For months, the Lee County (VA) School Board has been studying ways to ensure the safety of teachers and students on campus. The county, located in the southwestern corner of the state, only has four school resource officers for 11 schools, and don't have funding to hire more. In the mountainous, rural area there isn't always a Sheriff's deputy nearby, so administrators can't count on a quick law enforcement response to an active shooter situation.
Knowing that precious minutes would be lost waiting for law enforcement to arrive in an emergency, the board voted unanimously to allow teachers who were qualified to carry a concealed weapon to carry on school grounds (or have the weapon stored in a safe on school grounds). Michael Kidwell, LCSB chairman, commented, "God forbid someone walks in with a gun and wants to shoot our students. The only way to fight a gun is with another gun."
There's one small wrinkle. In Virginia, schools are gun-free zones, and only law enforcement officers can have guns on school property. Virginia law also allows Circuit Court judges to appoint people to act as a Special Conservator of the Peace. That appointment gives appointees the authority to act as a law enforcement officer within certain geographical confines and was initially intended to allow railroads or large corporations to have their own police force, according to Lee County Sheriff Gary Parsons. The applicable law reads:
"Upon the application of any sheriff or chief of police of any county, city, town or any corporation authorized to do business in the Commonwealth or the owner, proprietor or authorized custodian of any place within the Commonwealth and the showing of a necessity for the security of property or the peace, a circuit court judge of any county or city may appoint one or more special conservators of the peace who shall serve as such for such length of time as the court may designate, but not exceeding four years under any one appointment.
The order of appointment may provide that:
- A special conservator of the peace shall have all the powers, functions, duties, responsibilities and authority of any other conservator of the peace within such geographical limitations as the court may deem appropriate within the confines of the county, city or town that makes application or within the county, city or town where the corporate applicant is located, limited to the judicial circuit wherein application has been made, whenever such special conservator of the peace is engaged in the performance of his duties as such.
- The special conservator of the peace is a "law-enforcement officer" for the purposes of Article 4 (§ 37.2-808 et seq.) of Chapter 8 of Title 37.2.
- The special conservator of the peace may use the title "police" on any badge or uniform worn in the performance of his duties as such."
Under the school board's plan, the jurisdiction of the teachers appointed under the plan would only include the school at which they work.
Virginia's Attorney General Mark Herring isn't too keen on the idea. His spokesman, Michael Kelly, told the Washington Post:
“We recently found out about this scheme, and we’re looking into it. It’s troubling to learn that people are putting so much time and effort into getting around the law and getting more guns into schools when the focus should clearly be on creating a safe, welcoming learning environment.”
Indeed, that should be the focus, Mr. Kelly. When children and teachers have confidence that they aren't sitting ducks, they can confidently focus on their studies.
Teachers who are approved for campus carry wouldn't be some ill-trained yahoos just waiting to fire their guns. In addition to being appointed by a Circuit Court, Special Conservator of the Peace candidates are required to complete up to 40 hours of training and meet other requirements, according to the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice website. Candidates must be:
- 18 years of age
- US Citizen
- Special Conservator of the Peace Entry-Level Training (24 hours)
- Handgun Training Entry-Level (16 hours)
- Shotgun Training Entry-Level (2 hours)
- Criminal History Check
- Background Investigation (completed by local law enforcement or State Police)
- Professional Law Enforcement Liability Insurance
- Drug & Alcohol Test
A spokesman for the State Board of Education said the LCSB didn't consult them for "guidance or technical assistance" before beginning implementation of their plan and that they don't have a position on the legality of the policy. (Of course, they're "reviewing all relevant statutes" right now.)
They did, however, consult with Sheriff Parsons in creating the plan.
"The discussions include what type of guns the select employees will carry, where the firearms will be kept and who to keep the carriers' identities anonymous. Sheriff Parsons says they would like to arm the employees with .40 caliber weapons to stay consistent with what the Sheriff's Office carries. They're also exploring the idea of keeping the guns in fingerprint-locked safes so only the selected employees could access them."
Superintendent Brian Austin told a local TV station, "We've worked with the Department of Criminal Justice Services as well as the local sheriff to make sure we have training in place if this passes to ensure we are providing the best opportunity to serve our students and keep them safe. Without us being able to put an SRO in every building, this is the next best thing."
Kelly also stated that, with very narrow exceptions, Virginia law "clearly prohibits guns in schools," but LCSB believes they're on firm legal footing and hope to have the plan implemented by September.
“The last thing we want to do is spend taxpayer money on legal fees defending something that the board and the administration believe is good for our community,” said Austin.
Lee County School Board member Rob Hines said that they expect 50 district employees to apply for the program, at a cost of about $8,000 a year - less than a third of the cost of one full-time School Resource Officer. He told the Washington Post that community reaction has been "very positive."