School superintendents in Bulloch and Evans counties say they prefer to rely on law enforcement response instead of arming teachers or other school employees. But now that state law allows it, school officials in Effingham County might take a look.
Part of a broad new Georgia law that took effect Tuesday loosening restrictions on where guns may be carried, the school provision lets districts authorize specific school personnel who hold gun carry licenses and receive training to carry guns at school, during school functions or on school buses. Each district that adopts this practice must have a policy on training and the types of guns allowed.
“I think there are a lot of questions to be answered before a lot of school systems, including us, are going to be comfortable stepping forward and doing that,” Bulloch County Schools Superintendent Charles Wilson said.
The three area superintendents reached for interviews during the July Fourth holiday week agreed on this point: arming school personnel would have to be addressed carefully, if at all.
Wilson discussed the question in the context of the school system’s cooperation with law enforcement agencies and existing plans to deal with a crisis such as an armed intruder at a school.
After the December 2012 mass shooting that left 20 children and six adults dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, Wilson and Bulloch County Public Safety Director Ted Wynn reviewed Bulloch County Schools’ safety procedures. They agreed that a good plan was in place. The specific procedures are not made public.
In 2013, the Bulloch County Emergency Management Agency and Georgia Emergency Management Agency hosted a table-top exercise on school safety for principals and other school and central office administrators.
One of the 15 Bulloch County public schools has a law enforcement officer on campus each day. The school resource officer at Statesboro High School is a Statesboro Police Department officer, armed and assigned to the school full-time during school hours.
“We’re very fortunate to have that relationship, you know,” Wilson said. “That’s in their scope of business, their scope of responsibility.”
Past school system administrations talked about working with the Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office for resource officers elsewhere in the county, but there is no agreement in place.
“We’re very fortunate, though, to have both Brooklet P.D. and the sheriff’s department nearby, down there at Southeast Bulloch High School,” Wilson said. “We have the Portal Police Department right there. So again, those relationships and the response time are something we’re comfortable with.”
At this point, he and the Board of Education have no plans to arm any teachers or administrators. But Wilson added that he didn’t mean the idea couldn’t be subject to further consideration.
“At the same time, there are a lot of other things that we have to focus on, and when you have the relationship that we have with law enforcement in this community, you have to look at what’s the best solution, and my opinion at this point is, the best solution is cooperation with our law enforcement in trained, professional agencies,” Wilson said.
Dr. Joy Collins, the superintendent of Evans County Schools, sounded a similar note. She and the Evans County Board of Education have not discussed a policy for arming school personnel. Their school system is very compact, with about 1,850 students on three campuses, all in the city limits of Claxton.
“I think it is probably a law for a school system that doesn’t have a law enforcement agency that can be there within two minutes,” Collins said. “And you can get all the training in the world with a gun, but dealing with other people who have guns is a different story.”
Dealing with someone who is armed and under the influence of drugs or mentally unbalanced, she observed, is part of the training police officers and sheriffs’ deputies receive. She thinks it would be difficult to provide sufficient training for school personnel.
None of the Evans County Schools has a resource officer, but the law enforcement agencies frequently patrol the schools, Collins said. She has talked to Claxton Police Chief Edward Oglesbee about getting officers into the schools more often next school year.
Claxton High School is half a mile from the Claxton Police Department and the Evans County Sheriff’s Department. The elementary and middle school are about one mile from both agencies, and according to Collins, a two-minute response time has been proven repeatedly.
With 11,500 students, more than Bulloch’s 10,000, the Effingham County Schools present a different situation than Evans County’s close response. Effingham has 14 campuses, counting its career academy, in a sprawling county.
“I just think we have to be cautious in the way we address this,” Effingham County Schools Superintendent Dr. Randy Shearouse said. “At some schools, there could be personnel that would assist and be helpful. At some schools, it may be more difficult to find the right person to be armed.”
The Effingham County Board of Education already pays for a full-time police presence in its three middle schools and two high schools. Each of these five schools has a resource officer, funded by the board but provided by the Effingham County Sheriff’s Office. These deputies are armed, Shearouse said.
But members of the school board expressed interest in the legislation allowing armed school personnel, discussing it briefly with Shearouse when it was introduced, he said.
Some educators, he notes, have military or law enforcement experience.
“In some cases, it could be the right fit, where in other cases you may not have someone that feels comfortable having a weapon, and it always concerns me if you have a weapon in a school. What if it fell into the wrong hands, you know?” Shearouse said. “There are concerns you have to think about, the training, the responsibility.”
The school provision of House Bill 60 states that the gun must be kept on the person authorized to carry it and not left anywhere it could be easily accessible to students. Except for resource officers, no school employee can be required to carry a gun, and school districts are not required to introduce the practice.
“Such decision shall rest with each individual local board of education,” the law states.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.