Officials considering armed volunteers for schools

Columbine, Sandy Hook, Stoneman Douglas — those names ring out like the bullets that once flew through their hallways, stark reminders of a perplexing and tragic problem that simply hasn’t gone away. 

In the only nation where school shootings occur regularly, gun control has been historically pushed as one possible solution, albeit one with questionable results.

Now, in the wake of the 148th school shooting this decade, legislators, educators and law enforcement officials are addressing the other side of the issue with a renewed push that could put more guns in schools across the country, and across North Carolina. 


More or less

The shooting at Parkland, Florida’s, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 dead was carried out by 19-year-old former student who showed up on campus with a semi-automatic rifle and began firing at former classmates and teachers Feb. 14. 

Outraged survivors began speaking out immediately, both on- and off-camera, calling for tougher gun laws, and calling out the National Rifle Association for opposing such measures.

For the most part, they’ve argued that the saturation of firearms in American society is to blame, and that the answer to the problem is to ban or restrict firearms as much as possible. 

The NRA, on the other hand, asserts that gun-free zones or a gun-free society make ordinary citizens sitting ducks, because criminals will always be able to acquire firearms. 

SEE ALSO: High school students in Haywood will walk out Wednesday

Both sides got what they wanted, kind of, when Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a gun control bill just 23 days after the shooting. 

The students got a three-day waiting period for gun purchasers, an increase in the minimum purchasing age from 18 to 21 and a ban on the sale of so-called bump stocks, which allow for rapid manual trigger manipulation.

It’s hard to see how any of those measures might prevent another incident like the one in Parkland; that same trigger effect can also be achieved with the use of a household rubber band, a three-day wait ultimately means little to those bent on committing a crime, and a minimum purchasing age didn’t stop the killers at Columbine or Sandy Hook. 

The NRA, however, thinks that more guns in schools may be the answer; the same piece of Florida legislation containing the purchasing restrictions also calls for the creation of a voluntary program in which some properly trained school employees could be armed. 

North Carolina, however, has had such legislation on the books for about five years, and a recent press conference by a small-town sheriff in the central part of the state may signal a coming push for its implementation.


Tools in the toolbox

On Feb. 28, Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page held a press conference with the county manager, the county superintendent of schools, sheriffs from adjoining counties, other police chiefs in his jurisdiction, town managers from towns in his county, the speaker of the N.C. House and the N.C. Senate president pro tem.

“I’m tired of seeing all the violence and school shootings in this country,” Page said. 

At the conference, Page announced his intention to create a “voluntary school safety resource officer program” in accordance with a statute that’s been on the books since 2013. 

Specifically, the N.C. law enables sheriffs to provide to schools “nonsalaried special deputies.” These deputies must have experience as a sworn law enforcement officer or as a military police officer with at least two years of service, and an honorable discharge if no longer in the military. 

They would report to and work under the direction of the sheriff, and although they wouldn’t need to meet the physical standards set forth by the N.C. Sheriffs Education and Training Standards Commission, they would still need a physical and would need to be current on all educational and firearms training required by the Commission.

Along with their firearms, these volunteers would carry the power of arrest while on duty, and would be immune from liability “for any good-faith action taken by them in the performance of their duties with regard to the volunteer school safety resource officer program,” according to N.C. General Statute 162-26.

Sheriff Page said he hadn’t yet worked out who would pay for it all, but costs were expected to be minimal, especially with no forthcoming payroll costs — ammunition for training, uniforms, perhaps body armor. 

“Is this program the total solution? No,” he said, describing it as “a tool in the toolbox” that includes more counselors and psychologists and a full-time, paid school resource officer in every school.

In early March, Asheville Republican Congressman Mark Meadows introduced a supplemental appropriations bill that would give the nation’s 98,000 schools an additional $1.5 billion to hire more SROs. 

But Page’s toolbox probably doesn’t include arming North Carolina public school teachers; an Elon University poll conducted Feb. 28-March 5 asked almost 400 educators, “Should teachers be allowed to carry guns in schools?” 

