Two out of three South Carolinians support placing an armed police officer in every state school – and many would pay more taxes to do it, according to a new Winthrop poll.
But two out of three South Carolinians surveyed by Winthrop oppose allowing teachers to carry guns in classrooms.
The poll provides insight into what South Carolinians think is the best way to better ensure the safety of schoolchildren. It is the same question that S.C. lawmakers and others are trying to answer in the wake of the December massacre of 20 children at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school.
Out of 1,038 S.C. adults polled this month, 65.9 percent said they favor placing an armed police officer in every public school in the state. Almost three of every 10 surveyed – 28.9 percent – said they oppose that idea. Of those who favor armed officers in schools, 73.3 percent said they would pay a tax increase to cover the added cost of having an officer in every school. Almost a quarter – 24.4 percent – said they oppose a tax increase.
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Meanwhile 66.1 percent of those surveyed said they oppose allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons into public school classrooms. Almost three in 10 – 28 percent – support arming teachers.
Public opinion in South Carolina is clear, based on the poll results, said Winthrop Poll director and political scientist Scott Huffmon.
Of allowing teachers to carry guns, “People just don’t think that’s a good idea,” Huffmon said. “Is the teacher going to have to keep it strapped on them at all times?”
In opposing that idea, South Carolinians likely are imagining a teacher carrying a firearm into the classroom and expressing their concern about what would happen if the gun got into the wrong hands, Huffmon said.
Armed teachers or armed officers?
The issue of arming teachers has divided S.C. leaders.
S.C. schools superintendent Mick Zais says he would support a local school district’s decisions to hire police officers or arm a few, well-trained educators.
S.C. Law Enforcement Chief Mark Keel opposes arming teachers.
Armed teachers would confuse police responding to an “active shooter” at a school, Keel said, adding he also worries about the shooting skills of teachers. Even well-trained police officers do not shoot with accuracy every time, said Keel, who favors having a police officer in every school.
Winthrop’s Huffmon says the poll shows South Carolinians like that idea better.
Many parents have children who attend schools that already have police officers on campus, Huffmon said, adding they are comfortable with and approve of that presence.
A recent S.C. Department of Education survey found many school districts already employ officers, mostly in middle and high schools.
According to the Education Department survey, districts that account for about 1,140 of the state’s more than 1,300 schools currently employ the equivalent of 478 full-time police officers. The number of officers in each district varies widely, with most of the officers working in the state’s largest school districts – in Charleston, Greenville and Richland counties. (Several largely rural districts did not respond to the survey.)
Legislators weighing in
Both the S.C. House and state Senate are considering bills that would place a school resource officer in every school or allow teachers to carry concealed weapons on school grounds.
So far only one bill is scheduled for a subcommittee discussion. This week, a House education subcommittee will discuss H. 3237. Sponsored by Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, the bill would require every state school to have a school resource officer but provides no way to pay for it.
Two Lexington lawmakers are driving proposals in the state Senate.
Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, has proposed a bill to place armed police officers in every school.
Setzler says the poll results prove the public supports his bill. “I’m very pleased with the poll results, and I hope they will help us in getting this bill passed.”
State Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, wants teachers to be able to carry concealed weapons on school grounds. The poll’s results – finding most South Carolinians oppose that idea – does not change her mind, the Senate freshman said.
Uniformed officers are easy targets for shooter, but armed teachers are not, Shealy said. “If you don’t know if someone’s armed, and you don’t know where the gun is, that’s your best defense.”
In hopes of seeing her bill become law, Shealy has set up classes for public school teachers to get permits to carry concealed weapons. The first class of nine participants has graduated, Shealy said, and more classes already are scheduled.
A Midlands school teacher who completed the course said she hopes the state changes the law to allow teachers to carry concealed weapons in school.
“We advertise that we’re defenseless,” said the teacher, who did not want to be identified because she was told she could not speak to the media without permission as a representative of the school district where she works.
The teacher has fired a gun only three times, including in the course. But she said she would feel comfortable bringing a weapon to school after her district made changes to its safety procedures to ensure weapons were safeguarded.
“We would be a lot safer if teachers ... had access to weapons,” she said. “We would no longer be sitting ducks.”
‘Not in favor of arming our teachers’
However, SLED Chief Keel said public opinion seems to favor his position, more armed cops – not armed teachers – should be in schools.
“(The poll) bears out what I’ve said,” Keel said. “The majority of folks believe that the school resource officers are the best security that we have in our public schools.”
The state’s school district superintendents are in “total support” of Keel’s position, said Molly Spearman, executive director of the S.C. Association of School Administrators.
That includes one S.C. district where, like Newtown, gun violence and mental illness already have intersected.
In 1988, two Greenwood school children were fatally shot after a mentally ill man entered then-Oakland Elementary School and opened fire. In 2011, the Greenwood district renamed the elementary school after Eleanor S. Rice, the principal at the time of the shooting, “for her valor and her strength” and leadership through the tragedy.
“I am not in favor of arming our teachers with guns,” said Darrell Johnson, superintendent of Greenwood School District 50. “We have outstanding teachers. They have an awful lot on their plates, and they’re hired to teach tomorrow’s leaders.”
‘Where is the money going to come from?’
While she favors arming trained teachers, Shealy agrees having an armed officer in every school is a good idea. But, she added, “The state ... is already fighting for education tax dollars, and road tax dollars. ... Where is the money going to come from?”
Both Setzler and Shealy said they were surprised that many of those surveyed by Winthrop also would support a tax increase to pay for more armed officers in schools.
Shealy rejects the idea of higher taxes. Setzler says a tax increase would not be necessary. It is the state’s responsibility to figure out how to pay for the expense, he added.
Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, R-Richland, a cosponsor of Setzler’s bill, said supporters are working on figuring out how to pay for the proposal.
S.C. school districts are concerned legislators will require more armed officers in schools but leave it up to local districts and local taxpayers to pay the bill. “Our concern is the state may mandate this but not give any funding for it,” said Spearman of the Association of School Administrators.
Greenwood 50’s Johnson said he would welcome additional police officers for his district’s 16 schools. The district always is updating its safety plan, Johnson added, holding a drill last summer with local law enforcement on what would happen in the event of shooting.
But as far as security goes, he added, “Nothing is absolutely, positively fail proof.”