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Kentucky lawmakers push to allow armed staff in schools following campus shooting

Kentucky lawmakers push to allow armed staff in schools following campus shooting
People gather in Benton, Ky., on Thursday night for a vigil honoring the victims of a fatal shooting at Marshall County High School. (Robert Ray / Associated Press)

In response to a deadly school shooting in western Kentucky this week, some state lawmakers are pushing to pass a bill that would allow school districts to appoint campus staff members to become armed guards.

On Tuesday, authorities said a 15-year-old boy shot and killed two students and wounded 18 others at Marshall County High School in Benton, about 20 miles southeast of Paducah.

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The attack started at 7:57 a.m. and ended when sheriff's deputies arrested the boy at 8:06 a.m., authorities said. For a rural school district, a police response time of nine minutes is not bad. But it was not quick enough to thwart the shooting before many students were harmed.

So shortly after the shooting, Republican state Sen. Stephen West introduced Senate Bill 103, which would allow schools to appoint "an employee in good standing of a local public school district or private or parochial school" with a concealed-carry license to become an armed "marshal" at the school.

State Sen. Ralph Alvarado, a Republican who co-sponsored the bill, said the legislation would loosen state restrictions for guns on school property.

The bill would apply to all schools, he said, but rural school districts might find it especially useful. Kentucky has 264 police officers who serve as school resource officers at schools in half of the state's counties, "but for some of our rural counties, which are small, they can't afford it," Alvarado said.

"People from rural communities are saying, 'Thank you,' " Alvarado said of reaction to his bill. "People from urban communities are upset. They don't like it. Well, you don't have to do it." Alvarado added that city school districts were likely to have more money to pay for armed guards.

After the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., school districts and lawmakers have looked for ways to prevent shootings. National Rifle Assn. President Wayne LaPierre, in a speech shortly after that shooting, called for Congress to "act immediately, to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every school."

That hasn't happened, and nor have liberal lawmakers' hopes for universal background checks and other restrictions.

Paying police or professional security officers to be stationed at schools is often cost-prohibitive.

"OK, what does it actually take to cover a school from the time it starts in the morning until activities are concluded at night?" said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, a group that was created by a presidential directive in 1984.

"You start looking at the number of hours in a day, and number of hours in a week, and it may require more than a single marshal or officer," and the estimated costs start to mount, Stephens said.

"It's usually budget," said LeeAnne Morrison, a justice specialist at the Kentucky Center for School Safety, a state agency, explaining why school districts might not have school resource officers, who are certified and trained law enforcement officials.

Marshall County High School in Benton, Ky., on Friday, the first day of classes since Tuesday's fatal shooting.
Marshall County High School in Benton, Ky., on Friday, the first day of classes since Tuesday's fatal shooting. (Ryan Hermens / Associated Press)

Those officers cost the same amount of money they would be making on regular duty for their local police departments, and costs are sometimes split between the school and the agency, Morrison said.

When budgets have to trim, schools with school resource officers will sometimes cut down on the number of officers they keep on campuses, Morrison said.

Since the Newtown massacre, school districts across the nation have decided to bring in armed guards or officers, even at elementary schools.

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But even then, the plans and requirements can vary by state or by school district, and some gun control advocates draw a sharp line at proposals like those sponsored in Kentucky.

"Arming teachers and janitors and others to take on potential mass shooters — it's absolutely ridiculous," said Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, a gun control advocacy group, who said guns do not belong in K-12 schools unless they are carried by trained law enforcement officials.

"We do not support any legislation that forces guns into schools and attempts to turn volunteers into sharpshooters," Watts said. She said lawmakers should instead aim to keep guns "out of the hands of children and dangerous people, and there is a solution to that. Arming teachers and janitors is not one of them."

West had previously introduced his bill in the Legislature, with no success. The measure would also require local school boards to work with law enforcement officials to draw up plans for how their armed marshals would function.

On Wednesday, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Ray Jones reportedly gave a floor speech that called for the Legislature "to commit public money to every public school in Kentucky and have an armed officer," appearing to stop short of calling for volunteer armed officials. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Matt Pearce is a national reporter for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @mattdpearce.

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