Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) denounced Wednesday a rural school district’s controversial plan to arm staff members on campus and said the state’s attorney general was investigating the legality of the proposal.
The five-member School Board in Lee County, a small system in Virginia’s far southwest, voted unanimously earlier this month to select an undisclosed number of teachers and staff members to carry concealed weapons or store them in safes on school property.
But Northam said in an interview Wednesday on WTOP radio’s “Ask the Governor” show that school districts shouldn’t be arming teachers.
“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.
The governor said he is awaiting the opinion of Attorney General Mark Herring (D) decision on the matter. Herring’s office said state law “clearly prohibits guns in schools,” with a few narrow exceptions.
If the plan goes through, Lee County would be the first school system in Virginia to arm teachers. Applicants would undergo background screenings and psychological evaluations, and, if chosen, would receive training from the sheriff’s office this summer. School officials said they expect the plan to be implemented by September for the 11 schools in the 3,200-student district.
“Our attorney general is looking at making a ruling on whether this is legal in the commonwealth of Virginia,” Northam said. “I will leave that up to his judgment.”
The governor said in the radio interview that Virginia’s Department of Criminal Justice Services launched a $1.3 million grant that local jurisdictions can seek to hire more school resource officers, who are typically armed, and security officers. He suggested these officers are a better option than arming teachers.
Michael Kidwell, chairman of the Lee County School Board, said he was skeptical that money would stretch far enough to help the more than 130 school districts in Virginia.
Kidwell described Lee County, which is near the Kentucky and Tennessee borders, as a cash-strapped region dependent on the declining coal and tobacco industries. He said that four of the 11 schools in the county have armed officers on campus and that the jurisdiction can’t afford officers for the rest. Arming teachers and staff members, he said, is a cheaper option.
School employees, according to Kidwell, 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.
The county voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in 2016 — and against Northam in 2017 — but Kidwell said this is about protecting residents, not politics.
“This is the route we’ve taken because, frankly, it’s all we can afford at this point,” Kidwell said. “We are doing what we have to do to protect our students and our staff.”
Lee County’s decision to arm staff members has been more than a year in the planning, Brian Austin, the county’s schools superintendent, said recently. 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.
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 President Trump.
Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.