To improve safety, some rural NC school districts look to armed volunteers

Armed volunteers to protect Stanly County schools

The Stanly County school board recently unanimously passed a measure that would allow the Stanly County sheriff to use armed volunteers to help protect students.
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The Stanly County school board recently unanimously passed a measure that would allow the Stanly County sheriff to use armed volunteers to help protect students.

Some rural North Carolina counties are planning to have former law enforcement and military police officers serve as armed volunteers at schools, but the state's urban school districts are avoiding the idea.

Volunteer school safety resource officers will be placed in elementary schools in Stanly County near Charlotte and, pending approval by the school board, in all schools in Rockingham County near Greensboro. The state law allowing the program has been on the books since 2013 but is only now being put to use following the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida that left 17 people dead.

“If we don’t protect our children now, when are we going to start?" said Stanly County Sheriff George Burris. "I’m very big about being proactive and not being reactive. We all need to play a part in keeping our kids safe."

But using armed volunteers isn't being considered by the state's four largest school districts: Wake County, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Guilford County and Winston-Salem/Forsyth County. They're pursuing other options such as putting up fencing, adding more surveillance cameras and "hardening" doors.

"The district is opposed to this idea — armed volunteers is not an option being considered by CMS," said Tracy Russ, a spokesman for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system.

State lawmakers created the "Volunteer School Safety Resource Officer Program" in 2013 after a gunman killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in December 2012. Republican legislative leaders say the program could help North Carolina become a national model in school safety.

“We’re probably ahead of the curve in North Carolina in having this law on the books," House Speaker Tim Moore said at a Feb. 28 news conference on the Rockingham County plan. "Something that we already have now is something other states are talking about implementing.”

It's tough to know for sure whether other states have programs like North Carolina's, according to Julie Woods, a senior policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States.

Louisiana legislators are considering allowing active and retired "peace officers" to serve as volunteer school guards, according to Benjamin Erwin, who works on education issues at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But North Carolina's program is unique enough that it has received national attention from media outlets such as Fox News.

The program might be well intended, but it's an example of politicians trying to show that they are doing something useful after a school shooting, according to Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services.

"The driving force here is we want to do something, but we want to do it on the cheap," Trump said. "The reality is you don’t get something for nothing. You get what you pay for."

Trump said that if leaders really think school security is a priority then they should pay for it by hiring school resource officers — law enforcement officers who are trained to work in schools.

A newly formed state legislative committee on school safety is looking at whether to recommend increasing funding for school resource officers.

Most of the state's nearly 1,200 school resource officers are assigned to high schools and middle schools. The armed-volunteer program helps fill a gap created by the lack of resource officers in elementary schools, said Jeff James, superintendent of the 8,000-student Stanly County schools.

"With what’s currently going on in our nation, every district would want to put a school resource officer in elementary schools," James said. "This is the next best thing — how can we do it without having the funds."

The program, which was quietly included in the 2013 state budget, got little notice until after the Florida school shooting.

"The impetus of this was the Florida tragedy with the 17 (people) and realizing how quickly someone with an assault weapon can inflict horrible damage in a few minutes," James said.

Rick Cron, a school resource officer with the Shelby County (Ohio) Sheriff’s Office, watches students and the parking lot during dismissal earlier this year. Leaders in Henderson County, NC, decided this spring to hire armed guards to work at all 23 public schools in the western North Carolina community. NC schools are also allowed to have unpaid, volunteer armed guards on campus because of a law the state passed in 2013. ANDREW SPEAR NYT

Under the state program, volunteer officers must have had experience as a law enforcement officer. The other option is to have been a military police officer for at least two years and, if no longer on active duty, been honorably discharged.

Volunteers must receive training on research into the social and cognitive development of elementary, middle and high school students. They must also meet the selection standards and any additional criteria set by the law enforcement agency in charge of the volunteers.

Volunteers, who would have the power to arrest, must also meet state educational and firearms proficiency standards.

House Democratic leader Darren Jackson criticized how the program was passed and what he says is a lack of standards for the volunteers.

"Few yrs ago, with no debate or process, Repubs slipped language into the budget allowing armed volunteers in school.," Jackson tweeted Tuesday. "Law gives almost no guidance on how these vols will be trained or what standards they need to meet."

Burris, the Stanly County sheriff, defended the quality of the program. He said several law enforcement officers who are about to retire have offered to become volunteers.

"The individuals we’re putting in are former law enforcement with extensive training," Burris said. "They know how to handle themselves. These aren’t just anybody who’ve come off the street and want to work in a school.”

wbtv armed teachers
The Stanly County school board recently unanimously passed a measure that would allow the Stanly County sheriff to use armed volunteers to help protect students. WBTV

State law says there's no liability for any "good-faith action" taken by the volunteers. But the sheriffs in Stanly and Rockingham counties and school officials say they'll have their liability insurance available too if needed.

“Be ready to cover your insurance claims when someone acts out like they shouldn’t do," said Trump, the school security expert.

Senate Republican leader Phil Berger was among the state lawmakers who stood with Rockingham County leaders to support the use of volunteer school resource officers.

"This is the right step to take, one of many that I think need to be taken," said Berger, who is from Rockingham County.

But the idea of adding more armed personnel doesn't sit well with groups who are critical of the presence of school resource officers. Peggy Nicholson, co-director of the Youth Justice Project of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said the volunteers will likely continue the trend of students of color being disproportionately targeted by law enforcement.

“We don’t have good research or data that putting more school resource officers or guns into schools improves school safety," Nicholson said. "The only data we really have is that it results in more referrals of students to courts."

Henderson County leaders say the western North Carolina community wants to hire armed security guards for every school because they're not sure they can get enough volunteers who'd meet their standards.

Trump said the problem with using volunteers is that you can't make them come to work if they don't want to do so.

"I certainly commend those officers and veterans who want to do the right thing," Trump said. "That said, if you’re running volunteer programs, you’re running a group of volunteers."

Johnston County Superintendent Ross Renfrow sent a message to parents earlier this month saying the district was talking with groups about placing retired law enforcement, military, and emergency management personnel in each school. But two weeks later, he emailed school board members to say that "armed volunteers is not on our agenda at this time."

The concept of armed volunteers isn't getting interest in North Carolina's largest school districts — those in urban areas that have trended Democratic.

“We haven’t talked about any use of weapons, whether it be armed teachers or armed volunteers," said Monika Johnson-Hostler, chairwoman of the Wake County school board. "I don’t know where the community or the board stands on this.”

The two counties pursuing the program, Stanly and Rockingham, are strongly Republican. James, the Stanly County superintendent, said they don't have as much money as the larger districts to try to beef up school security.

"This is a way this conservative community thought it could try to make school safer," he said.

Ann Doss Helms of the Charlotte Observer contributed.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui
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