Education

This Triangle school district might use armed volunteers on campuses

West Johnston High School locked down Friday morning

West Johnston High School in Benson, NC, was locked down late Friday morning after a group of people apparently rushed into the building.
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West Johnston High School in Benson, NC, was locked down late Friday morning after a group of people apparently rushed into the building.

The Johnston County school system wants to spend about $1.4 million to upgrade security measures, and officials are considering putting armed former police and military personnel at each school.

The school board will talk about the possibility of using armed volunteers during a meeting Tuesday afternoon. The discussion comes four days after police arrested seven teenagers accused of illegally entering West Johnston High School, which was locked down Friday.

“I’ve got a seventh-grader in one of these schools,” said Superintendent David Renfrow. “Just like every other parent, we want to make sure every student is secure. They send their most prized possessions to our schools every day, and it’s our duty to protect them.”

Johnston wants to outfit every school with up-to-date cameras, controlled access points and key fob entries, among other upgrades. The changes are expected to be in place for the start of the new school year in August.

Some other North Carolina school districts, including Rockingham County and Stanly County, are also considering putting armed volunteers at schools following the Feb. 14 school shooting that left 17 people dead in Parkland, Fla. North Carolina lawmakers passed legislation that allows armed former law enforcement or military police officers in schools in 2013, after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Renfrow said the Johnston County school district, which enrolls more than 36,000 students, will seek help footing the bill from the county and the state and will also apply for grants.

“Whatever we get from the county commissioners we will be grateful for, but our stakeholders have spoken and they demand action and we are going to give them action,” Renfrow said. “We will find a way to fund these initial steps. Whatever we don’t get from the county will be cut from other projects.”

Renfrow said the school system could hold off on buying new cafeteria furniture for one school and updating a gymnasium at another school.

“I’ve told everybody if it isn’t to do with securing our schools, it isn’t a priority," Renfrow said.

It will cost about $140,000 to install special locks with magnetic strips on exterior doors and about $650,000 for key fobs for all school personnel. It will cost another $150,000 to install exterior and interior cameras in common areas such as hallways and cafeterias.

Johnston has also applied for a $1.4 million state grant that would be used to place an additional 12 school resource officers in schools. The district currently has 10 school resource officers, most of them stationed in high schools.

Renfrow said several citizens have suggested using retired military and police officers as an additional layer of security on campuses. Some say it would be a happy medium — teachers wouldn't be armed, but other trained professionals would be.

North Carolina state schools Superintendent Mark Johnson said last month that he supported increased funding for school resource officers but does not believe teachers should have to take on the “massive responsibility of having firearms in the classroom.”

More than 75 percent of N.C. educators say that having teachers carry guns in schools is a bad idea, according to a recent Elon University/News & Observer/Charlotte Observer poll.

Rachel Embler, a parent with children in Clayton elementary, middle, and high schools, said she would be in favor of having former police officers and military personnel on campuses.

“I don’t see how it could be a bad idea,” she said. “If they are retired law enforcement or retired military, they have already been trained, already been given multiple situational trainings that have already prepared them so that if a situation were to occur at a school, they would be qualified to handle it. I see a lot of benefits to it. Someone would have to really explain it to me if there were any downsides.”

West Johnston High School near Benson experienced a security scare Friday following reports that a group of people had rushed into one of the school buildings. The school resource officer detained four of the teens, and the other three fled the building but were taken into custody after investigators reviewed surveillance video.

The school was briefly locked down while sheriff's deputies and state troopers arrived.

Ted Godwin, vice chairman of the Johnston County commissioners, agrees that more needs to be done to ensure safety at schools.

“Obviously, we have to deal with the security issue and if that means putting some retired law enforcement in there, then so be it,” he said. “We’re all in this together. We’re going to give them as much money as we think the taxpayer can reasonably afford to put towards security.”

Autumn Linford is a correspondent for The News & Observer. Email her at autumnlinford@gmail.com.
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