MONTGOMERY — Local lawmakers say they want to take a deliberate approach to school safety in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shootings where 20 elementary students and six educators were killed in December.
And they seem to agree that whatever changes are made need to be sustainable.
As part of the process, they said they’ll listen to a colleague’s proposal for giving school staff members firearms, but they’re not sure that’s the right answer.
“We obviously need to increase security at our schools to protect them from crazy people,” state Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, said. “But I am not yet convinced we need to start arming our schools. I think that could cause more problems than answers.”
Before any decisions are made, Bedford said he wants to talk with law enforcement as well as school administrators and teachers.
“We need to ask them what they think ought to be done,” he said.
Lawmakers and other state leaders will get a chance to ask those questions Wednesday in Montgomery at a joint meeting of the House and Senate education policy committees.
Details on when the meeting will be held have not been finalized.
State Rep. Kerry Rich, R-Albertville, recently said he plans to introduce a bill in the 2013 legislative session that would allow some school employees to be armed.
“It would be best if school systems provided trained resource officers that are armed,” Rich told the TimesDaily last week. “But a lot of schools can’t afford that, so, what do you do?”
Rich said he is still drafting his proposed legislation, but his idea is to have two to five armed administrators or teachers per school. The local superintendents and school boards would determine who receives access to firearms and those people would have to go through initial training and then a renewal course every six months.
Republican state Rep. Lynn Greer, of Rogersville, said he’s interested in seeing Rich’s bill.
“My first choice would be to have armed guards at every school, but I don’t know how we would afford that,” Greer said.
The Alabama Association of School Resource Officers said the state has about 200 armed officers covering more than 1,500 schools, the Associated Press recently reported. That means about one in every seven schools has an officer on campus at any time. The cost of the officers has kept that number down, the AP reported.
State Rep. Ed Henry, R-Hartselle, said he doesn’t want to see any hasty decisions made in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings.
“I’m a fan of every individual’s right to carry a weapon, but whether it is prudent to (make a) knee-jerk reaction and make a law because of the shootings in Connecticut, I don’t know,” Henry said.
“The question we have before us now is, does the public want schools to be places where guns are carried?”
Henry said such a decision should probably be made by Alabama voters in the form of a constitutional amendment.
“It probably should be something that goes to the people,” he said. “It is public land and public space.”
Funding will be top of mind for Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, a member of the House committee that oversees the state’s education budget.
“(Whatever we do) it has to be sustainable,” she said. “We can’t do something dramatic one year and then drop it the next. I don’t think we need to react quickly to this situation; we need to study it long term.”
Treating mental illness also has to be part of the conversation, Collins said.
“When someone with mental health issues is determined to get in (to a school), they will be hard to deter,” she said.
Prentice Chandler, an associate professor of history and social science education at Athens State University, teaches future teachers. He said the topic of school violence is part of teacher education curriculum, usually under classroom management.
Chandler said the idea that a kindergarten teacher could become a trained assassin is a bit far-fetched.
“I really don’t get the sense that most elementary teachers are OK with carrying a gun,” Chandler said. “And if they are, would they be OK with killing a child?” Chandler said. “People who are in favor of giving teachers weapons are imagining 007 movies,”
Rich also said he wouldn’t advocate giving a firearm to anyone who doesn’t want it.
“You don’t want to require someone who doesn’t have the right frame of mind about it to have a gun,” he said.
He also questions the wisdom of schools as “gun free zones.”
“It’s advertised that schools are gun free,” Rich said, “I think that gives (potential shooters) an incentive to do that sort of thing.”
He said knowing that there are guns on school grounds could deter some would-be shooters.
Mary Sell can be reached at mary.sell@TimesDaily.com.