Senator plans bill to arm school personnel, officers on every campus

Dec. 29, 2012 @ 05:43 PM

Following the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., one Tennessee state senator plans to propose a solution to increase school safety that actually requires more guns in schools — in the right hands.

State Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, plans a bill that will allow the state to pay for school resource officers (SROs) in all Tennessee schools, as well as secretly armed faculty in a number of classrooms. The faculty would volunteer and would be trained, according to standards set by the state, to handle firearms and deal with violent situations.

"The bill does two things: It requires you to have protection in every school, and we're going to set the standards," Niceley said. "It will be more than just having a carrying permit. Our goal is protecting the children."

Niceley said about half of Tennessee schools have SROs — all of the Sevier public schools do — who are often trained sheriff's deputies paid jointly by the local sheriff's office and the school system. They are armed and in uniform.

"It's hard to explain to parents why one school does and one doesn't (have SROs), so I think it's time we try to get a resource officer in every school," Niceley said.

If schools don't have the money to pay for a full-time resource officer, they will also have the option to maintain one or more armed staff members. The bill allows the schools to pay for background checks and firearms training for those staff members, though Niceley said he's still working out what all will be paid for by the state.

Niceley said he will leave it up to individual districts to decide whether they want to arm their faculty members if they already have SROs in the schools, as would be the case for Sevier County public schools.

Sevier County education officials did not return calls to comment on the bill, or whether they would add armed staff members to the school system's existing SRO force.

While Niceley wants to "leave as much as possible for local districts to decide what they want to do," he did encourage the idea of an extra element of surprise.

"Why half plainclothes cops? There's a reason for that," Niceley said. "I think it would be good for the public not to know who all is armed."

Rep. Dale Carr, R-Sevierville, said he fully supports having SROs in every school, but he wanted to see how school administrators felt before commenting further on secretly armed staff.

"I'd like to see how the administrators feel about that. That needs to be an open debate," Carr said.

Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, agreed, saying he hopes the proposed bill at least will spark more discussion.

"It will be part of the discussion, but I'm sure there will be other ideas that will come forth," Overbey said. "I think we need to look at all the ideas and see which is the best to keep our students safe."

But Niceley made it clear that he doesn't want a federally funded program to govern school safety.

"The children would be in more danger than they are now," he said.

When asked to respond to those who might oppose more guns in schools, he said, "Ask them if they would like to remove all the resource officers we have in there now. That will shut them up.

"If you can train a guard, why can't you train a teacher? We're basically expanding a program that works, and giving the locals a chance to save some money."

The legislation will be introduced in the next session, which begins Jan. 8.

rhargett@themountainpress.com