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Morrow airs frustrations in letter to governor

Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow (D-Red Bay) held a press conference Thursday morning at the State House to publicly ask Gov. Robert Bentley why he has not personally responded to Morrow’s earlier request for a new plan regarding school safety.
Morrow read a letter stating his frustration with the governor for not responding to a previous letter written by Morrow on April 2 asking for the governor’s input on ways to improve school safety in the state’s schools, especially in rural areas like Franklin County.
The letter was in response to Bentley’s veto on March 5 of House Bill 116, known as the Volunteer Security Force Bill, which was drafted by Morrow with the support of school and law enforcement officials in the area.
“I worked diligently with local law enforcement and school officials to draft legislation that would create a school security plan for rural areas that do not have the funding for school resource officers,” Morrow stated in the letter.
“You vetoed this legislation and have failed to offer an alternative school security proposal plan or explain to the citizens of Franklin County how you plan to protect their children.
“One again, I am now forced on behalf of my sheriff, school superintendents, grandparents, parents and the citizens of Franklin County to ask, what is your plan for our children?”
The original bill called for the implementation of a volunteer school security force comprised of former and current school personnel, as well as community volunteers, who would 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.
The bill had passed through both the House and the Senate before being vetoed by Bentley and failing to receive enough votes in the House to override the veto.
Bentley vetoed the bill saying the training needed for such a force was not adequately covered in the bill.
The governor’s office said, contrary to the contents of the letter, they have in fact communicated with Morrow and let him know Bentley would not be opposed to local school safety bills as long as the bills met certain standards.
“Gov. Bentley has made it clear that he would not be opposed to a local bill if the security force members are APOSTC certified, if they’re properly trained to combat active shooters and if the liability rests with the county,” said Jeremy King, director of communications for the governor’s office. “Those three requirements should be in any legislation establishing this type of security force.”
APOSTC stands for Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission, which provides a good standard of training for armed law enforcement, King said.
“We all believe in protecting our children,” King continued. “The issue here is that we need to make sure that those who are protecting our children have the proper training. The bill did not specify the training requirements for the people who would be given such a tremendous responsibility.
“Gov. Bentley wants well-trained people to be the ones who protect the students of Franklin County. If they’re not properly trained, that could cause more harm than having no one at all. The best people to take care of our students are properly-trained law enforcement.”
Morrow countered that there is already a contingency of well-trained volunteers in Franklin County who are ready to serve in a school security force, one of which being former Franklin County Sheriff Larry Plott who issued a letter of support on Thursday.
“I am willing to volunteer my time for the safety of our children. I have also spoken to many current and retired police officers that have also confirmed their willingness to volunteer their time to the schools,” Plott stated.
“With the veto of HB116, Gov. Bentley took away the power of protection for our children and school staff. I want to do whatever it takes to feel comfortable sending my grandchild and other kids in my community to school.”
Morrow said Plott’s willingness and the willingness of others to serve the schools should be a good indication the people of Franklin County want some sort of action.
“We have many qualified people who want to serve but by vetoing this local bill, the governor took away the opportunity for these people to have that chance,” Morrow said.
King expressed that the governor’s office still maintained their position about the necessary training, even if there were retired officers willing to serve.
“We trust the local sheriff and local police chiefs to choose people who are adequate for this school security force, but there still needs to be a basic level of training in place,” King said.
King also made the point that not all law enforcement officers have special training to deal with active shooters but he said Bentley is continuing his efforts to increase the amount of officers who are specially trained in that area, which is part of his plan for increased security in several areas including education.
“We are working with the Alabama Department of Homeland Security to make sure that training is available and that more local officers are receiving that training,” King said.
“Under Gov. Bentley’s leadership, the amount of officers who have that training has risen from less than 30 percent to roughly 45 percent in just a couple months’ time. We want to see every officer receive that training, and we’re working to make that training available to more officers. By increasing this training, we will be able to make our entire communities safer.”
These efforts are funneled through the newly created Active Shooter Strategic Response Plan, which was compiled by Secretary of Law Enforcement and Alabama Department of Homeland Security Director Spencer Collier at the request of Bentley.
While the plan is geared toward law enforcement in general, it includes an education component that King said could be beneficial in the re-wording of Morrow’s school security bill to address the governor’s concerns.
The governor’s plan calls for utilizing the Virtual Alabama System, which provides schools and first responders instant access to school safety plans, virtual maps and crucial information such as evacuation routes, disaster staging areas, surveillance video feeds and more.
On April 16, a revised version of the bill, HB404, passed the House with slight changes in language, putting all members of a security force under jurisdiction of the sheriff’s office and removing language pertaining to local chiefs of police.
Local officials said the bill was really more necessary in the county school system where Franklin County schools Superintendent Gary Williams has said that some county schools would have to wait for as long as 30 minutes before police arrived in the event of an emergency.
The Russellville City Schools system now has a resource officer in all four schools.
The bill will now be put before the Senate before going before the governor for a second time.