Top stories of 2013: School safety bill passed

The new year started off with city, county and state officials gathering with local school officials to discuss ways to keep Franklin County’s children safe in the wake of the tragic shooting in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012.

State Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow held an informational meeting on Jan. 10 at the Russellville Board of Education to discuss the language in a new bill he planned to propose during the new legislative session that he believed 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.”

In a summary of the bill in its original form, Morrow suggested 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 was 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 would then be presented to the sheriff or police chief in the school’s jurisdiction. If those law enforcement officials decided there were a suitable number of people on the list, they could 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.”

However, when the bill was presented as House Bill 116 during the Jan-March legislative session and approved by both the House and the Senate, it was struck down on March 5 by a veto from Gov. Robert Bentley who stated the training needed for the school security force the bill would create was not adequately covered in the bill itself.

After regrouping and revising the bill, it was re-presented as House Bill 404, but was once again vetoed by Bentley.

This time the House overrode the veto and the bill was signed into law as Act 2013-268 stating current school personnel, as well as community volunteers, can be trained as reserve sheriff’s deputies or police reserves and would have the authority to act as security forces on school campuses in the event that an intruder comes on the school’s campus with the intent to harm students or employees.

The passage of this law paved the way for the Franklin County School System to become the first school system in Alabama to implement the NRA’s School Shield program in June, which would help train qualified volunteers to be part of the special school security force designed to protect the schools in emergency situations.

Franklin County Superintendent Gary Williams said he appreciated the efforts Morrow and Sen. Roger Bedford took to ensure the children in Franklin County had a safer learning environment. “We’re excited to have the chance to participate in a program like this because we want our students to feel safe,” Williams said. “I think this will be a great thing for our school system and I look forward to working to make our schools as safe as they can be.”