With an appeal to be heard next month, the superintendents of two Arkansas school districts are defending programs to arm teachers and staff.
Wednesday a legislative panel heard arguments about whether having guns on campus is the best way to protect students.
Lake Hamilton Superintendent Steve Anderson told members of the Joint Judiciary Committee that in addition to two full-time armed security officers, his district has had several staff members, including himself, who have quick access to firearms if the need arises.
“We are not law enforcement officers and we realize that. We’re not a SWAT team, we’re not Navy Seals, we’re not John Wayne or Rambo, but we’re a long way from Barney Fife," Anderson said, referencing Hollywood characters associated with guns.
He argued it’s the unfortunate reality after a string of school shootings nationwide.
“I’ve heard critics that have made the contention that at your public schools, you shouldn’t have guns there. I totally agree, we shouldn’t. But the times that we live in have required that we do things a lot differently.”
Anderson said the program has been in place for 20 years in Lake Hamilton schools and they’ve never had any problems. None of those involved are teachers, but school staff, trained to respond if someone comes into a school with a weapon.
“While others are taking care of their children, whether they’re in a lock-down situation or they’re evacuating the building, they’re going to take care of their kids. But there’s a few of us that, instead of running away from the threat, will run toward it. I just feel like we need the tools required to protect our kids, to protect our staff and to protect ourselves.”
But after a recent opinion from Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, a state panel suspended licenses issued under a little-known law that allowed school staff to be licensed private security guards.
Clarksville Superintendent David Hopkins told lawmakers he disagreed with that.
“If someone is coming in to hurt my kids, I want to do something rather than ball up and get in a fetal position in a corner. I want to fight. I want to fight for my kids. And if that means me being a little bit uncomfortable by having to carry a gun from day to day, I’ll accept that,” Hopkins said.
His district has trained and equipped 22 teachers and staff members in using firearms.
But Brenda Robinson, president of the Arkansas Education Association, argued against having teachers with guns in the classroom, though she acknowledged from her own experiences that there are vulnerabilities.
“I taught in middle school last year and we have three little slots and I always said, ‘well someone can always take us out in the C building because we’re right there by ourselves.’ Anything can happen any day at any given moment, and I know we have to be there to protect our children, but arming educators I don’t think is the best plan.”
On Sept. 11 the Arkansas Board of Private Investigators and Private Security Agencies will hear an appeal of its decision involving 13 districts.
After Wednesday’s hearing, State Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson said the legislature is considering making changes to state law, possibly during next year’s fiscal session.
“I think a lot is going to depend on what the board does when they come back up for the September meeting as to whether or not they revoke those licenses or reinstate them. If they reinstate them, it may not be as urgent an issue because there will at least be some mechanism where they can have armed personnel."
Hutchinson, a Republican from Benton, said he wants each school board to make up its own mind and create a program with input from parents. He said lawmakers are also considering steps to keep the names of school personnel involved secret and not available through a freedom of information request.
“We already have exemptions of FOI for all sorts of security reasons and I can’t think of any reason why that wouldn’t be included. You don’t want somebody planning an attack to send an FOI request and find out exactly that Mrs. Smith in room 304 is armed and the principal, I need to take him out first.”
Depending on what happens in weeks ahead, Hutchinson says additional legislative hearings may be held.