Amid national and statewide conversations on how to make schools safer, Rockingham County’s school system and sheriff’s office hope to use former law enforcement and military police as volunteers to supplement gaps in school resource officer funding. Top Republican state legislative leaders attended a news conference Wednesday to support the program.
“Our job is to protect and serve the students, the teachers, the principals, and protect our schools,” said Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page. “Teachers want to teach and children want to learn. That’s our goal, to make sure that happens.”
House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger were present to hold up the program as an example of what could be possible from statewide legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2013. Sen. Ronald Rabin, R-Harnett, Johnston, Lee, who co-chairs the Joint Legislative Emergency Management Oversight Committee, also attended, as well as local school board members and sheriffs from around the state.
Page said he wants Rockingham to serve as a model for other law enforcement agencies and school districts in the state.
“If we are successful, we have the opportunity to establish a model and a template for the rest of North Carolina to follow so other school districts can protect their schools and children,” Page said. “No other school district that I’m aware of in North Carolina has modeled this program yet. And I hope to see more involvement.”
Moore said the state is “ahead of the curve” in allowing volunteers to serve as school resource officers. He said the legislature is working in committees to look at different aspects of school safety.
“We know it’s not one thing,” Moore said. “We know it takes a combination. There are mental health issues, criminal justice, it’s hardening the targets… hardening the schools and making them safer from shooters. It’s a combination of approaches that are going to be necessary to make sure that our students are as safe as they can be.”
The Feb. 14 high school shooting in Parkland, Florida that resulted in the death of 14 students and three adults has reignited a debate over how to prevent gun violence in and out of school. Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus, suggested providing teachers with firearms earlier this month. Last week, students and teachers marched in support of stricter gun laws in downtown Raleigh and in cities across the state and country. Page said he wants to make sure armed individuals in schools are trained and there for protection instead of putting that burden on teachers.
“In the schools, that’s a decision that the school boards and the school representatives — those leaders will have to make those decisions,” Page said. “I don’t want to totally speak for the teachers, but I think there’s a lot of teachers who would probably say, ‘I’d like the officers to do the protection part … and then let us teach our kids,’ so they have an environment to teach and the kids have a safe environment to learn. I think that’s the model that most people and most parents expect.”
Page said the program will require a minimum of two years of experience from volunteers, as well as passing a physical exam and meeting the criminal justice standards for education and firearm proficiency. If the volunteer was formerly in the military, the individual must have been honorably discharged. Volunteers will have the authority to arrest while carrying out their duties on school campuses.
Local school boards, Page said, will have to agree to allow their schools to participate. The Rockingham County Board of Education has not yet approved the program for the public school system. Rockingham County Schools Superintendent Rodney Shotwell said he thinks board members will be open to the idea. He said he wants to have volunteer school resource officers in schools by the 2018-19 school year.
“I think all my board members want safety,” Shotwell said. “That’s always first and foremost in their minds … I think with having the folks we’ve had here today, it really shows how important it is, not just for Rockingham County, but for the state.”
Page said the volunteer school officers will be under the provision of the law enforcement agency. He said specific training for volunteers is still under development. Watch the news conference below.
Berger said legislators want to know what legislative changes are needed as school systems and law enforcement agencies work through the implementation process.
“As with any legislation, from time to time, when you implement there’s some tweaks that might need to be taken,” Berger said. “We don’t know what they are at this point. Actually, one of the things that’s helpful about what the sheriff is doing here and what the other sheriffs are doing is they’re going to come back to us and give us some feedback on, ‘You know, you’ve got this language that says this, what we’re finding is we need this sort of change.’ So what we want is to make sure we’ve got something that works, something that works as intended.”
Rabin said local school systems and institutions should have the control to make decisions around what is best for their schools. He said he has seen similar initiatives in his district and has heard positive feedback.
“I don’t think that the state should dictate this to happen,” Rabin said. “I think it should be a community-level decision if you’re going to have SROs (school resource officers). If you decide to do that, I think it’s incumbent on the state, however, to set in place the selection criteria and all of those kinds of things, the training and the criteria, so that you have at least an assurance that folks that shouldn’t be there, won’t be.”
Rabin said he has been making sure school safety is a top priority in conversations in the oversight committee this year. He said there have been conversations around stricter background checks for people purchasing firearms.
“This year, I personally have caused I think the pressure to be on what are we going to do about these outbreaks of violence in any public building, but especially in a school, with an eye toward, ‘How do we get preemptive?'” Rabin said. “Being reactive all the time is not much fun.”