Gun-toting teachers and armed school volunteers would be permitted in North Carolina’s public schools under legislation that would expand who could legally have firearms on campus.
A bill introduced Thursday in the state Senate would create the position of “school safety marshal,” allowing people who complete a new state-designed training course to carry guns on campus. School boards would be able to hire people for the position or take applications from school employees and school volunteers to serve as marshals.
The bill is the latest response locally and nationally to the December fatal shootings of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. State Sen. Stan Bingham, the bill’s primary sponsor, said the legislation came after talks he had with several sheriffs over the past month about school security.
“This would be voluntary for school boards whether they go this route,” said Bingham, a Davidson County Republican.
Gun-control groups panned the bill. Gail Neely, executive director of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence, cited the recent example of a security guard at a Michigan elementary school who left his handgun unattended in a restroom.
“It’s just absurd,” she said of the bill. “We don’t want a militarized environment for our children.”
The Connecticut school shooting has triggered a national debate about gun control and the level of security at schools, particularly at elementary schools.
Under state law, only law-enforcement officers are authorized to carry firearms on public school campuses. Most of these people, called school resource officers, are at high schools and middle schools.
The National Rifle Association has called for armed guards at every elementary school, likely an expensive proposition. In Wake County alone, where there are 105 elementary schools, school district security staff have estimated the cost at $7.1 million to $8.5 million a year.
The bill would provide an inexpensive way to boost security at schools, according to Bingham, co-chairman of the Senate’s appropriations on justice and public safety committee.
Bingham said he didn’t think that urban school districts such as Chapel Hill-Carrboro would use this option. But he said rural districts with longer police response times might embrace it.
Last month, the Wake County school board put on hold a plan to place an unarmed security officer at every elementary school. The vote came amid debate over whether the board should have chosen the more expensive option of armed officers.
Wake school board Chairman Keith Sutton said he’d want to hear the community’s opinion on the bill. But he said that personally he doesn’t think it’s a good idea, especially using volunteers who aren’t trained to work with students.
“I don’t know that we want to turn our schools into armed fortresses,” he said.
Deb Schwartz, a Rolesville mother with a child at a Wake middle school and another at an elementary school, said she’d prefer to see school employees instead of volunteers be marshals. She supports the bill, saying she feels her older child is much safer at a middle school, where there’s an armed officer.
“I would feel better knowing my kid goes to a school where there’s an opportunity to stop an individual who is coming to do harm to kids,” she said.
Bingham said he’d expect that people who served in law enforcement or the military would be willing to volunteer to be marshals.
In an emergency, Bingham said, the marshal could run to a lockbox that contains a gun and a bulletproof vest to identify the person to police. However, the bill doesn’t reach that level of detail.
The bill doesn’t directly address liability issues. It says school boards may adopt rules and polices on the duties of the marshals and the application process.
The bill directs the State Board of Education and the N.C. Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission to develop a program to train these new marshals. The marshals would receive firearms training, including a focus on the use of guns in a crisis situation that may involve unarmed bystanders.
“We want parents to know that it’s not someone who has Mickey Mouse training,” Bingham said.
Based on his initial review, Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison said he had questions such as how school boards would pick the marshals and what their training would entail. “Anything that provides safety for our children is worth looking at,” he said.
Staff writer Craig Jarvis contributed to this report.