CARY — A proposal to place unarmed private security officers at every Wake County elementary school drew heated opposition from both ends of the political spectrum Tuesday.
Wake County school security staff said placing these guards would allow them better control of access to schools. Some critics said adding these officers would create a “police state,” while others argued that the move would be a waste of money unless the guards are armed.
Amid the ongoing uproar, the school board agreed at its meeting Tuesday to postpone a vote on a proposed $835,000 contract to pay for one security officer at each of the district’s 105 elementary schools for the rest of the school year.
“The vote was premature,” school board Chairman Keith Sutton said. “It requires more discussion.”
The response reflects both the practical and financial issues that school districts across the nation have faced since a gunman killed 20 children and six school staff members last month at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Wake, like most school districts nationally, only has armed law enforcement personnel – called school resource officers – at high schools and middle schools. These officers are jointly paid for by the school district and the law-enforcement agencies.
Russ Smith, the school district’s senior director of security, said staff members launched a review after the Connecticut shooting and found a top concern for Wake parents was the lack of a security presence at elementary schools. A handful of Wake elementary schools, mostly magnet schools in Southeast Raleigh, already have an unarmed, private security guard.
Smith said parents also wanted all the schools’ doors locked, something that the presence of a security officer would allow. He said the officer would be stationed at the front entrance to sign in visitors. The guard also would monitor any video-surveillance cameras.
Finally, Smith said, the officer could assist school staff with child-custody and theft problems on campus.
Several speakers objected to the proposal during public comment Tuesday.
Adam Haller of Raleigh, the parent of three elementary school students, said Wake should be spending the money on areas such as helping students improve reading skills. At best, he said, hiring the officers would be “throwing money in the garbage” and “finding a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.”
“We can’t live in fear,” he said. “I’m not afraid. We don’t live in fear in my family.”
Dani Moore of Raleigh charged that hiring the officers would be creating a police state in what she said “seems like a reckless, clearly political move.”
At the other end of the spectrum, some people object on the grounds that it would be a waste of time and money to place unarmed officers in schools. The National Rifle Association called for an armed guard at every elementary school following the Connecticut shooting.
Several Republican Wake County commissioners panned the school district’s proposal during their meeting Tuesday.
“I’m all about having security officers, but they need to be armed,” said Phil Matthews, vice chairman of the commissioners. “I can’t see where an unarmed security officer is going to be able to protect any child.”
Democratic Commissioner Betty Lou Ward suggested the matter would be better handled in a conversation among school board members and the commission. While agreeing, Republican Commissioner Paul Coble said the proposal showed skewed priorities on the part of the school board. People entering the county courthouse have to pass armed guards, he noted.
“What’s more important than our children?” Coble asked. “If we need guards, they ought to be armed.”
Without a vote, commissioners agreed that their chairman, Joe Bryan, would call Sutton to discuss the proposal. Sutton said there’s no timetable for the school board’s revisiting the guard issue.
School board member Debra Goldman, a Republican, who was not at Tuesday’s meeting, told reporters Monday that Wake should work with the local law enforcement agencies to provide armed school resource officers at the elementary schools.
Smith said it would take $7.1 million to $8.5 million a year to pay for an armed school resource officer at every elementary school. That compares to $2.375 million a year for the unarmed private guards, who would be hired from AlliedBarton Security Services. The company already provides officers at high schools and the district’s headquarters in Cary.
Smith said it also would take nine months to a year for law enforcement agencies to hire all the new officers if they were to be armed. AlliedBarton could have guards in place March 1.
It’s also been suggested that Wake use retired police officers. Smith said those people would, under state law, still have to be sworn officers to be allowed to carry guns on campus. He said he’d also have concerns about the training and liability issues of using those retired officers.
Smith and school board member Jim Martin, a Democrat, said they’re not expecting these new security officers to confront gunmen. They said the main goal is to make sure the doors are all locked so people can’t slip inside unnoticed.
“I don’t think we’re talking about having someone who could take care of all security issues,” Martin said. “Nor do I think we are even pretending this is a panacea that would prevent a Sandy Hook. This is a recognition that we have some doors that cannot be locked “
Several school board members asked whether exploring other security measures would be a better step.
School board member Kevin Hill said long lines in the morning could result from checking people through a security officer. Hill said he’d prefer steps such as helping schools that need cameras or need new locking systems.
“People would prefer that we take our time and that we take the long view to best use our funding to come up with a long-term solution,” said board member Susan Evans.
Staff writers Thomas Goldsmith and Josh Shaffer contributed to this report.