State

It was going to arm teachers. Kentucky district drops plan after it gets ‘better’ offer.

Citizens gathered at a town hall meeting at Pike County Central High School in February to discuss whether school staff should carry concealed firearms.
Citizens gathered at a town hall meeting at Pike County Central High School in February to discuss whether school staff should carry concealed firearms. wwright@herald-leader.com

A Kentucky school district that passed a resolution to arm teachers and staff with concealed guns has scrapped that plan.

The Pike County School Board preliminarily approved a program in February to train and arm school employees with concealed firearms as a security measure in the event of an active shooter.

Now, officials are taking a more conservative approach. Uniformed deputies from the Pike County Sheriff’s Office will patrol each of the county’s five high schools when the school year begins, officials said Friday. The district has also installed security cameras and buzzers at entrances to each school while it pursues grants to pay for additional security measures.

“That decision, when we passed it that night … wasn’t an easy one,” School Board Chairman Justin Maynard said of the program to arm teachers. “The solution we have with the sheriff right now, it is a much more favorable situation.”

The school board passed February’s proposal in the wake of multiple schools shootings, including one at Marshall County High School in Western Kentucky where several were shot and two died, and one in Florida where 17 died.

The plan received nearly unanimous support among teachers and parents at a public meeting in Pikeville. Many at that meeting also called for additional security measures, including better locks on classroom doors.

Maynard said the school board pursued the idea of arming teachers because the district couldn’t afford to pay law enforcement officers to patrol the schools at an estimated annual cost of more than $1 million.

Soon after officials passed the proposal, though, the Pike County Sheriff’s Office placed deputies in some schools. The sheriff’s office has since offered to keep those deputies where they are for the foreseeable future at no cost to the district.

“Before we even got off the ground, the sheriff’s department decided to put the deputies in the schools, so that sort of solved the problem,” said Pike County Schools Superintendent Reed Adkins. “I think we’ve really, really come a long way since the initial discussion.”

Eventually, the district hopes to help pay the sheriff’s office for the cost of those deputies, Adkins said.

Meanwhile, the district has purchased security technology, like the cameras and buzzer systems, through donations it received from local businesses and individuals. Maynard, the school board chairman, said the district has received at least $20,000.

“The board was very appreciative of that money,” Maynard said. “I think it’s been a relief for the students and the parents for law enforcement officers to be there.”

Lynn Cross, chief deputy of the Pike County Sheriff’s Office, said all deputies who patrol the schools will take specialized courses on school safety through Kentucky’s Department of Criminal Justice Training. A department spokeswoman said those programs do not cost the sheriff’s office.

“Arming the teachers — some like the idea, some don’t like the idea. This way you put the guns with the professionals,” Cross said. “I think this is a better option.”

Pike County is one of many school districts to pursue improved security following the rash of violence this spring.

Last week, the Fayette County Public Schools Board approved a property tax increase to pay for a $13.5 million school safety plan that includes the installation of metal detectors and the hiring of additional school counselors.

The Fayette County Board of Education approved a 5 cent tax increase for school safety earlier this year, after a packed hearing for public comments.

In Boone County, the sheriff’s office announced it would place officers in every school in the county, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Jon Akers, executive director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety, applauded Pike County’s decision to favor trained law enforcement officers over arming school staff. He said similar programs have worked well in others places, including Boone County.

“I think it’s a great thing,” Akers said. “These officers that are out there have such a good relationship with these kids.”

In addition to deputy patrols this fall, the district has also worked to develop detailed safety plans for each school, and has led active shooter drills, said Patricia Lea Collins, director of Pike County’s Head Start program.

Collins said the deputies helped reassure parents. The patrols had some positive unintended consequences as well, including making fights between students less frequent, she said.

“It had such a positive impact last year when people’s nerves were on edge,” Collins said. “These deputies have become part of the school staff culture.”

Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Reach him at 859-270-9760, @HLWright

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