By Kim Walter
Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, introduced legislation on Thursday that could give localities a cheaper option in protecting school children.
Gilbert filed House Bill 2277, which would change the definition of "school security officer" to refer only to qualified former and retired law enforcement officers, and would provide armed security at all public schools. The officers would maintain training and weapon proficiency standards as required by law.
The bill also expands the School Resource Officer Grants Program and Fund to include these officers as an option for school systems and law enforcement agencies to qualify for state aid in their efforts to secure schools.
"I know we have a lot of retired police officers who have a skill set that can be put to good use," Gilbert said Friday afternoon.
Many officers typically retire around the age of 50, he added, but want to continue working to protect their community in some way. Gilbert said he thought that since the former officers already have a background in security, and the option would make financial sense for school systems, it's a "win-win situation."
While schools across the state and nation look to improve security, some initiatives are harder to implement due to reduced funding. Given the recent push for safety in schools, though, Gilbert said funding should come about to help.
"It just struck me as a no brainer," he said.
Because the officers are retired and could be employed as part-time or hourly employees, the idea is "much more cost effective" compared to trying to fund additional school resource officers, who require benefits and retirement contributions.
"Maybe this way each school could have two or three school security officers, compared to one school resource officer," Gilbert said.
He added that he hoped that the bill would give school divisions "more flexibility."
Shenandoah County Public Schools have hosted two school safety forums this month, and the third and final forum is taking place on Tuesday. During the forums, Sheriff Timothy C. Carter explained to parents that the county funds five school resource officers, and the Town of Strasburg funds one.
The sheriff was able to get a school resource officer in each of the county's 10 schools following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., but the additional four positions are only temporary. He too said he thinks more state funding will become available to secure more school resource officers, but said Friday the school security officer idea was a good one.
"This isn't taking the place of other security improvements, it's just another option, and it's one I support," Carter said Friday afternoon. "The observation I've had from these forums is that parents like to know there is armed staff in the school to protect their children. It's a common thread."
Gilbert also supports a bill that would allow one designated person to carry a gun in a school. Again, the bill wouldn't make the initiative a requirement, but another option for improved safety, he said.
"These mass shootings always seem to happen in gun-free zones, and it's a ridiculous notion that they're making anybody safer," Gilbert said. "Every community should be able to secure children in the way they see fit. In our locality, I'm looking for the maximum number of options to stop a shooting in its tracks."
Gilbert said the legislation has been referred to the governor's school safety task force, which will hand down recommendations to the General Assembly during it's session.
"I don't think any one will have a problem with it," he said. "These are law enforcement professionals who have the instinct that schools are looking for."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org