COLUMBIA, SC T — he state’s top educator and law enforcement officer disagreed Thursday on whether arming school employees is a good idea – an idea that some area school leaders say they are unwilling to consider.
S.C. schools Superintendent Mick Zais told the state Senate Education Committee that he would support any public school districts if it decided to allow “a few well-trained and well-screened staff” to carry guns on school grounds.
That decision and other security measures are best handled at the local level, where one district’s solution may not work for another, Zais told the Senate panel. Schools also can choose to spend more money on safety and less on other programs, he said.
But SLED Chief Mark Keel quickly opposed the idea of arming teachers.
Keel told the Senate panel that he has not talked to one law enforcement officer who thinks allowing teachers to carry weapons on school grounds is a good idea.
If law-enforcement officers had to respond to an “active shooter” incident at a school, seeing “armed individuals in civilian clothing” would confuse them, Keel said. Officers would not know the “good guys” from the “bad guys.”
Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, R-Richland, called the committee meeting to hear from law enforcement and education leaders on the safety of the state’s public schools, colleges and universities after the slaughter of 20 children at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., last month.
A proposal introduced in the S.C. House would allow educators to carry concealed weapons on school grounds.
But Superintendent Percy Mack of Richland District 1said Thursday he does not support arming teachers. “When you start having firearms or weapons around children ... the person (with the weapon) needs to be law enforcement,” Mack said.
Robert Gantt, chairman of Lexington-Richland District 5, said: “Arming individuals in schools is not a direction our school district would want to go.” Though “there for safety,” a gun in a school could fall into the wrong hands or be stolen, he added.
Mack and Gantt are not alone in their opposition to guns on school campuses, according to Scott Price, an attorney with the S.C. School Board Association.
Price said in discussions about how to improve safety, he has not heard from any school board member who supports arming public school employees. Instead, there is widespread support for staffing every school with a school resource officer, a law-enforcement officer trained to work in schools, he said.
The best defense
Keel told the Senate committee that having a resource officer in every school is the best defense against attacks like the Newtown shooting.
State Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, a member of the Education Committee, said, “The state should be in the business of having state policy. Some (school districts) can’t afford it (police officers in schools). I think we all ought to be doing it.”
In Newtown’s aftermath, communities across the state already are moving to put more law enforcement officers in schools.
West Columbia leaders recently assigned two police officers to elementary schools in that city, becoming the first municipality in Lexington County to take that step.
City leaders decided to make the move on their own as a precaution. “We’ve got crazies like everywhere else,” Mayor Joe Owens said. “People shouldn’t think we are exempt.”
For now, the city of West Columbia is paying the cost, but it is asking Lexington District 2 sto help pay part of the tab.
West Columbia is not alone.
Last month, the North Charleston officials decided to put police officers in 21 elementary and middle schools within the city limits. The superintendent of Spartanburg School District 6 also put off-duty officers in all of that district’s 10 elementary schools. And, in Beaufort County, sheriff’s deputies are set to begin patrolling elementary schools.
Keel told the Senate panel that mental-health issues in schools also are becoming increasingly more difficult to handle. Resource officers, assigned to some of the state’s schools, are not trained to handle students with mental-health problems, Keel said.
Keel also said:
• Educators should be trained to recognize the “common characteristics” that school shooters share.
• Information on people declared to have mental-health issues by a court – banned by federal law from buying guns – should be included on background checks that are required to buy a gun. That could help ensure that they do not purchase a weapon.
Tim Flach contributed to this article. Reach Self at (803)771-8658