Since the Parkland shooting in Florida lawmakers, teachers and parents are thinking more about school security. But as officials in one Virginia county know, keeping kids safe in remote rural schools can be more difficult than protecting city and suburban schools.
Lee County has 11 schools, but can only afford four resource officers. To help fill the gap they’re turning to teachers and administrators -- training them and hoping they’ll get permission from the state to let them carry guns in the classroom.
Lee County is long and thin, that sliver of Virginia between Kentucky and Tennessee.
The school district here serves about 3,000 students - the children of farmers and coal miners. Graduates are more likely to go to East Tennessee State University than Virginia Tech.
“We are the classic rural community,” says superintendent Brian Austin as he gets in the car.
The area is remote and geography is one big security concern. We wind up a two-lane road, along a creek between mountains.
“Imagine being a deputy having to respond to a school crisis in this,” Austin gestures towards the narrow roads. “Traveling this road.”
Depending on the school, in an emergency, it could take half an hour for police to respond. That matters because the district has eleven schools, but can only afford four resource officers.
Thanks to a state grant Austin was recently able to hire a fifth. But with a small pool of applicants, and a single year funding cycle, that grant has limited value.
“By the time this person finishes academy we’ll be out of school. So then they’ll go to school resource officer training over the summer and then they’ll be with us August, September. Then the grant’s up,” Austin says as he gets out of the car.
Our destination is St. Charles Elementary. It sits just a few miles from the border of Kentucky. There’s no cell service out here. Kellie Leonard, the principal, stands out front.
“You have, used to have, coal mines in this direction,” she says with a wave of her hand. “And then that direction will take you on out. You can go left to Pennington or right to Kentucky.”
The elementary school was built in 1937. Which brings us to another security concern -- facilities.
Leonard walks around to the back of the building, pointing towards a cluster of trailers.
“Our library’s out here. So students every day are outside. They’re out from the main building,” she says.
The cafeteria is also in a separate trailer and the whole facility is enclosed with a short chain link fence.
“Anyone could jump the fence. If they came with a weapon. Just, open target,” says Leonard.
She would prefer to have all her kids under one roof, with a few secure entrance points. As it is, the best she can hope for is more cameras. And a front door that doesn’t automatically unlock when someone on the inside gets too close.
To fix problems like this, the state has provided flexible school security grants, and a recent commission of state lawmakers proposed upping that funding.
But there’s not enough for an officer on staff, and after 16 years on the job Leonard doubts she’ll ever have one.
“That would be great, if the funding did come through. And ideally everybody could have a resource officer,” Leonard says. “But that’s not always the case.”
Which is why Lee County school board approved a new measure: training and arming those who are already at school every day. For educators here, allowing teachers to carry guns feels like doing the best they can with what limited resources they have.
A Reasonable Solution?
Before we could even start an interview, Lee school board Chairman Mike Kidwell pulled aside superintendent Brian Austin to show him something on his phone.
“Sent to me last night, kid obviously says he’s not going to take anymore bullying. And the other kids are taking it as a shooting threat,” Kidwell says.
He hands over a screenshot of an Instagram post. It reads “No one is going to pick on me tomorrow.”
Police and the administration at the high school were warned. Nothing came of the threat. But in the wake of the Parkland school shooting, educators across the state have to this kind of thing seriously.
“It’s something you just can’t ignore anymore,” Kidwell says. “I mean you never know what a kid’s home life is. Drugs could be involved. There’s a lot, a lot, that goes into making this kind of decision.”
He’s referring to the decision to arm teachers. This summer the school board voted unanimously to support the policy. Kidwell says he’d prefer to have a resource officer in every school.
“Which is something that we just can’t afford right now because the buildings that we have are 50-plus years old. We’re trying to upkeep them. Replace roofs,” Kidwell says. “To do all that and hire all the extra help, it’s just not doable.”
Two rounds of participating teachers have already gone through a background check, psychological evaluation, and the first day of what is meant to be continuous training. The goal is to have one or two individuals conceal carry in each school.
Lee County sheriff Gary Parsons says it feels like a reasonable solution to a difficult problem.
“Of course there’s some hesitation in the back of my mind. I can’t say that I think this is the greatest thing that could happen,” Parsons says. “But, in practicality, it’s something I feel like we need to do.”
Charlottesville, Roanoke and Richmond all have armed officers in most of their schools, but Lee County, like many other underfunded localities, can’t afford that. So instead they’ve spent about $20,000 on firearms and training.
‘I Have to Do Something’
The entire plan was put on hold after Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring said state law doesn’t allow for guns in schools. The only exception is law enforcement.
“In order to make sure that there is not an increased risk of a tragic accident or catastrophic confusion in an emergency,” explained Herring during an interview in his office.
Lawmakers have considered allowing localities to arm teachers, but they’ve rejected the idea multiple times. Herring says he understands the funding constraints behind Lee County’s decision, but encourages them to go back to the drawing board.
“I would hope that they would look at the ways that state law allows them to help make their schools safer rather than pursue and put energy and resources and money into something that is clearly not allowed by state law,” said Herring.
Officials in Lee say they’ve already taken advantage of every grant funding opportunity for security equipment and school resource officers. They say they’ve even addressed mental health by lowering the caseloads for guidance counselors, a step state lawmakers have thrown some weight behind.
But some teachers insist they could be doing more. One, an elementary school teacher whose name we’ve agreed not to use for security reasons, says she’s offered to have a weapon in her classroom. She already conceals a gun everywhere else she goes.
“I think the only thing that stops a gun is another gun,” she said. “And I know that it seems cold, but it’s the reality of where we are.”
She sees that reality every time her elementary school runs a lockdown drill.
“And when you see their face and how scared they are. I can’t sit back and wait for someone to come in and hurt them. I have to do something,” she said. “Whether it is to cause enough commotion for somebody else in the state to send us money. Or to back off and let us protect our students.”
The county has appealed the state’s decision to halt their program. As they wait for an answer they’ll be keeping an eye on lawmakers in Richmond, who meet in January to consider what actions they can take to protect students.