Virginia’s attorney general has advised that a far southwest school system’s effort to arm teachers and other school employees is illegal.
The Lee County School Board unanimously approved a plan last month that would permit teachers and staff members to become “special conservators of the peace,” a designation school officials had deemed to permit employees to legally carry firearms in schools.
Attorney General Mark Herring said in an opinion Tuesday to the Department of Criminal Justice Services that authorizing special conservators of the peace to carry guns in public schools would violate state law.
“Our kids deserve a safe, secure learning environment when they come to school, and adding guns and armed, unqualified personnel to our classrooms is incompatible with that goal,” Herring said in a statement. “The introduction of unqualified personnel with guns raises the likelihood of a tragic accident, or potentially catastrophic confusion during an emergency.”
It is unclear how Herring’s opinion may affect Lee County’s plans to arm teachers and school employees. Superintendent Brian Austin said the school system is consulting with its attorneys before pursuing further action.
Applicants seeking to become a special conservator of the peace must register with the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.
Shannon Dion, director of the Department of Criminal Justice Services, said in an email that the agency received an application from a Lee County school employee seeking the designation. The application materials indicated at least 13 more employees would do the same, said Dion, who requested Herring’s opinion on the matter.
“We are reviewing the attorney general’s opinion and will consult with his office to determine next steps,” Dion said.
In his opinion, Herring differentiated between “conservators of the peace,” such as judges and other state or federal employees, and “special conservators of the peace,” who must be appointed by a circuit court.
Conservators of the peace, he wrote, may carry firearms in schools, but those permissions do not extend to special conservators of the peace.
Herring said school districts have other ways to secure schools with armed personnel. School resource officers, or armed law enforcement officers, and some school security officers are permitted to carry firearms, he noted.
Bills that would have permitted school boards to authorize training school employees to carry handguns on school property have languished, he added.
“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.
School officials in rural Lee County, which borders Kentucky and Tennessee, said discussions about arming teachers and other school employees began more than a year ago.
But recent events, including the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., pushed school-system officials to implement the plan. The school system expected to put the plan into effect by September.
Just four of Lee County’s 11 schools have school resource officers; school officials said they can’t afford more. Arming employees who volunteer, they said, was the school system’s best alternative.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) also denounced Lee County’s plan during a July interview on WTOP radio’s “Ask the Governor” show.
“As a professor of neurology at Eastern Virginia Medical School — and, as I said, my wife is a teacher and I talk to a lot of other educators across the commonwealth of Virginia — I just don’t think it’s a good path to take, to say that we’re going to arm teachers; that’s my opinion,” Northam said.