State, local officials looking into safety bill options
Legislative, education and law enforcement leaders gathered on Monday to regroup and discuss the next steps they will take following Gov. Robert Bentley’s veto of a local school safety bill that would have created a security force in participating schools.
On March 5, Bentley vetoed House Bill 116, sponsored by Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow (D-Red Bay), even though the bill passed through both the House and the Senate without any problems.
According to the legislation, former and current school personnel, as well as community volunteers, could have been trained as reserve sheriff’s deputies or police reserves and would have the authority to act as security forces on school campuses. These armed and trained volunteers would be trained through the local police and the sheriff’s offices with local school boards paying the associated costs.
Morrow said on Monday that he strongly felt partisan politics played a role in the governor’s decision to veto the bill.
“On January 22, Gov. Bentley specifically told me he would not veto this bill,” Morrow said, “but something happened between January 22 when he said he would not veto it and March 5 when he vetoed it, and the answer to that is HB 84.”
House Bill 84, known as the Alabama Accountability Act, was set to be signed into law by Bentley last Tuesday afternoon but a Montgomery circuit judge blocked the signing of the bill after the Alabama Education Association filed a lawsuit against the legislation.
Many state Democrats, including Morrow and Sen. Roger Bedford (D-Russellville), spoke out against the legislation and the way the bill was handled by the governor and other members of the Republican party, and Morrow cites the discourse over this bill to have affected the governor’s judgment in passing House Bill 116.
“To me, this is politics at its worst,” Morrow said. “The safety of our children is too important to be used as some political payback.
“If this had been the only problem, the governor could have made an executive amendment,” Morrow added.
“He also could have come to me or to Sen. Bedford and said “Here’s what’s wrong’ or ‘Here’s what needs to be changed’ but instead he just vetoed it.
“To me this is hypocritical considering he is doing all he can to keep Washington out of Montgomery but he thinks Montgomery knows what’s best for Franklin County.”
“I’m disappointed this became a partisan issue rather than a school safety issue,” Bedford said, “but the session is not over. There is still time to resolve this issue and I think the way to do this is a partnership with our education leaders and our law enforcement leaders.”
In explanation of his veto, Bentley said the training needed for the school security force the bill would create was not adequately covered in the bill itself.
Morrow has reintroduced the bill as House Bill 404 and he said he would be talking with local education leaders and law enforcement officers about any changes that could be made following the governor’s suggestions.
Russellville City Schools Superintendent Rex Mayfield said he could see the need for this bill, especially in rural school settings.
“We are in a unique situation in our school system in that we have school resource officers who are able to provide protection for our schools and the students,” Mayfield said.
“If this bill were to pass, however, then we would look at our options, meet with the police chief and work on a safety plan that may or may not include the security force based on the needs we might have.”
Williams said he didn’t see any problems with the bill as it was originally written and he even had several employees already volunteer for the security force.
“We’ve had some employees of the school system who have military or police backgrounds that have said they would be willing to be part of the school security force,” Williams said.
“In our system, it’s a little more necessary. For example, at East Franklin, it would take 20 minutes to get law enforcement out there in an emergency.
“If there were a shooter-type situation, the safety plan would call for the school to go in a hard lockdown, which has the students under the desks with their heads between their knees, and 20 minutes is a long time for them to have to wait like that, scared to death, without any help.”
Franklin County Sheriff Shannon Oliver and Russellville Police Chief Chris Hargett said their only concerns were on the liabilities the bill could pose for their respective departments.
“I think the meetings we have this week will be helpful to discuss the quality of the training the security force would have and where exactly the liabilities would fall,” Oliver said.
“We just need to be on the same page about who has what responsibilities and duties.”
Hargett agreed the liability issue was something that would need to be worked out during meetings between the law enforcement community and education leaders this week.
“Accidents happen. What if there were an accident that involved one of the school employees that was part of this security force that had been trained by our office as a reserve officer?” Hargett asked.
“That places a lot of liability on our office and the training they were given.
“Most of us here have been doing this for 20 or more years, and we know how hard this kind of thing can be. It would be hard for us to have to shoot a child in the event that the child had a gun and it became necessary to do so, and we’ve been properly trained with may years of experience.
“How much harder is it going to be for a teacher to shoot a child – their own student even – if that were necessary?
“We just have several things we need to work out in order for this plan to work properly and in everyone’s best interests.”
Law enforcement and education officials have scheduled a meeting for today to discuss these issues and plan to present their findings to Morrow later in the week.
Morrow said he wants to hear from all law enforcement, members of the education community and other concerned residents on this issue.
He said he has developed an e-mail address at firstname.lastname@example.org and he and Bedford plan to read through as many of those e-mails as they can before the current legislative session is over.