Since last February’s mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, teachers and parents throughout the Commonwealth have had school security on their minds as cash-strapped school districts face difficult challenges in rural areas. In Lee County, Virginia, there is only enough money to afford four to five school resource officers (SROs) to help keep safe the district’s 11 schools.
In protecting over 3,000 students, Lee County Superintendent Brian Austin says, depending on the school, it could take half an hour for local police to respond to an emergency in areas that are remote with geography that restricts access to just a few points on narrow, two-lane country roads.
Just a few miles from the Virginia-Kentucky border at St. Charles Elementary, Principal Kellie Leonard points to languishing school infrastructure dating back to 1937 that has school children walking outside from building to building during the day to get to class in multiple trailers, to the gym, and to lunch.
Leonard told WVTF, “Anyone could jump the fence. If they came with a weapon. Just, open target.”
Although the General Assembly’s bipartisan Select Committee on School Safety – the first select committee formed in 155 years – has provided 24 priority recommendations to bolster security at schools like increased mental health counseling, infrastructure upgrades, among other remedies, the Lee County School Board unanimously approved training and arming some teachers and staff earlier this year amid a lack of funding for SROs.
In July, 50 of the district’s 700 full-time employees were said to be interested in applying to carry a firearm on school grounds, all of whom will go through a screening and training process beforehand. School Board Chairman Michael Kidwell said school employees would seek circuit court approval to be deemed “conservators of the peace,” a designation the district believes will exempt the employees from state law prohibiting firearms on school campuses.
However, both Attorney General Mark Herring (D) and Governor Ralph Northam (D) denounced the plan. After Lee County made their decision, Herring added in a news release that “Virginia law expressly limits who may possess firearms on school grounds for safety purposes, and the General Assembly declined to enact bills presented every year from 2013 through 2017 to extend this authority to school teachers and administrators.”
Though, as school safety is likely to be a large part of the upcoming 45-day General Assembly session, Lee County’s concerns and possible legal challenges may rise to one of the state’s most talked about issues.