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Posted: December 20, 2012 8:27 p.m.

Should we arm teachers and admins?

It's been a week since the massacre of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., struck the nation to its core. Since then, at least four states have proposed arming teachers, and it seems a popular choice among Newton County residents as well based on Facebook comments.

But how likely is that to happen, and would it even work to prevent a tragedy like the one in Newtown from happening in Newton?

What the law says
Currently, the law says that school system employees can have a firearm in their vehicle "as long as it is in a locked compartment or locked container in the vehicle." According to Student Services Supervisor and Disciplinary Officer Darren Berry, "School employees are not allowed by law to carry those weapons into the school building."

Current legislation does not allow weapons on any school grounds, including colleges. Legislators in Arizona, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia have all suggested new legislation in the last week to allow guns on campus.

Although Georgia lawmakers have not yet formally proposed anything, Georgia is one of the gun-friendly states in the nation and a proposal may pop up by the time the General Assembly meets next month. Georgia is unique because there is not currently a limit on how many guns you can purchase; there is also a loophole in the law that allows guns to be purchased at gun shows without requiring a background check.

Georgia State Representative Doug Holt, R-Social Circle, said, "I am not interested in jumping to any conclusions on this incident. The incident is horrifying and shocking, which I think calls for very deliberate, open minded reasoning to address the many concerns it has raised."

What citizens say
In a Facebook poll and in postings regarding the Connecticut shooting, many readers have said that the NCSS should look at options to keep students safer at school. Arming teachers and administrators has been a popular suggestion.

Some others suggestions have included installing metal detectors in every school, keeping all school doors locked at all times and adding fencing. Others have talked about hiring outside security in addition to the school resource officers - specially trained sheriff's deputies - currently stationed in all middle and high schools and, since the shooting, more actively visible in the county's elementary schools or bringing in retired veterans as volunteers to patrol the schools.

NCSS Superintendent Gary Mathews spoke on National Public Radio this week, along with a panel of school officials and experts. Mathews was interviewed along with Gregory Thomas (former Director of Security of the New York City Schools), Michael Dorn (National School Safety Expert) and Nevada School Superintendent Rob Roberts. Following that interview, Mathews participated in the recording of a school safety program sponsored by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, along with Gregory Thomas, Michael Dorn and an elementary school principal from Nashville, Tenn.

"In both radio programs, tips were offered from our different perspectives. From my standpoint, I noted that schools have both ‘low tech' and ‘high tech' options available to them when considering school safety," Mathews said. "‘Low tech' approaches, and not expensive ones, include having a crisis management plan and practicing the plan regularly. This is certainly an area where all Georgia schools could perform much better as I understand current data. We become lax at times following the passage of time following a tragedy.

"Effective immediately in NCSS, we will monitor and hold everyone accountable for performing the once-per-month drill expected of all public and private schools in the state. The point was made in the (national elementary schools association) program that such laxness is indicative in the data seen nationally. Everyone must do better in practicing the appropriate drills each month despite the many other ‘must do's' in schools."

"As for ‘high tech' options, I've noted these already as can be seen in the Newton High School pilot for example. From my perspective as a school superintendent and father of five, I want schools to exhibit both ‘low tech' and ‘high tech' responses to school safety. I doubt that it's ‘either-or.' I believe it is both...for our children and staffs 'sake."

The high-tech option Mathews refers to are the ViewPoint and SAFE programs, discussed in the companion article in today's paper.

What would it cost?
The cost of arming teachers, installing metal detectors and other measures suggested by many on Facebook is unknown because it has not been explored by the NCSS previously.

However, according to the National Institute of Justice, portal metal detectors vary in price, from $1,000 to $30,000 a piece.

"The moderately-priced models around $4,000 to $5,000 probably offer the features and reliabilities required for a school metal detection program. Models closer to $1,000 are not recommended due to lack of sensitivity of these devices. Models in the higher price ranges generally offer enhanced capabilities that would not be necessary or warranted in a school environment," according to the institute's website.

Adding additional private security guards to the schools would cost an added mean wage of $15.11 per hour or roughly $31,420, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics website.
Installing an average chain link fence can cost between $9,000 and $12,000 per acre.

