DRYDEN, Va. — Signs posted to entryways at Dryden Elementary School, a squat brick building in this far-flung, southwest corner of the state, warn in large letters, “No firearms allowed on premises.” In this stretch of Appalachia, hunting is ritual and it’s not uncommon for homeowners to carry guns to ward off coyotes from sprawling farms.
The county (population 23,750) flirts with the Tennessee and Kentucky borders. Homes are tucked amid cow pastures and tree thickets. But not even this remote corner of Virginia, where coal once reigned as king, is immune from the safety fears inflamed by the February shooting rampage at a school in Parkland, Fla.
The district’s best option, school leaders decided, was to form a volunteer cadre of armed teachers and other employees. It was the most feasible school security option, they figured, for a community pinched by lean school budgets.
Teachers and staff members are permitted to carry guns in at least 10 states with administrators’ permission, but the rural school system in Lee County would become the first in Virginia to allow it.
Virginia’s top law enforcement officer, gun control advocates and the state’s largest teachers union have denounced the county’s effort as unlawful and say it would imperil children.
But many in Lee County have stood behind it. Audience members burst into applause after the school board approved the plan at a summer meeting. At Dryden’s open house in July, Jackie Lawson said she wants to believe she’s raising her children in a “Mayberry-type town.” But she’s wary of the harm people can commit.
“We have to trust our teachers to teach our children,” Lawson said, her 7- and 5-year-old sons nearby. “Might as well trust them to protect them, too.”
In the months after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Florida, lawmakers and officials across the country explored what it means to make schools safer — in the shadow of President Trump’s call to arm teachers.
In Virginia, lawmakers are expected to propose legislation dedicated to securing schools. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) directed state officials, educators and security experts to develop school safety recommendations. In Fairfax County, school leaders set aside $4 million to replace locks and hire more counselors and psychologists.
Lee County Superintendent Brian Austin said the 3,260-student school system can’t afford security upgrades available to more well-heeled communities. School leaders, he said, never intended to provoke political debate or tussle over gun control issues.
“We’re not trying to thumb our nose at Richmond,” he said, sitting at a conference room table at Dryden. “We’re not trying to thumb our nose at anybody.”
Shooting threats were scrawled on bathroom walls at a Lee County middle school several times during the last school year. Half the students at one high school didn’t show up for classes after another threat circulated on social media, said school board chair Mike Kidwell.
After the Parkland shooting, residents filed into community buildings for meetings about bolstering school safety. School leaders, Kidwell said, were confronted with a question: “What’s the plan?”
Measures such as installing metal detectors would prove too complex or expensive, reasoned school officials, who had already spent months developing a plan to arm teachers.
So, the five-member school board decided unanimously in July that school employees would seek circuit court approval to become armed special conservators of the peace. The process would require drug and background screenings, a psychological evaluation and training with local law enforcement.
It’s an alternative, school officials say, to hiring more school resource officers — armed law enforcement officials who work in schools. Two of the system’s four school resource officers are paid with money from grants that aren’t guaranteed each year, and seven schools have no resource officers, Austin said.
The identities of armed employees would remain hidden from even school board members. The superintendent said he envisions the armed school employees will resemble air marshals who covertly fly on airplanes.
“It is a security force,” Austin said. “If you can’t follow directions and can’t follow chain of command, you will not survive this process.”
The state Department of Criminal Justice Services, which must register special conservators of the peace, has received at least one application from a Lee County employee. Agency director Shannon Dion asked Attorney General Mark Herring to weigh in.
Herring offered an advisory opinion that Lee County’s plan is unlawful.
“Virginia law expressly limits who may possess firearms on school grounds for safety purposes, and the General Assembly declined to enact bills presented every year from 2013 through 2017 to extend this authority to school teachers and administrators,” Herring wrote.
Herring said lawmakers have established that school resource officers and certain school security officers may carry firearms on campuses.