Their answer — 78 percent of them, anyway — was no. North Carolina Association of Educators President Mark Jewell said Feb. 28 that even the thought was “outrageous,” and State Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson told the Charlotte Observer two days earlier that he opposed forcing on teachers “another massive responsibility.”

“Teachers want to teach, children want to learn,” Page said, calling schools “soft targets” while invoking Stoneman, Sandy Hook and Columbine. “Now, in 2018, we can’t wait for another tragic event and the loss of even one child’s life.”

Page hopes his proposal, which is the first of its kind in N.C., will serve as a “model and template” for the state and the country, if it gains approval from The Rockingham County Board of Education.


Local reaction

The amount of homegrown buy-in Page seems to have underscores the collaborative nature of school safety.

Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher, who is on the North Carolina Sheriffs Association’s Legislative Committee, said the topic will be a central focus at the March 26 NCSA spring conference. He wanted to reserve his comments regarding the creation of a volunteer program in Haywood County until after he’d met with all county law enforcement department heads as well as school administrators to review procedures that are currently in place.

Haywood County Board of Education Member Bobby Rogers — one of nine on the board — confirmed that meetings would soon occur. 

“It is our greatest desire to protect the students, teachers and staff of Haywood County Schools. Efforts are underway to bring administration, the sheriff and the police chiefs together to discuss school safety and options for continual improvement,” he said, adding that every district would have to figure out what’s best for them. 

Like Page, Christopher is likely to see substantial support for the idea during his listening tour. Bryson City Republican Rep. Mike Clampitt is already enthusiastic about the possibility. 

“I would support that continually and wholeheartedly,” said Clampitt, who met with Swain County administrators about school safety a few weeks ago. “I think it would make a grand difference, a school system in North Carolina having access to individuals that could be depended upon.”

Seasoned Haywood County School Board Chairman Chuck Francis is cautious from a practical standpoint, as well as a philosophical standpoint. 

“My initial reaction is that we really need to proceed with caution and be very deliberate in anything that we do — not to kick the can down the road, but to make sure that we’re not going to create another issue in trying to solve the issue,” Francis said March 12.

That same night, Francis’ board approved the fiscal year 2018-19 budget, which includes funding for an additional SRO, bringing the total to five to the total tune of more than $220,000. 

But, that’s five for 15 schools. 

“My own personal view would be to discuss it as a group and as a board. I’ve wrestled with this, and I see both sides of the issue,” Francis said. “By creating a gun-free zone you’ve made an easy target, but I also see the fact that if you have everybody armed that’s not trained properly, you could create a lot of issues with collateral injuries and possibly fatalities.”

Recently appointed school board member David Burnette said he would take the idea as a possible solution “to discuss with other school board members, school administration and law enforcement,” and elected member of the board Ronnie Clark, said that as to school safety, he believes in being proactive in general. 

“As a veteran this sounds like a viable option,” Clark said. “However, the only way I would support this option is if Sheriff Christopher and our other local police chiefs are a hundred percent for this option, for an additional layer of protection for our children.”

The rest of the board did not return emails seeking comment, but Navy veteran and Lake Logan resident Mark Michaux was happy to share his perspective. 

Michaux served as a forward observer on the USS Missouri during the first Gulf War and although he wouldn’t be eligible to participate in the volunteer program since he wasn’t a military policeman, he still thinks it’s a good idea.

“I just can’t see the sense in these schools not being hardened,” said Michaux. “We protect our banks and our politicians, why the heck don’t we protect our kids?”

Michaux said he’d even volunteer if the program is ever implemented and then expanded to include veterans like him.

“My thinking is, being combat personnel who have been shot at, it’s a horrible thought to have to take a life, and if you don’t know what that’s like, it’s harder to make that judgment,” he said. “I want [volunteer SROs] to be someone who has had to face down taking a life.”

Far more than just an armed guard, though, vets in schools bring other benefits serving as yet another positive role model within easy reach of students, according to Michaux.

“It gives kids sense of hope, a sense of safety and a knowledge that someone who’s been through the fire cares about them, and wants them to succeed.”

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