Last week, down in southwest Virginia, on the borderline with Tennessee, the five-member Lee County School Board voted unanimously on a plan to select at least 50 teachers and staff members to carry concealed weapons or store them on school property in effort to keep students safe in the wake of school shootings around the country. Although the measure was supported by a large number of citizens in the county, it has drawn ire from Virginia’s executive branch as Governor Ralph Northam denounced the plan and said the Commonwealth’s top law enforcement officer is now investigating the legality of the proposal.
According to The Washington Post, Northam says that Virginia school districts should not be “arming teachers,” and instead should look into a plan sponsored by the state to help school districts with security issues.
During a Wednesday interview on WTOP radio’s “Ask the Governor” show he said, “As a professor of neurology at Eastern Virginia Medical School – and, as I said, my wife is a teacher and I talk to a lot of other educators across the commonwealth of Virginia – I just don’t think it’s a good path to take, to say that we’re going to arm teachers; that’s my opinion.”
The governor also explained that Virginia’s Department of Criminal Justice Services launched a $1.3 million grant program that local jurisdictions can utilize to hire more school resource officers to promote safety. He suggests that is a better option for school districts who want armed security officers to thwart a potential incident.
Northam said that he is giving the official decision on the legality of Lee County’s controversial plan to Attorney General Mark Herring, whose office said that the law on the books “clearly prohibits guns in schools,” albeit with a few very narrow exceptions.
Lee County School Board Chairman Michael Kidwell, however, says he’s skeptical of the state’s grant plan, claiming that the money would not be enough to help the more than 130 school districts throughout the state. In the heavily rural county, only four out of the 11 schools have armed security officers on duty at campuses, and the district cannot afford additional officers. Arming teachers and staff members, Kidwell and the board say, is a cheaper option for the safety of students.
Applicants for the program would seek circuit court approval to be deemed “conservators of the peace,” a designation the system believes will exempt the employees from state law prohibiting firearms on school campuses. Furthermore, the selected teachers and staff would undergo background screenings and psychological evaluations to be deemed fit to receive training from the local sheriff’s office this summer, with the plan being implemented sometime between mid-September and early October.
Officials from Lee County claim the approach has solid legal standing and do not expect any challenges from the courts, and if the plan goes through, the district would be the first school system in Virginia to arm teachers.
“This is the route we’ve taken because, frankly, it’s all we can afford at this point,” Kidwell said. “We are doing what we have to do to protect our students and our staff.”