February 28, 2018 10:17:36 AM
A controversial Mississippi House bill that would allow conceal carry permit holders to take firearms on public property now comes with an amendment that may allow teachers and other school employees to be armed in the classrooms.
House Bill 1083's amendment, known as the Mississippi School Safety Act, passed the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday. The amendment would allow school boards to work with law enforcement and school administration to establish a school safety program wherein designated school employees carry concealed weapons for school safety.
The amendment -- which would apply to public and private schools, community colleges and four-year universities -- lists several requirements including that employees must have at least 12 hours training approved by the Department of Public Safety in how to handle firearms and that the school must document the members of the safety program as they are designated.
District 17 Sen. Chuck Younger said he's "OK" with the committee addition to HB 1083, but he expressed some reservations.
"I'd feel better if our schools would hire more security," he said. "I would feel more comfortable if they would hire retired veterans or retired police officers who are well-trained to handle firearms -- especially if it's a big school. If it's a small school, like a private school and they can't afford a security guard or more security, I'd be more in favor of it."
Younger added he believes teachers, if they're armed, should have to go through extensive training because they spend so much time around children.
Still, he iterated that he'd prefer toughened security, such as metal detectors at the schools.
"When I went to the MSU girls' basketball game at (Humphrey Coliseum) a few weeks ago, they had metal detectors and that wand to check you out at the entrance," he said. "We're going to have to up the security at the schools for our kids. It might take more time. We might have to get them to school earlier to do it. But we have too many fruitcakes in the world now. It's gone crazy."
District 16 Sen. Angela Turner-Ford said she thinks the amendment was "well-intentioned," but she stopped short of saying she supported it.
"I'm going to use the time I have available to reflect on it more," she said. "I'm not sure I like the idea of teachers being armed."
Turner-Ford said she understands the concern for school safety, especially after a school shooting in Parkland, Florida left 17 people dead. However, she questioned if arming teachers was the best way to improve security.
"Perhaps investing more to allow trained law enforcement officers or school resource officers," she said, "someone who's designated to provide safety -- I think that would be helpful, as opposed to putting teachers in the position of being armed and in close contact with students."
The original HB 1083 easily passed the House earlier this month on an 81-29 vote before the House amended the bill to exclude concealed carry at sporting events. Now that the Senate committee has added the school safety amendment, it will go before the full Senate for a vote before returning to the House.
CMSD 'very cautious' about bill
Columbus Municipal School District Interim Superintendent Craig Shannon said he was familiar with the bill and the amendment to allow arming teachers, though he hadn't read it in its entirety.
"I'll be honest," he said. "I'm very cautious about that."
While he said he didn't necessarily oppose it outright, he wants to make sure any school employee authorized to carry a weapon has plenty of training and is ready and willing to defend a campus rather than just their classroom.
"The worst thing that could happen would be an innocent bystander become a victim (of) someone who wasn't trained to handle that situation," Shannon said.
He said the district currently has five armed school resource officers who are certified police officers and the Columbus Police Department began working with the district this week to add more security.
Shannon said the district also released a letter to parents reminding them to talk with their children about being careful what they say or post to social media, recommending parents check backpacks and cars for weapons and reminded them of visitation procedures, especially after a student was arrested for having a handgun in at Columbus Middle School on Feb. 14.
Shannon also said the district periodically reviews safety procedures and lockdown drills.
Those procedures are set to be discussed at the district's next board meeting March 8, board president Jason Spears said. Spears said he didn't know much about the HB 1083's amendment, but surmised it would probably come up in the board's discussions. He did not offer support one way or the other, but said the board might consult with the Mississippi School Board Association to see how other districts in the state respond to the bill.
"I think it would just need to be a board discussion so that we could understand all the details," he said.
"We as a board are just being as diligent as possible, not only to ensure we have the policies in place, but also the plans to ensure the safety of all the students and staff on our campuses," he added.
LCSD superintendent: 'I think it would be positive'
Lowndes County School District Superintendent Lynn Wright said he supported the idea of certain school employees concealing weapons on campus.
"I think it would be a positive," he said. "Anything we can do to help ensure the safety of our kids."
He said many district employees already have conceal carry permits or are former members of the military and already have some of the training they would need to handle weapons. He added right now there are teachers and children all across the country who would be defenseless in the case of an armed intruder.
"(School shooters) get soft targets," Wright said. "If they know it's a gun-free zone, that's what they're looking for. ... When faced with a weapon themselves, that (can) stop it."
He said there is currently an armed Lowndes County sheriff's deputy at each LCSD campus, as well as security guards. Security also temporarily increased Monday after a threat against New Hope schools circulated Facebook.
Wright said the possibility of arming teachers had come up before in school board meetings and also came up in a meeting with deputies after the school shooting in Parkland.
"Everybody can't be armed," he said. "But those who have passed rigid background checks and are armed ... I think we could greatly enhance the security of our buildings or could greatly enhance the security of our schools."
SOCSD superintendent 'not in favor' in arming teachers
Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District Superintendent Eddie Peasant said he's opposed to the idea of arming teachers. He said he was recently part of discussions with school and local security and emergency response officials about improving school safety.
"In all of the discussions that we had regarding how we would improve and increase our security, teachers carrying weapons was not suggested or an option that any of us considered," he said. "I'm not in favor, and I believe our teachers would not be interested."
Peasant said he wasn't sure that teachers having weapons would actually help make schools safer, and he said it might put more liability on school districts and teachers. For the moment, he said, SOCSD is focused on other avenues, including metal detectors, to make schools more secure.
"My goal right now is to work to increase the number of security and resource officers we have in our buildings," Peasant said. "We have had some discussion with a metal detector company to look into going that route in some of our schools.
"A lot of this decision would be determined by our community, which would be communicated through our school board," he added. "I don't think this is something parents in our community want to do--send their kids to a school where teachers have to carry weapons."
Discussions by private school boards
Heritage Academy headmaster Greg Carlyle said he doesn't know much about the amendment and is uncomfortable commenting on it before he's looked at it more carefully.
"Enhancing school safety is always our top priority," he said. "Now how that's done, we want to be very intentional (about ensuring safety)."
He added the possibility of arming school employees is something the board would need to take up.
"We have had discussions about what our next steps are, and I'm sure the amendment will be something we (discuss)," he said.
Columbus Christian Academy administrator Jay Watts declined to comment, other than to say the school's board would have to discuss the amendment.
The Dispatch reached out to Starkville Academy headmaster Jeremy Nicholas, but he did not return calls for comment by press time.
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