After initially showing some common sense in reaction to an adverse attorney general’s opinion, Clarksville school officials are apparently going to challenge an interpretation that says the district can’t be licensed as a private security company to train and arm its employees.
You’d think the school officials would have sought legal counsel before they embarked on a novel plan to put guns in the hands of a couple dozen teachers and staff members, and maybe they did. But now, less than a month before the start of the fall term, they face a distracting dilemma.
First, the idea of providing security for our schools is certainly a worthwhile endeavor, especially in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., tragedy last year. But we need to be careful how we do it.
The best way is to provide law enforcement officers, also called school resource officers, because they are already trained, certified and well-qualified to provide security. A number of Arkansas school districts started using SROs years ago under a Clinton administration initiative — more than 6,500 across the country. In some cases the SRO positions continued even after federal money dried up, often with the help of local government.
That’s a program Congress would do well to resurrect and expand.
The alternative is a patchwork of efforts to make up for the lack of money to hire an SRO for every school, and that’s what we’re getting now.
The Clarksville district, with a total enrollment of about 2,500 students, could probably afford to hire a couple of SROs, but that’s not enough to station one at every school.
Therefore, Clarksville and a few other districts devised a plan under which each would obtain a license from the state Board of Private Investigators and Private Security Agencies to hire and train security guards.
Instead of hiring outside guards who had previous training, the Clarksville district called for volunteers from its own staff. According to an Arkansas News Bureau story, nearly two dozen were sent to Nighthawk Custom Training Academy at Centerton for 54 hours of custom training led by Springdale Police SWAT team officers. They also had training on the Clarksville campus.
The total cost was reported to be about $68,000. Each volunteer gets a $1,000 stipend to purchase a semi-automatic pistol. The plan is that they will be able to carry the weapons concealed while going about their regular duties but will be equipped to deal with a threat of violence.
Assistant Attorney General Jack Druff, responding to questions from state Rep. Henry Wilkins IV, D-Pine Bluff, found all sorts of problems with the scheme, starting with the notion that a public school district could be licensed as a private company.
"Simply put, the Code [of Arkansas law] in my opinion does not authorize either licensing a school district as a guard company or classifying it as a private business authorized to employ its own teachers as armed guards," Druff wrote.
Secondly, he said various state statutes prohibit school district employees from carrying firearms on school grounds, giving the prosecuting attorney discretion to take action against anyone who violates those laws.
The opinion also said the school board lacks the authority to authorize its employees to act as gun-carrying security officers.
"The General Assembly would be the proper entity to retain, repeal or modify the current laws prohibiting school employees from carrying firearms on school property, such power not residing with the Arkansas Board of Private Investigators and Private Security Agencies," the opinion says.
State Rep. Homer Lenderman, D-Brookland, earlier this year sponsored a bill which would have authorized selected school employees to be trained and armed on campus to act as security guards. However, it went nowhere and was withdrawn.
Of course, an attorney general’s opinion is just that and does not carry the force of law. But a public entity that decides not to follow such an opinion should seek sound alternative legal counsel or risk greater liability.
Dr. David Hopkins, superintendent of Clarksville schools, told the Arkansas Times Saturday that, based on advice from the district’s private attorney, he now believes the attorney general’s opinion is wrong and that the district may challenge the interpretation if the state regulatory agency pulls its license.
The state Board of Private Investigators and Private Security Agencies operates under the umbrella of the Arkansas State Police. The board makes the decisions on applicants, and the State Police handles the paperwork. Presumably, the board will need to meet again and decide whether to rescind any licenses already granted because of the AG opinion.
Although Hopkins initially said the district would "stand down" because of the opinion, he now wants to proceed because he believes the district meets the definition of a "person" under the law and therefore can qualify for a license.
Whether that would get around the law against carrying guns on a public school campus is another question.
A wiser course of action, until the relevant state laws can be changed, would be to employ off-duty law enforcement officers or former officers, as some other districts have done. The idea of having more than 20 armed guards in a school system is as scary as having none.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.