School Climate & Safety

Sorry, Arkansas Schools, You Can’t Just Load Up on Guns

By Ross Brenneman — August 02, 2013 3 min read
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The Associated Press reported Tuesday on a safety program in Clarksville, Ark., where the district plans to arm over 20 teachers and staff members throughout its public schools, because of a state law that allows schools to hire armed security guards. So, the district reasoned, it could thoroughly train teachers to double as armed guards. Problem solved!

Except that on Thursday, state Attorney General Dustin McDaniel issued an objection in response to questions by state Rep. Henry Wilkins IV. McDaniel stated that the law allows only the hiring of private contractors. But a school district, McDaniel writes, is a “profoundly public, rather than private, entity.” Teachers are therefore clearly public employees, and thus ineligible to be armed.

“Simply put, the code in my opinion does not authorize either licensing a school district as a guard company or classifying it as a private business authorized to employ its own teachers as armed guards,” McDaniel said in his memo.

McDaniel’s opinion does not bind the district, or any other district in Arkansas. Instead, the binding is done by Title 5 of the Arkansas code, which expressly prohibits firearms in a public or private school, on a school bus, or even at a school bus stop.

This interpretation also suggests, as the attorney general subtly implies, that schools may be on the hook for either breaking the law, or for any future lawsuits regarding negligence. And nothing dampens an initiative like the phrase “full liability.”

School districts have been exploring their safety options since the December 2012 massacre of 20 children and six employees at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Conn. Many areas have considered armed teachers, but have not actually made that leap. Only Kansas, South Dakota, and Tennessee have since implemented state laws allowing for armed staff.

But even those states have met kinks in the process. In Kansas, EMC Insurance Company responded to the law’s passage by threatening to withdraw insurance for any district that gave teachers guns.

In Newcomerstown, Ohio, meanwhile, the board of education had not consulted with an insurance company yet when they authorized armed staff in early July, although initial reports suggested the insurance company wasn’t opposed.

For Arkansas, Title 5 does not apply to police officers, and McDaniel said it does not preclude the hiring of school resource officers, a more popular approach to school safety.

Opponents of SROs, however, claim that a police presence on campus contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline. In a conference on juvenile justice held Tuesday in Washington, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) argued against SROs as well, saying that when Bridgeport, Conn., moved officers from inside its schools to the outside, incidents requiring discipline plunged.

“They’re just a few steps away if there’s a problem that needs to be taken care of, but they are not the day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute enforcers of school discipline policy any longer,” he said. “And guess what? The hallways of the schools in Bridgeport aren’t any less safe and less kids are going to jail.”

It’s understandable that districts worried about safety would want to offer every possible protection for their children. But increasing the number of people who can carry guns in schools seems so far to be a logistical gauntlet.

UPDATE (August 5, 3:19 p.m.):

Clarksville Superintendent David Hopkins told the Associated Press Friday that he disapproved of the attorney general’s position, noting that the school district didn’t have the money for private guards.

Despite his disagreement, Hopkins said that the district would indeed abide by McDaniel’s ruling and find an alternate option:

'What I find most unfortunate about it is that ... those with power get to go back to their offices that are protected by armed guards, and we that are trying to take care of our kids, we get to go back to the failed policy of lock the door and hide and hope for the best,' Hopkins said."

Image: Sen. Chris Murphy presides at a Washington conference on juvenile justice Tuesday, at which he denounced the presence of school resource officers inside schools.—Ross Brenneman

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.