Localities may apply for state grants to help pay for those positions. In July, Northam set aside an additional $1.3 million in grants for school resource officers.
Lee County officials said they are consulting with attorneys, but haven’t indicated an intention to halt their plans, although the system still needs the approval of the Department of Criminal Justice Services.
In 2013, Virginia lawmakers considered legislation to require at least one person — a school employee or volunteer — to carry a firearm on school grounds. William Pelfrey Jr., chair of the homeland security and emergency preparedness program at Virginia Commonwealth University, reviewed the proposal and found significant dangers, including the potential for an accidental shooting or escalating a “non-critical” encounter into a deadly situation.
“Schools are just not good places for people to be shooting guns because of the high risk of collateral damage,” Pelfrey said.
Jack Dearry, a father of 7- and 8-year-old boys at Dryden, is ambivalent about arming teachers at his sons’ school.
“It should be like it was back in the day, when I went to school. If you had a problem with somebody, just fight it out and get over it,” the 43-year-old dressed in camouflage said. “Times have changed so much now, as far as society and the way we deal with children.”
“If it helps, it helps,” he said. “If it doesn’t, it’ll cause a problem just like anything else.”
The 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech — 32 people were killed, the nation’s deadliest mass shooting at the time — shattered the state’s sense of innocence when it came to campus security.
In its wake, the state ordered public colleges and universities to conduct threat assessments to evaluate students’ potential harm to themselves or others. And in 2013, Virginia became the first state to require threat assessments in all public K-12 schools, an attempt to prevent violence by monitoring bullying and other provocative behavior.
At the same time, metal detectors, locks and school resource officers proliferated, especially after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that left 26 people dead, said Robyn McDougle, director of the Center for Public Policy at VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.
A VCU poll found more than 80 percent of residents believe mental health services are crucial to keeping schools safe. But mental health centers and services at colleges, universities and K-12 schools are chronically underfunded, said Dewey Cornell, a University of Virginia education professor.
“We are not doing enough to identify and assist individuals who have serious mental health and educational support needs, including those who are at risk for violence,” Cornell said in an email, stressing that school shootings are rare. “School security has become a billion-dollar business that is profiting from fear.”
The lawmakers on the House Select Committee on School Safety who are working on a safety package are considering enhancements that include more surveillance cameras, technology to monitor social media for threats and replacing windows with masonry to make it less likely a shooter could pierce a school, said Del. Daniel W. Marshall III (R-Danville), vice chair of the committee.
Three Democratic lawmakers have urged the committee to look beyond school shooting scenarios and to consider daily safety issues such as bullying and discrimination. Dels. Schuyler T. VanValkenburg (Henrico), Michael P. Mullin (Newport News) and Jeffrey M. Bourne (Richmond) have called for more mental health counseling, consistent training for resource officers and stricter gun control.
“We fall into the trap of thinking about school safety too narrowly,” said VanValkenburg, a high school civics teacher. “If you want to properly make schools safer, you have to take a holistic approach.”
Public safety secretary Brian J. Moran, who is co-chair of a school safety group appointed by Northam, said suicide and other forms of self-harm must be part of discussions. “The mental health aspects of this issue around student safety is one that continues to be mentioned by those in our schools,” he said.
Water often gushes into Dryden Elementary during heavy rains, forcing school employees to reroute students from hallways and classrooms. Dryden is still heated by coal-fired boilers, just like the system’s other schools.
Costly roof and other building repairs are long overdue — until recently, the school system lacked a plan to schedule building renovations and construction. Outside consultants have recommended at least $110 million in renovations or construction across the system.
Any spare money, school district officials said, would go toward fixing dire school building needs — not adding resource officers or other security improvements. Arming teachers and other school employees, Austin said, was the most viable school safety upgrade.
The superintendent said critics don’t understand his rural community.
“They’re approaching it from their framework, their perspective, their experience,” Austin said. “Everybody’s got different experiences.”