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Back to school at one Virginia district: Teachers with guns

A Virginia County School Board voted to approve a plan that will select an undisclosed number of teachers and staff members to carry concealed weapons or store them in safes on school property.
A Virginia County School Board voted to approve a plan that will select an undisclosed number of teachers and staff members to carry concealed weapons or store them in safes on school property. (Gobalstock/iStock)
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A small school district in far southwestern Virginia is set to become the first in the commonwealth to arm teachers in classrooms — a decision that is prompting criticism from the state’s top law enforcement official.

The five-member Lee County School Board voted unanimously last week to approve a plan that will select an undisclosed number of teachers and staff members to carry concealed weapons or store them in safes on school property.

Applicants will undergo background screenings and psychological evaluations, and those who are selected will receive training this summer, school officials said. They said they expect the plan to be implemented by September for the 11 schools in the 3,200-student district.

“People more or less want something done, and this was the best we could do at this time,” said Michael Kidwell, chairman of the Lee County School Board. “This is better than doing nothing.”

Just four of the district’s schools have school security officers, also known as school resource officers. The school system cannot afford to hire more officers for the remaining schools, so arming teachers and other school employees was the “next best thing we could do,” Kidwell said.

Kidwell said school employees would seek circuit court approval to be “conservators of the peace,” a designation the system believes will exempt the employees from state law prohibiting firearms on school campuses.

Michael Kelly, a spokesman for the state’s attorney general, said in an email that state law “clearly prohibits guns in schools” except for a few narrow exceptions.

“We recently found out about this scheme, and we’re looking into it,” Kelly said. “It’s troubling to learn that people are putting so much time and effort into getting around the law and getting more guns into schools when the focus should clearly be on creating a safe, welcoming learning environment.”

Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, said the school district did not consult the state education agency before passing the resolution.

“Lee County did not approach the department for guidance or technical assistance before the local school board took this action,” he said.

Pyle said the state agency was reviewing “all of the relevant statutes” but declined to comment on the resolution’s legality. He said the Virginia Department of Education is not aware of other school systems in the state that have allowed teachers to be armed.

Lee County officials said they think their approach is on solid legal ground and do not expect court challenges.

“The last thing we want to do is spend taxpayer money on legal fees defending something that the board and the administration believe is good for our community,” Brian Austin, the Lee County schools superintendent, said in an interview Tuesday.

The decision to arm staff members has been more than a year in the planning, Austin said. The school district has not experienced school shootings, but recent events, including the February school shooting that left 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., pushed district leaders to implement their plan.

“After Parkland, we just went back to the drawing board and said, ‘How can we get this done now?’ ” Austin said.

More than a dozen states allow school systems to determine whether teachers and staff members can be armed. After the shooting at Stoneman Douglas, calls to arm teachers came from a number of corners, including from the highest office in the land. President Trump tweeted, “Armed Educators (and trusted people who work within a school) love our students and will protect them. . . . Shootings will not happen again — a big & very inexpensive deterrent.”

Although there was an initial push in legislatures to arm school employees — Florida passed a bill that included $67 million to train and arm school staffers, but not teachers — the vast majority of such measures at the state level went nowhere. Of 25 measures introduced in 14 states after the Parkland shooting, only the Florida bill passed.

A spokesman for the Virginia Education Association, which represents Virginia teachers, did not respond to a request for comment on the Lee County school district’s decision. But teachers unions have been opposed to efforts to arm teachers.

“The idea of arming teachers is ill-conceived, preposterous, and dangerous,” the National Education Association’s president, Lily Eskelsen García, said in statement in March. “Arming teachers and other school personnel does nothing to prevent gun violence. In fact, quite the contrary, educators would feel less safe if school personnel were armed.”

Lee County School Board member Rob Hines said that reaction to the decision in the rural county bordering Kentucky and Tennessee has been “very positive.”

“There’s one or two people out in the community that are not for it, and I think it’s probably from an anti-gun standpoint, really,” Hines said. “But people can have concerns about it. We have concerns about it. We just think that, financially, it’s our best option and we have to do something.”

Hines said the board expects at least 50 of the district’s 700 full-time employees to apply for the unpaid position.