MONTGOMERY — Anything the state does in an attempt to lessen the probability of a school shooting like the one in Connecticut last month must include a mental health component and ways to identify and stop would-be-shooters before they strike, officials said Wednesday.
“The root of the problem is not just within the schools,” said state Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, whose comments came at the opening of a joint legislative hearing on school safety.
Figures said acts of violence such as at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 20 children dead also are happening in shopping malls, movie theaters and community gatherings. She urges the state to take a big-picture approach to the problem.
The hearing brought together lawmakers along with representatives from law enforcement and education.
Lawmakers said Wednesday school safety will be a priority in the 2013 legislative session that begins Feb. 5.
Jimmie Harp, president of the Alabama District Attorney’s Association, told lawmakers “don’t waste money” on school resource officers without addressing mental health care needs in the state, too.
“Mental health needs to be priority one, along with resource officers,” Harp said.
Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, said his first choice to make schools safer would be to put armed resource officers in every building. Until that can happen, Greer, who has 10 grandchildren in school, said he’s not against teachers being armed.
“I hope today that in the schools my grandkids are attending, some adult is carrying a pistol,” he said. “It certainly would make me feel better.”
Not everyone embraces that thought.
Grover Smith, president of the Alabama Sheriff’s Association, said teachers should not be armed because the training and mental preparedness required is too much to ask of them.
“Teaching someone when to shoot and when not to shoot is a lifetime mission,” Smith said. “We don’t want to put that burden on our teachers. They already have enough.
“That isn’t something that needs to be handed out to someone on a part-time basis.”
He said he wouldn’t want his grandchildren to attend a school where teachers are armed.
But some lawmakers, such as state Rep. Kerry Rich, R-Albertville, said arming school staff should be an option for schools, especially for rural ones where police response times are greater.
Rich said he trusts school superintendents and boards to make decisions about arming staff members.
“I would rather my granddaughter go to that school (where teachers are trained to shoot),” he said.
Spencer Collier, director of the state department of homeland security, said there is no way to completely eliminate the threat of a shooting.
“What we can do is minimize it,” he said.
To do that, Collier asked lawmakers to invest in two things — the state’s “Virtual Alabama” program, a secure website database that allows emergency responders to see satellite imagery of schools, along with maps of buildings and evacuation routes and emergency plans; and more “active shooter” training for law enforcement.
Collier said only about 27 percent of officers in the state have been trained for mass shooting scenarios.
State Superintendent Tommy Bice said Alabama schools already have “comprehensive” safety plans, but improvements can be made.
“We are in the process of identifying in each school system those unique things they do not have in place,” Bice said. He hopes to have that information by Feb. 1.
Lee Willis, a deputy superintendent from Morgan County Schools, attended the meeting and afterward said he’s glad the conversation is taking place.
“We know we need help and we are open to ideas,” Willis said.
The help he’s looking for includes funding of safety initiatives, training and “helping our people to identify potential assailants.”
The public is invited to share its thoughts and suggestions about school safety. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org until the end of the month.