Southwest Virginia school district is first in state to approve program to arm teachers. Is it legal?

By: - July 17, 2018 7:00 am

Members of the Lee County School Board voted unanimously last week to buy some teachers guns and have them designated as “conservators of the peace” as part of a new school security program.

“We’ve realized we can not afford to put the number of school resource officers in Lee County that we would like to,” said Lee County Public Schools Superintendent Brian Austin. “We’re not seeing any help from Richmond so we were trying to figure out how could we address this proactively.”

The far-southwestern Virginia county of 24,000 is the first in the state to adopt a security plan that calls for arming teachers in the classroom — a controversial approach to school safety that has been discussed by President Donald Trump’s administration. At least 15 states allow teachers or other faculty to carry guns.

Virginia is not one of them, and it’s not clear that Lee County’s plan is legal.

Last year, Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed legislation that broadens the state’s prohibition of firearms in schools to allow retired law enforcement officers to work as armed security guards. But so far, that’s the only allowance that Virginia, a Dillon-rule state in which localities can only exercise authorities specifically granted by the state, provides.

Austin pointed to an exemption in the code that’s more commonly been interpreted as allowing schools to have rifle teams and other extracurricular programs involving guns.

It reads: “persons who possess such weapon or weapons as a part of any program sponsored or facilitated by either the school or any organization authorized by the school to conduct its programs either on or off the school premises.”

School board member Rob Hines, an attorney in Jonesville, also noted the element of the program that calls for the teachers to be designated as conservators of the peace.

The designation is more typically sought by security guards, and under state law, it includes the authority to make arrests, direct traffic and carry a gun.

However, a law that took effect July 1 barred special conservators of the peace from putting “police” on “any uniform, badge, credential or vehicle.” Upon request, “and for good cause shown,” conservators working for the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport Commission or the Richmond Metropolitan Transportation Authority who meet minimum law enforcement training requirements may use the word “police.”

“Obviously you’re not a full-fledged law enforcement official or anything like that,” Hines said. “These people will have to understand that the only authority they’re being given is to protect students and staff when they’re in school.

“So they can’t go out and arrest people at the grocery store or pull people over to the side of the road or anything like that. We’re not looking for any cowboys to reopen the wild wild west.”

The policy adopted by the school board says any employee in good standing who submits a written application, passes a psychological test and completes training with the sheriff’s department can carry concealed firearms on school grounds or store weapons in approved safes.

Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle said the department is aware of the decision, but said the district did not consult the state prior to adopting the program.

He said he could not comment on the legality of the program.

“Local school boards are responsible for the day-to-day management of their school divisions,” Pyle said. “School boards have their own legal counsel they consult if there are questions. That’s not the role we play.”

Austin, however, said news of the district’s plan prompted a call this week from the Department of Education officials, in which they expressed surprise at the district’s approach.

“We’ve checked with our attorneys so this is a provision that we’re pursuing and we’re going to see how it plays out,” he said.

The plan appears to be popular locally. 

The board developed the policy over the course of a year and it “has been met with majority support from teachers and parents, who want to be prepared in the event of a mass shooting,” according to WJHL

Hines said 37 teachers have already asked to be considered and he’s heard from a dozen more after the vote wanting to be included.

Video of the vote shows the crowd applauding when the program was approved.

“People aren’t afraid of guns,” he said. “They grew up around them, hunting and different things, are comfortable with them and know gun safety.”

The county made national news earlier this year when word spread the school district was holding a fundraising raffle for an AR-15  in the aftermath of the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.

The school district ultimately made the grand prize a gift certificate to the gun shop that would have donated the rifle, with which the winner could “purchase any item in stock,” a news release put out by the school district said.

This story has been updated to include comments from Lee County Public Schools Superintendent Brian Austin and school board member Rob Hines, who returned phone calls seeking comment after this story’s initial publication.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the characterization of special conservators of the peace. A law that took effect July 1 generally barred them from using the word “police” and the state seal on uniforms, badges and other credentials.  

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.