Police Chief John Douglass joined Shawnee Mission schools in 2014, he was charged with modernizing school safety and security for an expansive district that served more than 27,000 students across more than 40 buildings.

Those efforts included investing millions in fortifying building entrances and installing surveillance technology. They also included expanding the district’s police department, and arming district officers with powerful weapons.

In September 2015, the district purchased eight Smith & Wesson M&P 15 semi-automatic assault rifles at a total cost of $5,671.04, a move that sets it apart from its local peers.

None of the Kansas City metro’s other large suburban public school districts — Olathe and Blue Valley in Johnson County and Lee’s Summit in Jackson County — provide district-employed security personnel with such powerful weapons. Neither Olathe nor Lee’s Summit have their own police departments, instead relying entirely on municipal police for their emergency response protection. Blue Valley has its own police department, but its officers have access only to .40 caliber Glock handguns.

Douglass said the decision to provide the assault rifles to district officers came as a precaution to prepare for the potential of an active shooter situation. He noted that the authority for Shawnee Mission officers to have these kinds of weapons pre-dated his tenure with the district, although they had not purchased them before.

“Several years ago, Dr. [Gene] Johnson, as the superintendent, authorized School Resource Officers (SROs) at our high schools and middle schools to keep these types of weapons locked in gun safes in their offices or in their vehicles,” Douglass said. “The district also purchased police vehicles giving us the capability of rapid emergency response and a presence not only in the high schools and middle schools, but also the elementary schools. Once we had vehicles, we equipped them with standard equipment which includes the AR15. This rifle is in almost every police car in the United States. The use of the rifles is limited to active shooter protocol as agreed upon by all metro police departments.”

Shawnee Mission is unique among suburban school districts because it encompasses so many municipalities, each with their own police department. For the past several years, those agencies have collaborated on training exercises to prepare for emergency situations at schools, including active shooter situations.

Despite the fact that the district’s seven officers can only be at one building at a time, Douglass said arming them with the assault rifles helped ensure a district officer responding to an emergency call would be properly armed in the event of an active shooter situation. He said that district police officers, not officers from municipal police departments, end up being the first to respond to most calls at the elementary schools.

“Each officer is assigned a sector which encompasses one high school, one middle school and numerous elementary schools,” Douglass said. “Response is coordinated by our Operation Information Center in conjunction with the municipal agency.”

The rifles are kept either secured in an officer’s vehicle or in a safe within a school building. District officers must demonstrate proficiency in use of the weapons several times each year, Douglass said, and get regular training. A state certified rifle instructor is among the officers on the department’s staff.