Wednesday, August 14, 2013

State board suspends commissions of school staff to carry guns

Posted By on Wed, Aug 14, 2013 at 11:54 AM

UP FOR RECONSIDERATION: Publicity such as this about armed staff in Clarksville led to todays meeting about permits to carry concealed weapons.
  • UP FOR RECONSIDERATION: Publicity such as this about armed staff in Clarksville led to today's meeting at which a state agency suspended licenses for school staff to carry weapons.

David Koon reports:

The Arkansas Board of Private Investigators and Security Agencies has decided to follow the legal advice of Attorney General Dustin McDaniel. This morning it suspended security guard commissions it had granted to school districts so that staff members could carry weapons.

One vote unanimously supported McDaniel's opinion.

A second vote suspended commissions of all people commissioned as a security officer while a school district staff member statewide. That vote applies to about 60 people, including 14 in Clarksville. The vote was 6-1. In 60 days, the board will have individual revocation hearings for all those with commissions.

Another motion, made at the suggestion of assistant Attorney General Kim Hodge, said the suspension was taken because of concerns about the safety and welfare of the public — a requirement of the law regarding the suspension of security officer commissions. That vote was unanimous.

"The board understands the need for school safety, but this is an issue that is going to require legislative change," said Ralph Sims, chair of the board.

Board member Jack Acre was vocal with concerns about teachers being commissioned as security officers. "Teachers should be teachers and not security officers," he said. He was concerned about training and where guns were stored during the day. In Clarksville, the plan was for teachers to carry weapons in concealed holsters.

Today's meeting was a response to McDaniel's opinion. He'd been asked about licensing following heavy publicity over permission the board had given the Clarksville School District to be licensed as a security agency and employ its own staff members as armed security guards.

Clarksville had indicated before the meeting it would appeal if its permission is withdrawn. An effort to change state law also is certain to follow.

Early indications were that the existing permission was in jeopardy. At the outset of the meeting, a staff attorney for the board signaled agreement with McDaniel's opinion. Earlier, shortly after the opinion, the Board had returned to Clarksville applications pending for guard licensure. This followed approval of licenses for 14 Clarksville school staff members, all disclosed in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.

Several school districts have taken advantage of security licensing over the years to allow a handful of school employees to have guns, but the practice has been limited, perhaps four dozen people in the state's 270 or so school districts. The Clarksville School Board, however, signed off on Superintendent David Hopkins' plan to license 20 or so staff members, including a bus driver, administrators and several classroom teachers, so they could carry concealed weapons on the job. He saw it as added security against a sudden gun attack, such as the one in Connecticut.

Publicity about the Clarksville plan, the most far-reaching use of guns anywhere in Arkansas, prompted a request for an official opinion from McDaniel. It said only private concerns, not public agencies, were qualified under the law to have licensed security officers. He said school districts could employ regular law enforcement officers or it could contract with private security firms, but it couldn't use its own staff as armed security under current law. He said the General Assembly could change the law to allow that, however. Hopkins saw his plan as an inexpensive and more comprehensive way to step up security.

Attorney general opinions are only advisory. They do not bind agencies. But a signal of the posture of the board came when it stopped processing pending applications. Clarksville paid $1,000 stipends to staff members on a one-time basis to equip themselves with 9-millimeter semi-automatic Walther pistols, ammunition and holsters. Clarksville also paid about $50,000 for training beyond normal guard license training which included weapons and tactics instruction.

Hopkins has said previously that he believed McDaniel had misinterpreted the law. A number of politicians have entered the fray in support of Hopkins. If a law change is necessary, several have said, they'll work to achieve it. Not all are happy about putting armed staff members in classrooms. Some parents have objected. Even Asa Hutchinson, a national spokesman for the NRA and Reublican gubernatorial candidate, while endorsing more armed security in schools has said that task shouldn't fall to teachers. They should teach, he has said.

The board that met today consists of eight gubernatorial appointees. According to its website, current members are Jack Acre, Jordan Brown, Jason Curtis, Jess Odom, David Orsborn, James Shourd, Joey Smith and Sims, the chairman.

Asst. AG Kim Hodge addresses the board
  • Asst. AG Kim Hodge addresses the board

Acre was one of the most vocal proponents of suspending the commissions of those school employees who were commissioned as armed security officers. Acre, who has served on the board twice and has run Razorback Security Services in Little Rock since 1976, said that he doesn't believe school employees should serve as security for schools. He said that if the legislature moves to allow teachers and other employees to carry guns on campus in the wake of the board's decision, "they're going to be wrong."

"If you're a school teacher, you're a teacher," Acre told the reporter during a recess. "If you're a janitor, you're a janitor. You can't do both jobs at the same time. A teacher can't keep one eye on the classroom, and one eye on the door."

Acre said that in addition to safety concerns, he has concerns about where the firearms will be kept while class is in session, and whether they can be secured from both curious students and those who might use them to do harm.

"If they put on that gun," Acre said, "and they're a teacher, where's that weapon going to be [while class is being taught]? Another concern is: What if you've got a little 100-pound teacher over here, and two big kids who weigh 200 pounds go accost her and take her gun away from her?" Acre said he understands the employees received training, but doesn't know anything about the training they received or the instructors.

While Acre said "there's always going to be a nut out there" who might shoot up a school, he still doesn't support arming teachers and other school employees. "How long are they going to do this for?" Acre said. "Is a teacher going to come in with her nice dress and strap her gun on her side and carry it into a classroom? I wouldn't want my kid going to school there."

We talked to David Hopkins, Superintendent of Clarksville School District, who was at the meeting today. Hopkins said that while he is obviously disappointed, he plans to appeal the ruling so that the school district's side of the issue can be heard by the board. Hopkins and other proponents of keeping the security officer commissions by school employees weren't given the opportunity to speak before today's vote. Hopkins said the school district may use the individual revocation hearings scheduled for 60 days from now as a platform to get their opinions heard. "We're going to have to get with our legal counsel and try to get our arms around how this process is going to work so the board hears our side of the argument," he said.

Hopkins said that before moving forward with the plan to commission school employees as armed security guards, they felt like they'd researched the legality of the plan thoroughly, and had had many conversations about the idea with the State Police. "They felt like, given the previous practices of that board, that everything we were doing met the mandate of the law," Hopkins said. "That's why we moved forward with our plans." Hopkins said the plan was never to have school employees "watch the door," only to arm them as a last line of defense if all other security measures at the school failed during a school shooting incident. He said he wanted to make it very clear that Clarksville School District means no disrespect to the office of the Attorney General, and plans to abide by the law.

Hopkins said that if the school district fails in their attempt to get the board to reconsider revoking the commissions of their employees, he will be working with members of the legislature in the next session to get the law changed so school employees can be armed on campus. "We have had a lot of interest from legislators who I believe would be willing to try to move forward in that direction in the future," Hopkins said. "I think it was very close to happening in the last session, and to be honest, we didn't really pursue that avenue, because we thought there was already an option available, which was the commissioned security guard.... however, I think that in the future, when we sit down with lawmakers to work on legislation that would allow schools to provide security for their children, they are going to be very willing to work with us to put something together."

Republican candidates for attorney general, David Sterling and Leslie Rutledge, issued news releases about their disappointment at the board decision and said the law should provide for guns on campus.

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