Zais: Allow local districts to choose who can have guns

COLUMBIA— In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, South Carolina’s top education official said Thursday he would support public school districts allowing “a few well-trained and well-screened staff” to carry guns on school campuses, possibly including teachers.

Developments

The S.C. superintendent of education said he would support local school districts allowing some school personnel to have guns on school grounds.

The state’s top law enforcement official said he opposes allowing educators to carry guns on campus, saying having an armed school resource officer at each school is the best approach. Many schools in the state already have such officers.

State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais made the comments in testimony before the Senate Education Committee, prefacing his remarks by saying that schools already are prepared for emergency situations and are among the safest places students can be.

“The point that I would stress is that these ideas all hinge on local control,” he said. “A one-size-fits-all solution may work in one school; it may not work well in another.”

Zais’ position on allowing districts to arm educators puts him at odds with the state’s top law enforcement officer, who wants each school in the state to have an armed law enforcement officer on school grounds.

State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel told senators following Zais’ testimony that he opposes the idea of arming teachers, saying he has not talked to a single law enforcement officer who thinks it would be a good idea.

A proposal in the state House would allow public school employees with concealed-weapons permits to carry guns on school grounds.

Keel said having school employees in plain clothes carrying guns could confuse officers responding to a shooting.

Zais and Keel share common ground in their support of school resource officers — trained law enforcement officers who carry guns. Such officers already are in place at most public high schools and middle schools in the state, but only some elementary schools have them, Zais said.

Keel said every school in the state should have such an officer, but funding is an open question.

Zais said schools have the flexibility to shift state dollars in order to hire the officers should they choose.

State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, said school resource officers are expensive but certainly needed.

“To me, no expense is too much to make that happen,” he said. Sheheen said he wants to explore how to provide funding for a resource officer in every school. He said a mandate requiring such officers without providing funding for them isn’t the right approach.

Local discussion
In the Lowcountry, hiring additional school resource officers has been a hot topic in recent weeks.

In North Charleston, Mayor Keith Summey announced a plan in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre to post police in all 21 public elementary schools attended by city residents. That plan was embraced by the Dorchester 2 School District but drew the ire of some residents and Charleston County School Board members, who said putting police in schools can lead to students being arrested for minor infractions.

The school board plans to vote Monday on whether it should allow those additional officers in schools.

North Charleston City Council and the mayor pressed ahead with the cops-in-schools plan Thursday, authorizing Summey to sign an agreement with the district authorizing the officers, at the city’s expense.

“We have the votes” on the school board to approve the plan, Summey told council members. “This is not about arresting children. This is about protecting children.”

City Council also agreed to spend $544,447 to buy 20 Chevy Tahoe police pursuit vehicles, with which to equip the new school resource officers.

In Beaufort County, 16 sheriff’s deputies are now adding elementary schools to their routine patrols, according to The Beaufort Gazette. They received training Monday and began walking the halls Tuesday.

There has been less public discussion on Zais’ idea that districts should decide whether well-trained staff can carry guns on campus.

Jeff Scott, Charleston County’s director of security, said he agreed with Zais in that it should be a locally decided issue, and it would be up to the county board and superintendent to make that call.

He thought state law already permitted local districts to make that kind of decision. The section he cited read, “It shall be unlawful for any person, except state, county, or municipal law enforcement officers or personnel authorized by school officials” to carry weapons on campus. He interpreted that to mean school officials could make the call as to who can have guns on school property.

Charleston County school leaders have had conversations about every safety measure possible during the past several weeks, and equipping more staff with guns wasn’t identified as an acute need, he said.

“We don’t know what our new normal is going to be, and that’s nationwide in all schools,” he said. “We’ll flesh that out over the next several months.”

Although it wasn’t his decision to make, he said equipping staff with guns could make sense for certain schools that are more isolated and don’t have a strong police presence nearby. In those cases, it could take longer for responders to arrive at campus compared with areas such as downtown or North Charleston where police are readily available, he said.

Nancy Dabit, the district’s Teacher of the Year, teaches sixth grade at Moultrie Middle in Mount Pleasant. She said her school’s resource officer provides the security she needs to come to school, and that officer also serves as a mentor for students.

The officer checks classroom doors to make sure they’re locked, and she helps in the mornings, afternoons and on weekends with school safety, she said.

“She’s a safe and familiar face, and that is comforting to students and teachers,” Dabit said.

More recommendations
Keel, the SLED chief, also recommended that educators be provided training on how to recognize the “common characteristics” of school shooters and what to do when those traits are noticed in students.

He also has organized a group that includes state mental health and judicial officials who will meet in an effort to have information on residents with court-documented mental issues included in a database used to screen gun applicants.

Such a change likely would require the approval of the Legislature, Keel said.

Senators are examining the issue following last month’s school shooting in Newtown, Conn., in which 26 people were killed, 20 of them children.

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