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School districts hoping to keep security licenses

3 chiefs to talk to state board

By Brenda Bernet

This article was published August 28, 2013 at 4:50 a.m.

Clarksville Superintendent David Hopkins said he plans to appeal if a state board decides Sept. 11 to revoke the license it granted his district to have staff members act as private security guards.

He hopes to persuade the Arkansas Board of Private Investigators and Private Security Agencies to uphold the district’s license.

Hopkins is among at least three superintendents who plan to speak at a Sept. 11 board hearing during which the school districts’ licenses will be considered. The board determined earlier this month that a school district is not a private business, and school district employees cannot be commissioned as private security officers.

The hearing next month will help the board determine whether to revoke licenses and commissions of school districts and their private security officers.

School security also is a topic today of a joint meeting of the state Senate and House committees on judiciary that Hopkins will attend.

Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Benton, is interested in exploring whether state law allows school districts to make decisions on school safety. If a legal avenue does not exist, he hopes the Legislature will change the law.

After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Hutchinson became interested in arming school personnel, he said. He was invited to attend an “active shooter” training and - using a rubber bullet-loaded pistol - he mistakenly shot a teacher who was confronting a “bad guy.”

The experience gave Hutchinson some pause, but he still supports giving schools the authority to decide how best to secure their campuses.

“The ideal would be to have a trained resource officer in every school,” Hutchinson said. “The state and school districts can’t afford that.”

The Clarksville School District drew national attention in July for its plans to train and arm 20 staff members who would act as security guards to defend against a gunman intent on harm, such as in mass shootings at Sandy Hook, Columbine High School in Colorado and Virginia Tech University. The team included a janitor, principals and teachers.

The district applied for a license from the Arkansas Board of Private Investigators and Private Security Agencies to act as a private company with authority to hire private security officers, a practice other school districts had used for years.

But Attorney General Dustin McDaniel signed an opinion dated Aug. 1 that the law didn’t apply to school districts because they are political subdivisions of the state and cannot be considered private businesses.

The board in turn responded Aug. 14 with a decision to suspend the commissions of private security officers of school districts.

Some of the districts, including Ashdown and Fort Smith, that had been licensed to employ security officers now have law-enforcement officers fulfilling that role.

The Pulaski County Special School District has a security department, but its officers are not armed, said Mark Warner, director of safety and security. The officers patrol campuses and look for safety issues. The state license helps to ensure his officers receive training annually.

Warner is in his fourth week with the school district. He previously has worked in prisons, where officers cannot carry firearms near inmates. Warner said the experience taught him about the importance of being proactive, observant and skilled in de-escalating situations. He thinks trained police officers should respond to an active shooter.

Other districts that had long employed armed security officers told their officers not to carry firearms because of the decision of the state licensing board.

In the Nettleton School District in Craighead County, Superintendent James Dunivan said the security team includes two law-enforcement officers who can carry firearms and one private security officer who stopped carrying a firearm Monday, he said.

Dunivan does not support arming classroom teachers, but he thinks school districts need the option of employing armed private security, he said.

“I’m hoping some latitude will be granted after the hearing Sept. 11,” Dunivan said. “To have a security guard without being able to carry a weapon is like having a watchdog without teeth.”

In the Texarkana School District in Miller County, five security officers have carried firearms since the district received its license from the state in 2009, Superintendent Becky Kesler said. The district’s security team also includes one police officer.

“They are a real presence,” she said. “They walk the hallways. They’re visible at ball games and lunchtime.”

Kesler does not carry a firearm, but she feels that the district is not as protected, she said. She said she learned at a conference on school security that the best way to stop a gunman is to have someone with a gun.

During mass shootings, people are killed within seconds, Hopkins said. He intended to have several people inside each of his district’s campuses who could respond within seconds while police are on the way.

Hopkins said the team would draw guns only in response to a shooter using deadly force on a campus. Otherwise, school officials would contact police, such as if a gun were taken to school in a backpack or if a drunk person was trespassing, he said.

Hiring 20 school resource officers would cost about $1 million, he said.

Arkansas, Pages 10 on 08/28/2013

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