"We haven't done the research regarding costs related to fencing around schools, metal detectors and private security firms," said Mathews. "Those are not measures about which we've had discussion yet. In the Connecticut matter, neither fencing nor metal detectors would have prevented the tragedy. Armed with an assault rifle, the perpetrator shot his way into the school just as I suspect he would have had there been fencing or metal detectors.

"We enjoy volunteers in our schools now. And obviously, a greater adult presence could help deter certain negative scenarios. But, armed volunteers are not something I support nor is the concept supported by school safety experts in the field given my interactions with them."

What school officials say
The majority of school officials who agreed to be interviewed were not in favor of arming teachers.

"I do not favor arming teachers and administrators in our schools," said Mathews. "Call it intuition, but my years of experience tell me that such would not be in the interest of students or staff. I much prefer to have an armed school resource officer, trained in security matters, take on the responsibility of protecting everyone with deadly force if need be. Others on our radio panel, including two well-known school security experts, agreed with my position. Thus, I will not be proposing this measure to the Board of Education."

School board member Almond Turner, who is also the assistant chief of police for the Covington Police Department, was also not in favor of armed school staff.

"I am opposed to that because you are putting a number of weapons in a school and when you do that, there is always the possibility of that weapon being left somewhere unintentionally and a student may get it, or during an argument or confrontation they would go for their weapon," said Turner.

"However, I do think that we have policies in place that we need to tighten up and make sure we follow," he said.

"We are in the process of putting a camera in all the classrooms. I think we need to do any and everything we can to improve the safety and to make the environment for the teachers, students and parents safe. We can spend millions of dollars, but there are always those situations that you cannot plan for."

While Abigail Coggin was hesitate to comment as a school board member, she did comment as the mother of two children who attend Newton County schools.

"After the tragic events that unfolded last week, I have thought long and hard about how to keep my children safe, not only at school but also at home and out in the general public. I firmly believe that life is a risk because sadly evil does exist in our world. We have to deal with evils every day and wherever we go. Who is to say an armed person won't open fire while my children and I are grocery shopping? Risks and evil can happen anywhere and not necessarily just at school," Coggin said.

"Would having an armed officer on campus at all times help? Maybe, but if a person is determined to cause harm that person will find a way. If we put our campuses on complete lockdown will that help? Maybe, but again if a person is determined to do harm who is to say that person doesn't just shoot out a classroom window rather than enter through the front entrance of the school where an armed officer may be stationed. Would allowing teachers to have guns locked in their classrooms help? Again maybe. Believe me when I say I have spent many hours over the past few days looking at the various possibilities of how to make our schools more safe and I personally cannot come up with a 100 percent solution.

"I must rely on our trained law enforcement officers and our safety personnel to lead us in the right direction," Coggin continued. "Local policemen and deputies from the sherriff's department have begun making their presence well known in our schools this week. Some have been patrolling the campuses in their vehicles and others have been checking in and walking through the schools getting to know the layout and staff. I applaud their efforts. This is just a small thing that they can do to provide a safer school atmosphere and it doesn't cost a dime. It just becomes part of their daily patrol duties.

"As a community we all need to do our part. We may not think something so small would make a difference but it could. We need to pay attention to our surroundings. We need to notice the strangers that are walking by and acknowledge their presence. We need to sign in at the front office, even if we are only there for five minutes to walk our child to class (it is a pain, I know from experience). We also need to talk to our children about what to do in case of an emergency. We need to tell our children that procedures are in place if an emergency does occur and to listen to their teachers. To me that is one of the most important lessons my children could learn... to listen to their teachers' instructions. Not only is this important for learning but it could save their life in an emergency situation."

What happens now?
As the children and adults killed in Newtown are laid to rest, the country continues to mourn and to worry about their own safety and the safety of their children and loved ones while they are at school. The Newton County Sheriff's Office has said they will provide more of a presence at all of the schools, and the NCSS has counselors available to speak to children and teachers who are feeling anxious.

Expect for there to be many more discussions by lawmakers between now and Jan. 14, 2013 when the General Assembly convenes again, and also expect for local school and law enforcement officials to continue to talk about how to keep Newton County's students safe.

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