COLUMBIA — State Superintendent of Education Dr. Mick Zais said Thursday that local school districts could consider a school safety option – providing a small number of school employees with guns at schools, but only people with a high level of training and vetting.
Mark Keel, the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division chief, responded that he would never agree with that approach under any circumstances – a response that an Aiken School District administrator and two School Board members agreed with.
Both officials were asked to appear Thursday at a S.C. Senate Education Committee meeting.
During his tenure following his election as the state superintendent in 2010, Zais said he has been impressed with the safety of schools he has visited throughout the state.
He appreciates the efforts of School Resource Officers. The Aiken County School District has them located in all high schools and a small number of middle schools.
School districts should have the flexibility to consider armed school employees, Zais said, although he wasn't specifically referring to teachers.
“It could be anybody who works for the school system,” he said. “School safety is primarily a local control issue. We don't want a one size fits all policy.”
Keel pointed out that he's a parent. In all the public schools his children attended, SROs worked in those facilities.
“I can assure you that we need well-trained, committed SROs,” Keel said. “As for arming teachers and administrators, no law enforcement officer I have talked to is in favor of that. When officers got to a school, they would not know who are the good guys or the bad guys. Teachers and other educators are there to teach.”
Dr. Randy Stowe, the Aiken district's director of administration, represented other officials at the Senate committee meeting. He was impressed with Keel's message.
“He said how law enforcement officials emphasize the importance of training SROs as opposed to having trained employees,” Stowe said. “(Keel) gave a consistent 'no' on having untrained individuals in the schools with guns.”
School Board members Levi Green and Richard Hazen readily concurred with Stowe.
“I don't think we need any other folks in schools with guns,” Green said. “That creates problems.”
The committee chairman, Sen. John Courson, R-Lexington/Richland, described himself as a marksman during his Marine Corps service, “but I would not be qualified” to be armed in a school setting.
The senators also discussed the possibility of the General Assembly authorizing all public schools to have SROs. If they did so, they asked themselves who would pay for it.
Again, such a decision about district-wide SROs should be up to the districts' school boards, Zais said.
“I think each district should pay for it,” he said of those opting for full SRO services. “The districts have a lot of flexibility, and the General Assembly has given them a lot of money. At the end of the day, educators and school boards have to prioritize the resources available to do that.”
Hazen considers that approach ironic, since the state took some flexibility away from the districts last year, he said. The Aiken County School Board was required last year to provide a step increase and a 2 percent raise for teachers.
“The state isn't offering any funding for that,” Hazen said. In addition to the current SROs, schools are also providing security for after-school events, such as athletic events, he said.
The school district doesn't have the resources to find money for nearly 30 more SROs for elementary and middle schools, Green said.
“If we flex for this, we would have to whack something in another place,” he said. “We couldn't sacrifice the educaton of our kids.”
It would make more sense for the state to financially support such a concept, Stowe said, echoing Green's concerns.
“Flexibility on (SROs) would force the local districts to make decisions on what is more important – instructional programs or the safety of students,” Stowe said. “That's a bad situation to put local boards in.”