As educators prepare for a new school year, leading their discussions is the issue of keeping students safe, in a time when no corner of the country seems immune to school violence.
Tuesday, the Kiwanis Club of Birmingham hosted a school safety forum with two local superintendents, the president of the Alabama Education Association, a state legislator and the former president of the National Rifle Association. While they differ on how to keep students safe, they agreed on one point: Something needs to be done. In a perfect world, they said, every school would be assigned its own police officer, known as a school resource officer (SRO).
Since most districts can’t afford police for every school, keeping students safe could mean installing metal detectors, adding security cameras or blocking outside entrances. For the more rural and poorer school systems, a new – and controversial – law allowing administrators to be armed under certain circumstances could help.
The forum, “Keeping Our Schools Safe: Identifying, Preventing and Dealing with Active Shooters,” featured as panelists Craig Pouncey, superintendent of Jefferson County schools; Kathy Murphy, superintendent of Hoover city schools; Sherry Tucker, president of the Alabama Education Association; state Rep. David Faulkner, whose district includes Jefferson County; and Jim Porter, past president of the NRA.
The Jefferson County school system is the state’s second-largest, with 36,000 students and 56 schools. Some of its schools are urban, others extremely rural. Some are 50-plus years old; others are state of the art. For the upcoming school year, the district bought 2,555 devices that add a secondary lock to classroom doors in a lockdown situation. The district added five SROs, bringing the total to 27.
“We can’t put an SRO at every school, it’s just not financially feasible for us,” Pouncey said, adding that the additional five SROs cost the district $400,000 annually. He is not in favor of arming educators, a point agreed with by Murphy.
Murphy said Hoover is “privileged” to have an officer stationed at every school, with three SROs assigned to each of the high schools. She’s been on the other side of that equation when she was superintendent of Monroe County schools.
“In Monroe County, there was a little community known as Packers Bend. It took me an hour and 10 minutes to get from the central office to drive to that school, which was on the other side of the Alabama River,” she said. “It was always that little school that troubled me. Sixty-one children are in that school.”
In rural areas, response time for first responders can be 45 minutes or more, said Faulkner. Those are the areas that could benefit from the new sentry program announced in May, which permits administrators in schools without an SRO to have a secured firearm on campus.
The program does not include teachers, and will require that the administrators successfully complete training created and certified by the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.
The NRA’s National School Shield Program was created in 2012 following the fatal shooting of 20 students and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Porter, an attorney who was president of the NRA from 2013 to 2015, said the goal of the program is improving security and preventing future shootings.
“The important takeaway here is that any school that needs help finding additional security measures, we will help free of charge,” he said, adding that no school system in Alabama has applied for the NRA’s help.
“We have figured out that the student voice is what really matters,” Boehm said. “After the shooting at Huffman, it was clear that the students knew this gun was in the school. They know about guns that are in our schools every single day.”
Mental health is one of the biggest challenges facing school systems, she said.
“When I called my colleagues at mental health, I was told that funds have been cut so drastically that we are barely able to serve adults, let alone children,” Boehm said. “And we’re not prepared to handle that.”