County could lead state in safety
School safety has been on the minds of virtually every parent, teacher, school employee and citizen since the tragic school shooting occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December.
In light of those events and the growing number of discussions about local school safety, Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow (D-Red Bay) decided it was time to stop talking and start acting.
Morrow held an informational meeting on Thursday morning at the Russellville Board of Education to discuss the language in a new bill he plans to propose during the upcoming legislative session that he believes would strengthen school safety.
“I grew up in Franklin County,” Morrow said. “I was born in Vina and raised in Phil Campbell, and if you had told me we’d be having a meeting dealing with the subject we’re dealing with, I wouldn’t have believed it.
“But the reality is we don’t need to wait until something happens here for us to get organized and make the schools safer. We need to act now.”
Multiple members of the local law enforcement community as well as representatives from each school and school system attended the meeting to give their input on the prospective bill and ways it could be improved before it’s final draft is complete.
In a summary of the bill in its current form, Morrow suggests that the principal of each school in Alabama should be able to make a determination as to whether or not the security at his or her school is adequate.
If the security is deemed as inadequate, the principal should then be allowed to ask for volunteers from existing school employees to form an “emergency security force” that would be charged with the school’s protection in the event that an intruder comes on the school’s campus with the intent to harm students or employees.
The list of those volunteering for this emergency security force will then be presented to the sheriff or police chief in the school’s jurisdiction.
If those law enforcement officials decide there are a suitable number of people on the list, they can then initiate the emergency security force at the school.
Morrow said the whole point of this bill is to better protect all of Alabama’s schools but especially the ones in rural areas, which characterizes most of Franklin County.
“In rural areas, vulnerability exists because of a limited police force,” he said. “Police response time in most of these places is 20 to 30 minutes. That means if a shooter came onto one of these campuses, the students and teachers there would have to sit and wait for 20 to 30 minutes for law enforcement to get there, and that could be a deadly time frame.”
Morrow said the difference in his prospective bill and similar bills being brought up in other Alabama house districts is that he provides that anyone who is a member of this emergency security force will have to go through proper training to be classified as reserve deputy sheriffs or reserve police officers.
“I want it to be very clear that I’m not proposing we just go into schools and start arming the teachers, administrators and employees,” Morrow said.
“What we would be doing through this bill is arming reserve deputy sheriffs or reserve police officers who happen to also be school personnel.
“They should be adequately trained to handle emergency situations and how to handle a firearm if one is given to them.”
Morrow’s proposed bill also stipulates that after an emergency security force is deemed necessary and initiated, a detailed crisis plan will be put into place that will be drawn up by the sheriff or police chief in that jurisdiction and school personnel.
Russellville City Schools Superintendent Rex Mayfield said that crisis plan would be the crux of the legislations and the place administrators and law enforcement would have to pay the most attention to.
“We would definitely need to work out the issue of teachers being part of the emergency security force because when does a teacher stop being a teacher and become the protector,” Mayfield asked.
“Would they leave their students to take down the perpetrator or stay with them? There are just some details that we need to work on to make sure everyone would be on the same page. If we can work out those details, I think this has a lot of potential to add to the safety of our schools.”
Franklin County Schools Superintendent Gary Williams added that retired community members who were willing to volunteer their time to be part of the emergency security force at a county school should be added to the language.
“If there is someone in the community willing to give of their time to volunteer to be trained and then sit at the school as a protector, I think that would be a good idea as well,” Williams said. “I know of people who would probably be interested in doing that.
“I think this bill is a great idea and I appreciate Johnny Mack’s leadership in proposing it.
“We have several schools out in the county that would truly benefit by having people on campus who could respond to a situation immediately instead of waiting for law enforcement to have to arrive.”
Several in attendance brought up concerns about who would be allowed to carry firearms or Tasers; any weapons on campus being secured; the identity of those on the emergency security forces being protected as much as possible for security reasons; limits on how many people could be on the emergency security force; and how defensive weapons and training would be paid for.
In the proposed legislation, Morrow states that funding would come from the Education Trust Fund Budget and administered by the State Department of Education, even though school funding across the board is already strapped.
“We may not have the money to get all that we need right now, but we can find the money,” Morrow said.
“I don’t think there is anything that’s as important as the safety of our children, so we have to prioritize and find the money somewhere.”
Morrow said even though funding for training and defensive weapons might be costly, it would be nowhere near as much as it would cost to have a full-time school resource officer in every school in Alabama.
“It’s estimated it would take about $50 million to have an armed police officer in every school,” Morrow said. “In my opinion, this proposed bill is the next best option.”
Franklin County Sheriff Shannon Oliver said his only reservation was making sure those who wanted to be part of the emergency security force were well-trained and prepared to handle the job.
“As long as we can find a way to adequately train these school personnel who volunteer for this program, I think it’s a good start at making our schools safer,” Oliver said.
“We’ll have several things we need to work out in order for this to be a viable option, but the ultimate goal is to protect our children and I believe this is a positive step.”
Russellville Police Chief Chris Hargett said even though they don’t have as much of an issue with security in the Russellville schools, the plan is still something that could be useful across the board.
“We are very fortunate in Russellville to have three full-time school resource officers who can assist with any number of emergency situations on our campuses,” Hargett said.
“Even though we have these SROs, I think this plan is a step in the right direction. There will be advantages and disadvantages to every proposed solution to school safety, but this plan seems to have real potential to be beneficial to our schools.”