LITTLE ROCK — Employees of a few Arkansas school districts were carrying guns on campus last week after a state regulatory board gave its OK, but it remains to be seen whether the practice will become the new norm in the state.
The state Board of Private Investigators and Private Security Agencies voted Wednesday to allow up to 13 districts with staff trained and certified to carry a handgun to provide armed security on campus, but only for the next two years.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said in an opinion last month that the practice is illegal under current state law, but some state legislators have said they are interested in changing the law during the 2015 regular session.
Some districts have been arming select employees for years, but some are doing it for the first time this fall, including the Clarksville School District, which spent $70,000 to train 22 teachers and staff members to double as armed guards.
The national attention Clarksville received for its plan led to a state legislator’s request for an attorney general’s opinion on the practice. McDaniel said in his non-binding opinion that current law allows only private businesses, not public school districts, to be licensed to arm employees.
Some, including two members of the Board of Private Investigators and Private Security Agencies, think the board should have taken the attorney general’s advice and ordered an end to the practice.
"If something happens in the school, who’s going to be liable?" asked board member Jack Acre of Little Rock, who voted against allowing districts to arm employees. "Because you know when a student gets shot or hurt in a school, somebody’s going to be suing somebody."
Also voting in the minority was Joey Smith of Searcy, who resigned from the board after Wednesday’s meeting. Smith did not return calls Thursday and Friday seeking comment.
Jerry Guess, superintendent of the Pulaski County Special School District, said that although his district is one of those licensed to arm employees, he has no interest in doing so.
"I’m one of those people that think if you’re on the campus and you have a weapon, you should be a duly licensed law enforcement agent," he said.
Fort Smith Superintendent Benny Gooden said his district is not affected because it has one security supervisor who is also a part-time officer with the Logan County Sheriff’s Office and is authorized to carry a gun with or without the approval of the state regulatory panel.
Some superintendents favor arming non-teaching personnel but draw the line at arming classroom teachers.
"The sensational headlines are ‘Arming school teachers,’" Lake Hamilton School District Superintendent Steve Anderson said Friday. "We have no teachers or building-level administrators that are licensed as security officers and never have in our 20-year history of having this program."
Superintendents who support arming employees say it makes their campuses safer in the event of shooting incidents like the ones that happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, and at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro on March 24, 1998.
"According to the Garland County Sheriff’s Office, unless there was a unit on campus or around campus at that time, we could expect a response time for law enforcement in the event of an attack near 20 minutes," Anderson told the regulatory panel Wednesday. "Twenty minutes is way too long when the studies show us that in these armed attacks every 10 to 15 seconds someone is shot."
McDaniel said in his opinion that state law does not prohibit school districts from entering into contracts with security companies or utilizing local police officers as school resource officers, or SROs. Superintendents say they can obtain more protection for less money by arming school personnel.
"I wouldn’t be able to afford more than one SRO, and that would be very strenuous on our budget even at one," Nancy Anderson, superintendent of the Cutter-Morning Star School District, said Friday. "I don’t even know that I could swing that."
Several state legislators have expressed interest in addressing the issue, including Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, whose district includes Clarksville. Stubblefield said he is willing to sponsor legislation that would allow other districts to follow Clarksville’s lead.
"It’s sad that we have to do this, but it’s just that we live in a different world today, and I don’t know of any other way to protect our kids, other than having to put firearms in our teacher’s hands," he said.