Legislature to debate guns in schools
While the Alaska Legislature will take up House Bill 55 which would allow certain staff members to possess and utilize weapons on school grounds, parents of Wrangell School District students can rest assured that the security on Borough campuses is high – and monitored 24/7 by closed-circuit video cameras.
With the 2012 school shootings in Connecticut and California still fresh in our collective memory, a proposal from an Anchorage lawmaker would allow for teachers or other permanent school employees to carry concealed weapons on campus “for defensive use” in the State of Alaska.
House Bill 55, from Republican Rep. Bob Lynn, would allow public districts and private schools to adopt written policies spelling out the circumstances under which firearms could be possessed and used. The proposal, which was released on Jan. 11, would allow for permanent employees, such as teachers and administrators, to carry concealed weapons if they have a permit and have completed training.
“The governing body of a school district may authorize one or more permanent employees of a school to possess one or more firearms on school grounds for defensive use if (1) the governing body adopts a written policy specifying the manner in which the firearms shall be possessed and the circumstances under which a firearm may be used; and (2) each permanent employee of the school authorized under this section has successfully completed training under AS 18.65.820,” the proposed law states.
The bill comes after the deadly school shooting in Newtown, Conn. last month that has spurred a national debate about school security and gun control. It was among 18 bills released, which were filed ahead of the start of the legislative session that began this week. The first batch of pre-filed bills was released Monday.
Lynn, in an interview, said with “all the craziness” going on around the country, he thought it was a good idea to let districts make a choice on how to protect their schools. “I think it’s a local issue. I don’t think we at the state level ought to mandate ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on the issue,” Lynn said, calling the proposal a “freedom of choice bill.”
Rich Rhodes, the superintendent of Wrangell Public Schools and a former drill instructor in the U.S. Army said any new rules for guns in schools would require a broad study of the issue.
“If legislation supported it, and state law was written to implement it, I think the Board of Education would have to look at a variety of different issues,” Rhodes said. “It would have to involve local response time of law enforcement, who would be willing to be trained and carry weapons, school resource officer allocation, and local community input from parents and community members.”
Rhodes also added that weapons, in the hands of responsible adults, could act to prevent violence on campus.
“I believe most of us are well versed in the use of weapons and it would be a deterrent to someone knowing there were weapons on campus and people prepared to use them if necessary,” Rhodes added.
Phone calls to a number of school board members seeking comment were not returned by press time.
According to Wrangell Police Department Lieutenant Merlin Ehlers, the high school and middle school complex currently have interior and exterior video surveillance cameras that might catch unwelcome visitors or other activity.
“There are cameras around the building to help in surveillance,” Ehlers said, though he would not elaborate on their positioning.
Parents and visitors can rest assured, however; cameras that function in light or infrared situations cover every exterior door and a number of passageways inside the school.
Ehlers also added that the WPD maintains a proactive response policy when dealing with any type of incident where a gunman may be loose inside one of the schools.
“We follow the ‘active shooter response’ model, which means that the first officer on scene will attempt to stop the shooter rather than wait for backup to arrive,” he said.
Active shooter response is a shift away from the reaction of officers who took part in the Columbine High School shooting of 1999, where law enforcement waited for a number of hours before entering the school.
Ehler’s also added that he would support the concept of qualified staff being allowed to possess weapons on campus as a way of assisting police in their mission before they arrive on scene.
“If you have someone who has a weapon and can assist us, that just helps with the situation,” Ehlers said. “Of course, we would have to know who they were so that when we go in and see a teacher with a gun drawn we are not surprised. Anyone with a weapon is a suspect as the actual shooter until we can identify them.”
Chief Jim Agner of the Petersburg Police Department said Petersburg High School also uses video surveillance – and that his department follows nearly the exact same contingency plan as Wrangell, which is set forth by the Alaska Police Standards Council.
“We will move in and engage the shooter to stop any carnage as quickly as possible,” Agner said. “That’s part of our training and what we will do.”
Tracy Davidson, the mother of a student at WHS said she didn’t feel guns in the hands of staff were absolutely needed to ensure student safety.
“I don’t think it’s necessary,” she said. “I think our schools do a good job of protecting our kids, and I think at some point there is one person out there that’s going to lose a screw and there is nothing we can do to anticipate that.”
Loretta Rice, a Wrangell resident who has had younger relatives enrolled in the Wrangell district took the opposite view.
“Yes, they should have guns,” Rice said. “But it depends on who has them.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, six states allow people who are licensed to carry concealed weapons into public schools in certain circumstances.
This story contains quotes and other information gathered from the Associated Press