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Rural county aims to be the first in Virginia to arm teachers

Rural county aims to be the first in Virginia to arm teachers
Attendees raise their candles at a vigil for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 15, 2018. (Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)

Nationally, teachers are overwhelmingly opposed to the idea of carrying weapons in classrooms.

Not so in the westernmost county of Virginia, where declining revenues from tobacco farming and coal mining have left the local government unable to afford more than four resource officers to protect 11 schools.

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Despite strong criticism from lawmakers in Richmond, the capital a six-hour drive to the east, the Lee County School Board has voted to become Virginia's first county to arm its teachers and staff. Their next step is to ask a judge to exempt them from state law.

Board member Rob Hines says they were talking informally about possibly arming teachers for more than a year before the Parkland, Fla., shooting that killed 17 people.

"You can sit around and you can plan and you can think about things, but at some point, you've got to do something," Hines said. "We have a sworn duty to protect our children and our staff, and that's what we're trying to do."

Virginia Atty. Gen. Mark Herring is considering his next move.

"Virginia law clearly prohibits guns in schools with only a few narrow exceptions, and there are good reasons for that," said Herring's spokesman, Michael Kelly.

"It's troubling to learn that people are putting so much time and effort into getting around the law and getting more guns into schools when the focus should clearly be on creating a safe, welcoming learning environment," Kelly said.

The Virginia Department of Education appeared to be caught off-guard by the plan, which was approved by the school board last week by a 5-0 vote.

"Typically, if a school division is contemplating doing something that is new and there are policy questions, the school division will contact the department and we'll work with them to provide guidance on the question and whatever support we can. In this case, we didn't have that conversation with the school division in advance of the vote," said spokesman Charles Pyle.

Hines said the board consulted extensively with attorneys. It plans to ask a circuit court judge to designate school employees who carry concealed guns or keep them in school safes to be "conservators of the peace," which the board believes would exempt them from the law that bars guns on school property.

School board members declined to say how many staff members they would like to see armed. Hines said each person chosen would undergo a psychological evaluation and extensive firearm and tactical training.

School districts in several states — including Texas, Missouri and Ohio — allow teachers to carry guns at school. President Trump has tweeted that arming school staff is "a big & very inexpensive deterrent."

But the National Education Assn. said surveys of its members since Parkland show they "overwhelmingly reject the notion that having teachers carrying loaded guns in schools makes kids safer."

"We understand that people are trying to solve the next tragedy, but why is it that arming teachers — which would actually increase the number of students in dangerous situations — is where folks want to go?" NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia said.

School board member Debbie Jessee, a retired Lee County high school teacher, said most of the local residents who spoke during the board meeting were in favor.

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In Lee County, tucked between Tennessee and Kentucky, Trump got more than 80% of the vote in the 2016 presidential election, while Democrat Hillary Clinton received just 17%.

"Ours is a very rural community and people in general grew up having guns in their household," Jessee said.

"I can remember in the early part of my teaching career, some of the young boys would have guns in the gun racks in their vehicles out in the parking lot because either before or after class, they were going to go hunting. It's just part of the social factor around here."

Hines said 37 teachers and staff members submitted applications volunteering to carry guns in school after they discussed the plan in June. Since then, Hines said, many other people have asked him, "What do I need to do to apply?"

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