Virginia County Approves Plan To Arm Teachers
JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:
When class is back in session in Lee County, Va., teachers there will be armed with paper, pencils and perhaps a gun. Last month, its five-member school board voted unanimously to approve the plan, which it argues would provide added security in schools. More than a dozen states already allow school systems to decide whether teachers can have guns. Brian Austin is superintendent of Lee County Schools and joins me now.
BRIAN AUSTIN: Good morning, how are you?
LUDDEN: Good. So why decide to arm teachers instead of say - I don't know - hiring a resource officer or, you know, putting in metal detectors?
AUSTIN: This was a lengthy conversation that has been taking place over a number of months as part of a budget development process. This is not intended to be an end-all, be-all of school security. And also the school board at that meeting voted to allow a less than lethal force option for staff members. And that is for them to carry pepper spray.
LUDDEN: Was cost a factor?
AUSTIN: Yes, ma'am. This was a very budget-driven decision because we have determined that it would cost almost $600,000 to put a school resource officer in every one of our 11 schools. And if we had $600,000 at this point, it would go towards roof repairs and replacement as opposed to school safety - even though school safety is our number-one priority in schools.
LUDDEN: Any idea how many teachers might take up this option to carry a gun in class?
AUSTIN: The thing that we said publicly - and this was in our review that we did and, as well as, what we presented to the school board in July. At that point, we had 37 individuals - not just teachers but the staff members also - who were interested in this program. It's intended to be totally voluntary. The individual would go through two backgrounds of checks - a drug screen as well as a psychological evaluation that is equivalent to what an individual would go through for law enforcement.
LUDDEN: I see. What's the reaction been from the community?
AUSTIN: Generally very supportive. I think most of our residents realize we're trying to be very fiscally responsible with everything we do. But then also - I'm going to say - in our community, we have a concealed carry permit that is allowed in the commonwealth of Virginia. And I'm going to say, frankly, that several of our staff members have to make a conscious effort not to carry on school board property. Of course, that's a violation of the code of Virginia - unless it's part of a program, which is what we're providing.
LUDDEN: You mean so many people in the community have guns, and they just haven't been able to bring them to school until now?
AUSTIN: Yes, ma'am. We are a very rural community in the commonwealth of Virginia. We are a very agricultural-based community. So you know, familiarity with both guns and gun safety is paramount to our community.
LUDDEN: Now you must know nationally, you know, some teachers unions have really strongly opposed arming teachers in classes. The head of the National Education Association has called it ill-conceived, preposterous, dangerous. And critics say it doesn't really do anything to prevent gun violence. What do you say to that?
AUSTIN: Well, frankly, I think that for us to walk in and hand a firearm to all 300 of our teachers would be beyond absurd. Some of our staff would feel forced into that, and they don't have - and I'm going to say the proficiency nor the training nor the desire to do that. But when Parkland happened, and the coach was shot while he was trying to protect his students. We had the incident in Indiana, where the young teacher was trying to defend his students and got shot. And some school boards started issuing buckets of rocks and bats. And we thought we could do better than that.
LUDDEN: Now Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has denounced the plan. There have been questions, I gather, about its legality. The state attorney general's office says, Virginia law prohibits guns in schools with a few narrow exceptions. Have you heard from the state? And is this plan actually going to be able to go forward?
AUSTIN: At this point, we haven't officially heard from the attorney general's office. We feel like in conversations with our school board attorney - and a number of other attorneys say that we have found an exception that fits within those narrowly defined parameters of the local school board being able to develop a program.
LUDDEN: Brian Austin is the superintendent of Lee County in Virginia. Thank you, very much.
AUSTIN: OK, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.