Leaders in one NC county consider ‘armed security teams’ at schools

Elected officials in Wilkes County are considering adding armed security teams to each of the 23 public schools in the county.

Commissioner Eddie Settle launched the discussion during a meeting of the board last week, referencing the recent mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla. high school that killed 17.

Of the 23 public schools in Wilkes, four high schools have fulltime school resource officersSettle said. SROs in Wilkes – as in other North Carolina school systems – are uniformed and armed county deputies.

“We have a lot of schools without protection and we’ve got some nuts out there trying to kill innocent people,” Settle said at the meeting as first reported by The Wilkes Journal Patriot, adding that there weren’t enough fulltime SROs to respond to incidents across the school system.

County commissioners chairman Gary Blevins and Sheriff Chris Shew met last week and discussed the possibility of “security teams” at each of the county’s public schools, Settle said. The teams would include school staff who would be trained on a shooting range and complete other law enforcement training.

“It’s just a possibility,” Settle said. “To have a security team armed and ready and on campus if a situation was to arise. Their jurisdiction would only be on that campus. ... You’d have to take teachers and make them sworn officers.”

On Monday, N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson said teachers should not be armed in the classroom. But he does support more SROs.

“We already ask so much of our educators,” Johnson said in a statement. “I do not believe we should ask them to take on another massive responsibility of having firearms in the classroom.”

Settle and the sheriff said the General Assembly may need to take action to make the security teams possible.

Commissioner David Gambill said U.S. military personnel and off-duty law enforcement officers already voluntarily patrol a school in the county in shifts as part of a “watchdog program.”

Meanwhile, Speaker of the N.C. House Tim Moore last week announced the creation of a legislative committee to make recommendations for improving public school safety in the state. Possibilities include arming teachers, physical security for school buildings, mental health services and discipline practices.

Yancey County’s superintendent, Tony Tipton, said the idea of arming teachers is problematic, but it’s not out of the question.

“To actually take a gun, pull a trigger and shoot who may have been a student you had a year ago, or yesterday, would be a lot to ask,” he said, but he and other superintendents, teachers and students in the western part of the state said few options should be off the table when it comes to school safety in the wake of the Florida shooting. “If you had some people with a military background, like a Junior ROTC teacher, who come from that world, or a former policeman, I think that could be doable.”

But it would take a lot of work.

“If I am somebody who is walking down the hall looking for a shooter, and the police officer is walking down the hall looking for a gunman, I can see lots of scenarios that could go bad,” Tipton said. “The training needed to do this would have to be incredible.”

Last week, three threats were made to schools in Western North Carolina, two of which led to lockdowns, The Asheville Citizen-Times reported.

The Citizen-Times polled public school superintendents in 16 Western North Carolina counties last week for their reaction to the idea of arming teachers or school employees. Of those responding, seven superintendents said no.