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State agency rejects Virginia school district’s plan to arm school employees

Tribune-Review
| Sunday, September 23, 2018 8:30 p.m
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Handguns are displayed at the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show in Las Vegas.

A Virginia school district’s effort to arm teachers and other school employees has encountered a setback after a state agency refused to endorse the district’s plan.

The Department of Criminal Justice Services rejected Lee County Superintendent Brian Austin’s application to register as an armed special conservator of the peace, a designation the district hoped would permit school employees to carry firearms in schools.

In a denial letter, the department cited an advisory opinion from state Attorney General Mark R. Herring, a Democrat, that deemed as unlawful the plan by the school system in far southwest Virginia.

“In accordance with the reasoning stated in the Attorney General’s opinion … your application for a special conservator of the peace registration is hereby denied,” a Sept. 12 letter addressed to Austin read.

Austin said the district is reviewing its options.

“We are working with our legal counsel regarding our next steps,” he said Thursday. “We will share more information as it becomes available.”

Austin has until Oct. 13 to appeal the decision, according to the letter from the Department of Criminal Justice Services.

The Lee County School Board unanimously approved a plan in July that would select an unspecified number of teachers and staff members to carry concealed weapons or store the guns in safes on school property.

District leaders have argued that the cash-strapped school system can’t afford to hire armed law enforcement officers — known as school resource officers — for its 11 schools. Administrators say arming school workers is the best alternative.

“This program, as it’s designed, is not intended to supplant or replace school resource officers,” Austin added. “It’s another layer of security.”

The county has spent about $19,500 on firearms, ammunition and training, Austin said.

More than a dozen states permit school systems to decide whether teachers and staff members can be armed. If successful, Lee would be the first school system in Virginia to do so.

Applicants are subjected to background screenings and psychological evaluations and receive training, Lee school system officials said. They would then register with the Department of Criminal Justice Services before seeking an appointment as a special conservator of the peace from a circuit court.

Shannon Dion, director of the Department of Criminal Justice Services, sought advice from the attorney general after receiving Austin’s registration application, which indicated that at least 13 more Lee employees planned to apply.

Herring issued an opinion Aug. 28 advising that the registration could not be issued because state law bars special conservators of the peace from carrying firearms on school property.

School resource officers and some school security officers may carry guns on campuses, but those privileges don’t extend to teachers and administrators, Herring wrote.

Michael Kelly, a spokesman for Herring, called the state agency’s decision consistent with the attorney general’s opinion.

“State law does not allow unqualified personnel to carry guns in schools,” Kelly said in an email. “We encourage communities to implement the school safety measures that are already authorized by state law, and to utilize the grant funding opportunities.”

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