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Arming our schools?

New Sentry Program raises questions

News Staff Writer

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced last week the state’s participation in a new public safety initiative aimed at providing additional security in Alabama schools that do not have a School Resource Officer.
The Alabama Sentry Program, a voluntary stratagem that doesn’t mandate — but will permit — administrators in schools that do not have an SRO to maintain a firearm on campus in a secured safe in order to be prepared to respond in the event an active-shooter situation were to evolve.
Gov. Ivey said she accepted the recommendation of the Securing Alabama’s Facilities of Education (SAFE) Council in announcing the new program.
“The Governor’s SAFE Council recommended adding more School Resource Officers throughout our state, a solution that I support, and will work with the legislature to implement,” Ivey said in a press release. “However, until we have a concrete plan to increase the number of SROs, we must provide a way for schools to protect their students in the upcoming school year.
“The Alabama Sentry plan is a reasonable and measured approach to provide an additional tool for schools without a resource officer. With the unfortunate continued occurrence of school violence across our country, we cannot afford to wait until the next legislative session.”
The Sentry Program will require that the administrator successfully complete a training program created and certified by the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. Unlike teachers, school administrators have complete access to their schools and are responsible for the safety of all students at the school.
The plan has the support of Alabama Secretary of Law Enforcement Hal Taylor and Alabama Superintendent of Education Dr. Eric Mackey.
“I applaud Governor Ivey and members of the SAFE Council for creating this program,” Taylor said. “School security is one of the highest priorities for law enforcement, and this program will help first responders identify and stop threats quicker and before they happen.”
Mackey expressed a similar view.
“The Alabama Sentry Program is one way for us to put more safety resources in schools without having to seek new funding,” said the state school superintendent. “This is truly a step in the right direction.”
The Alabama Sheriff’s Association and the Alabama Association of School Boards have also fully endorsed the program.
Unanswered questions
But local county law enforcement officials, who currently provide SROs at most county schools on a shared-time basis, are concerned that many questions still must be answered before the new initiative can be fully and efficiently implemented.
“Take the Atmore schools; Deputy Jeff Weaver is assigned to three different campuses — Rachel Patterson Elementary, Escambia County Middle School and Escambia County High School,” said Chief Deputy Mike Lambert of the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office. “Are all three covered? Or do we have to pick two administrators? Nobody has answered that question yet.”
Lambert pointed out that Deputy Matt Jernigan carries even more of a load, serving as SRO for the elementary, junior high, high school, alternative school and compass school in Flomaton, while also “checking on Pollard-McCall” (which serves grades K-8) on a regular basis.
The chief deputy said he and Sheriff Grover Smith have discussed the new program, but so far have little information on which to base any decisions regarding participation. He said the pair of lawmen like the idea of more SROs, but would like to see other questions answered, also.
“Ideally, we would like to see one (SRO) in every school, but (the state) has got to figure out how to put one in every school,” he said. “We’re both open to (the Sentry program), we just need to find out more about it.”
He added that both like the idea of an administrator, instead of a teacher, being the “keeper of the gun,” although they have concerns about the shift in demeanor of the person in charge of responding to on-campus threats.
“I feel a lot better with it being put to administrators, although some teachers are probably more proficient with handling a weapon,” said Lambert, whose wife is a teacher and has a concealed-carry pistol permit. “It’s a question of responsibility, and I don’t know if I would want my wife to have that responsibility. There’s a difference in offensive and defensive use of a gun, and in my opinion it (the program) puts (the person in charge of the weapon) in an offensive position.”
Whose liability?
He said he would also like to know where the liability would lie if school administrators participate in the non-mandatory program, wondering if the state board of education, the state law enforcement agency or local school boards would carry that burden.
Under the program’s provisions, a school administrator must seek the approval of his or her local superintendent, local school board and the county sheriff to participate in the Alabama Sentry Program.
School administrators seeking to assume the duties of school sentry must possess a valid Alabama school administrator certificate and a valid concealed-carry permit; each must be appointed as a reserve sheriff’s deputy; each must be an active school administrator in a public elementary or secondary school without an SRO, and each must pass a drug screening, mental-health assessment and stress test.
Lambert pointed out that in Franklin County, several administrators and teachers have already been trained in firearm use and safety and have been sworn as reserve deputy sheriffs.
Lethal force allowed
A school sentry’s duties will include “the use of lethal force to defend the students, faculty, staff and visitors of his or her school from the threat of imminent bodily harm or death by an armed intruder.” School sentries will be allowed to exercise their duties only in response to an armed intruder.
Also under the new program’s provisions, these school sentries, or the board of education for which they work, will be responsible for acquiring and maintaining an approved weapon, a weapons-storage system, ammunition, and a specially-designed bullet-proof vest.
Lambert said that requirement was also among the unanswered questions that he is confident will be explained as the sentry program moves toward implementation.
“There are still a lot of questions that need to be answered before the program will be put into place here,” he said. “Surely you’re not going to say to (ECHS Principal) Mr. Fuqua or the other administrators that they’ve got to go and buy a gun. We need to find out more about the new program. But if the sheriff or the school superintendent doesn’t sign off on it, it’s not going to be done.”
Neither Escambia County Superintendent of Education John Knott or Assistant Superintendent of Education Beth Drew had responded by Tuesday’s press deadline to a request for comment on the new program.