The issue of having more guns in school, whether they’re in the hands of police, security guards, or teachers, has definitely not gone cold in statehouses across the country. But the issue can quickly become tangled in issues that range beyond philosophical or political arguments about the best way to improve school security after the shootings in Newtown, Conn., last December.
One good example of this is in South Carolina, where Rep. Bakari Sellers, a Democrat, has filed a bill requiring armed police in every public school in the state. The bill specifically names “school resource officers” (by definition armed police) as the requirement for schools in the Palmetto State. (Interestingly, the bill originally read that every municipality or county “may” request officers for every school, but the “may” was changed to a “shall.”)
The other significant part of the bill is that if a principal learns from a teacher or other school employee that the school’s designated SRO is absent from the school during regular hours, the principal has to notify the law enforcement agency providing the SRO of the officer’s absence. The law enforcement agency, in turn, has to dispatch another police officer to school to cover for the missing SRO, until the original SRO returns. The bill doesn’t specify whether the replacement has to be an SRO or just any officer. Theoretically, this could prevent situations like the one that occurred at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, in which the school’s designated SRO was returning from a lunch trip to Subway when the school shootings there started.
During a South Carolina House committee hearing on the bill Wednesday, Sellers put his motivation for introducing the proposal in perhaps the simplest possible terms, as reported by The State: “We have to do something before something bad happens.”
What’s absent from the bill? The money for each law enforcement agency to put an SRO in every school. The South Carolina Sheriffs’ Association estimated that actually putting an SRO in every school would cost $80 million every year. Moreover, during testimony before the House, Kershaw Sheriff Jim Matthews told lawmakers that the prospect of losing officers to duty at schools would greatly hamper his department: “If I had to take nine of my officers and put them in schools, it would be devastating to the rest of the law enforcement efforts in this county.”
There’s a state Senate bill calling for the same thing. That version of the bill has a different cost estimate of the plan, only $30 million to $40 million, and although the Senate version would require the state to foot the bill, it doesn’t specify exactly how. There are over 1,300 schools in South Carolina, and a survey by the South Carolina education department of districts responsible for a big majority of those schools now use about 478 school resource officers, The State reported.
Local control is also an issue in the debate. In a statement, Jay Ragley, a spokesman for the South Carolina department, said on behalf of state Superintendent Mick Zais: “He supports the use of school resource officers, but believes local school districts should make the decision whether or not to employ them. Dr. Zais has also said he would support legislation to permit school districts to arm a few well-trained staff if that was a security measure a school district chose to implement.”
On a related note, an Oklahoma House legislative panel earlier this month approved a proposal I wrote about from state Rep. Mark McCullough, a Republican, to allow teachers to bring guns to school after training in a “special school resource officer course.” In the video at The Oklahoman, McCullough said of his House Bill 1062, “There is nothing there protecting our children now, in the overwhelming number of cases...in balancing those risks, I find this idea the better solution than leaving nothing in place.” The original bill required six weeks of the SRO training course, but the revised bill now requires only three weeks. McCullough proposes to reimburse school boards $500,00 for the cost of training about 250 teachers and administrators.
Who opposes this idea in Oklahoma, according to the newspaper? Teachers.
Training Teachers to Use Guns
For a look at what’s actually going on in districts that are interested in training teachers to carry firearms, check out my colleague Nirvi Shah’s Feb. 15 story.
A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.