Imagine if every school campus in the United States had its own volunteer security officer: a former police officer or military veteran equipped with an assault rifle.
That’s the dream of Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes.
In the wake of the February 14 massacre at a Parkland, Florida high school, Rhodes is calling on members of his far-right anti-government militia group to serve as unpaid and unaccountable armed school guards — whether teachers and students like the idea or not.
One Indiana Oath Keeper has already deployed to a local school, even though the school district says there’s no need for him to be there.
Rhodes wants the military and police veterans who make up Oath Keepers’ membership to volunteer for unpaid, rotating shifts at schools of all levels, and colleges, throughout the country. He and two other representatives of the fringe militia community will hold a webinar Monday night where they plan to encourage Oath Keepers to station themselves at schools “to protect the children against mass murder, and to help train the teachers and staff.”
“I think it’s essential,” Rhodes told TPM in a Monday phone call. “It’s part of our responsibility to do what we can.”
“And what we can do is be outside of schools so that we’re closer if an attack happens, or when one happens,” Rhodes continued. “We’ll be there to be a fast response.”
Oath Keepers came to prominence as part of the surge of right-wing extremism that marked the early years of the Obama administration. At the group’s core are efforts to stoke fear around outlandish conspiracy theories — that the federal government will disarm all citizens, impose martial law, and round Americans up into detention camps, among other scenarios.
Rhodes, a Yale Law School graduate, has referred to Hillary Clinton as “Herr Hitlery,” and “the dominatrix-in-chief,” and has said John McCain should be tried for treason and then “hung by the neck until dead.”
The group’s push for vigilante school security officers comes in the midst of a fraught national debate over how to curb school shootings like the one in Parkland that left 14 students and 3 staffers dead. President Donald Trump, the NRA and some GOP lawmakers all have suggested arming teachers who have firearms training, as a way to deter would-be school shooters — an idea Rhodes said he supports. But since training teachers will take time, he argues, it makes sense to use Oath Keepers volunteers in the interim.
The National Association of School Resource Officers and many school shooting survivors, including those from Parkland, strenuously oppose plans to arm teachers. Teachers may not feel safe wielding arms; students could get ahold of the weapons or get caught in crossfire; law enforcement could mistake an armed teacher or other non-uniformed school staffer for an assailant. The prospect of something going wrong seems even higher with non-vetted, non-professional members of a conspiratorial militia group volunteering services that schools did not ask for.
Rhodes’ response? “Tough.”
“If they don’t like it, too bad,” Rhodes said. “We’re not there to make people feel warm and fuzzy; we’re there to stop murders.”
“What I tell our people is don’t ask for permission,” Rhodes continued. “Let ‘em know what you’re doing and be as friendly as you can. But this is the reality we’re in right now.”
“Most schools have this retarded no-guns policy,” Rhodes added, calling such measures, “‘Alice in Wonderland,’ upside-down thinking.”
To avoid confusion, members will be asked to wear a “long-range identifier” like a sash or orange vest, as well as a “close-range identifier” one that copycats cannot imitate, Rhodes said. Before showing up, they’ll be asked to provide police with copies of their drivers’ licenses, descriptions of their outfits and descriptions of their vehicles and license plates.
Mark Cowan, an Indiana-based member of the Oath Keepers and an Army veteran, has since Friday posted himself outside North Side High School in Fort Wayne, wearing an Oath Keepers baseball hat and carrying a handgun and an AR-15.
“If somebody comes to this school or another school where we’re at, that school shooter is going to know, we’re not going to play games,” Cowan told local station WPTA. “You come to kill our kids, you’re dead.”
In other interviews with local media, Cowan has said he is complying with state law by parking his car just off of school grounds, and that he plans to remain there until the school, which already has an armed resource officer, introduces additional safety measures.
Fort Wayne Community Schools spokeswoman Krista Stockman said local schools had no need for armed volunteers like Cowan.
“We understand he has a right to be out there, but we do not believe it adds to the safety of our students,” Stockman said in a statement. “At North Side, as at all of our schools, we have security procedures in place. In addition, at North Side, we have armed police officers in the building every day.”
According to local news reports, Cowan was arrested last year in connection with a fight that involved his use of a deadly weapon, and pleaded guilty plea to a count of misdemeanor battery. He told WPTA that the incident involved his effort to protect two of his grandchildren, who were attacked by another man. The guilty plea does not prevent him from carrying a firearm under Indiana law.
TPM was not immediately able to reach Cowan. But Bryan Humes, a spokesperson for the Oath Keepers’ Indiana chapter, told TPM in a Monday phone call that Cowan is serving as “another set of eyes and ears” for North Side, which has some 1,800 students, and that other members of the group are interested in taking up similar posts.
“We’re just a little concerned that one officer, with the size of the building and the number of people, may not quite be adequate as far as being able to keep an eye on everything,” Humes said.
“He had a couple of students Friday come out from school during class and thank him for being out there,” Humes added. “He’s also had a couple of the local police and sheriff’s officers stop by and thank him for being out there.”
Captain Steve Stone of the Allen County Sheriff’s Department told TPM that Cowan notified him he would be stationed outside of North Side, and that he personally spread the message to the rest of the department. Stone declined to offer the department’s stance on the Oath Keepers’ presence, noting that Cowan is “not breaking the law.”
“I can’t speak on behalf of the department on the department’s view of having civilians like the Oath Keepers doing that, unfortunately,” Stone said, saying Sheriff David Gladieux was unavailable. “I can’t give you my personal opinion on whether it’s good or not.”