By Nick Worth
A school safety bill that would allow a designated school employee to be trained and armed for the purpose of defending a campus has been introduced in the Arizona House of Representatives, but it finds no support among Interstate 40 corridor school superintendents.
The bill is sponsored by Representative David Stevens (R) of Sierra Vista.
“I believe it is inexcusable for teachers, students and school staff to be undefended,” Attorney General Tom Horne said in a press release announcing the bill. “It would be ideal to have an armed police officer in each school, but since budget considerations make that unlikely, the next best solution is to have one person in the school trained to handle firearms, to handle emergency situations and possessing a firearm in a secure location.”
“School administrators are responsible for the safety of children and they should be able to defend their campuses,” Stevens noted in the press release. “This legislation, if signed into law, will be an excellent tool for helping make schools safer.”
The legislation, HB 2656, amends state law allowing the Attorney General’s Office to establish the optional School Safety Designee Program.
Under the program, the Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) would provide firearms training to a school district or charter employee who has been approved and designated by either the district or charter governing authority to defend the campus.
The comprehensive training would include instruction on legal issues, weapons care, mental conditioning for the use of deadly force, safe handling and storage of weapons, marksmanship and other training elements.
The legislation also calls for participating schools to register with the Attorney General’s Office on an annual basis. After a person is designated in each participating school, there is also a provision for more people to be trained and designated.
The proposed amendment to Title 41, Chapter 1, Article 5 of the Arizona Revised Statutes would add Section 41-199, relating to firearms.
The amendment would allow possession of a firearm “by a person who is approved and designated by a school district governing board or the governing body of a charter school, and who has satisfactorily completed the optional school safety designee program,” which is to be established under the amendment.
According to the bill, the Optional School Safety Designee Program is established in, and would be administered by, the Attorney General’s Office.
The bill goes on to state, “The Attorney General, in coordination with the Department of Public Safety, shall provide training to a school district or charter school employee who has been approved and designated by the school district governing board or the governing body of the charter school, to store a firearm on the school campus for the purpose of defending that school campus.”
The Optional School Safety Designee Program has to be at least 24 hours in length, and must cover such topics as legal issues relating to the use of deadly force, mental conditioning for the use of deadly force, safe handling and storage of weapons, marksmanship and judgmental shooting.
Campuses opting into the program must also ensure the firearm is stored in a secure firearm locker and that the designated employee receives annual training.
Winslow School District Superintendent Douglas Watson said he thinks there are better options than arming school employees.
“I don’t like the idea of guns in the school,” Watson said. “I do like the idea of School Resource Officers (SROs), because they add a lot to the school.
“Besides being a law enforcement officer, they also provide an educational resource,” Watson noted. “They teach school law and a lot of law-related education. There’s an entire curriculum that goes with a SRO.”
He noted that there are other advantages to having an experienced police officer on a school campus.
“If you’re going to have somebody there with a gun, I think a better option is a trained policeman,” Watson said. “They’re trained and they receive regular training. I think that’s a far better choice than allowing somebody in the school to have a gun.”
He said the SRO also adds another element to the schools.
“In their lives, young people might see police officers in a negative light,” said Watson. “An SRO is an adult they can interact with and build a positive relationship with, and learn to see the role of a police officer in a positive light.
“I feel very, very strongly that that’s a far better choice,” Watson said. “An SRO can often intervene before a problem occurs and prevent a problem. A teacher or an administrator can only be involved after a problem occurs.”
Watson mentioned another concern over the impending legislation.
“I don’t know what the insurance trust for the schools would think about allowing anybody except a law enforcement officer to have a gun in a school,” he said.
Dr. Robert Klein, superintendent of the Joseph City School District, said there is no simple solution to the potential for school violence.
“The whole issue is pretty complicated in my mind,” said Klein. “I don’t think any one action is going to make us feel safe about sending our kids to school.”
He said the Joseph City School District is reworking its emergency response plan “to incorporate some lessons that have been gleaned from recent occurrences.
“From the standpoint of an educator, I’m not convinced that arming teachers and administrators is a good idea,” said Klein. “It changes the climate of the school.”
Klein said a better option would be to expand the SRO program to provide trained officers who would have some idea of how to face someone who has a weapon.
“That takes someone with specialized training,” Klein noted. “Maybe allowing schools to have non-lethal options like Tasers or Mace available to teachers or principals would be another idea.
“I hope we can come up with a solution that will make everyone feel more secure about sending their children to school,” said Klein.
In an e-mail sent earlier this year, Dr. Robbie Koerperich, superintendent of the Holbrook School District, noted that to put a “fully prepared, armed, trained officer on each of our school campuses would most likely cost over $200,000 per year; a service we are not funded for.
“School safety measures have a range of possibilities from metal detectors to school security officers to security entrances, etc.,” Koerperich wrote. “There may be ways to build in school safety measures, such as the use of security devices (Tasers, disabling devices, etc,) into a comprehensive plan; however, deadly weapons such as guns add a whole new dimension to school safety.”
Koerperich said he supports measures that would provide a safer educational environment, but also called for the need for “assistance from multiple resources such as law enforcement, social services and the general public to help people with their personal and social issues prior to developing into a stage in which violence occurs.
“The goal is to keep guns out of school, not to put them into schools,” he said.
By Nick Worth