Police chief: Guns in schools an option

By Dick Mason, The Observer January 11, 2013 10:18 am

La Grande Police Chief Brian Harvey believes the best option the La Grande School District has for boosting its security is putting an armed school resource officer in each of its schools. CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer
La Grande Police Chief Brian Harvey believes the best option the La Grande School District has for boosting its security is putting an armed school resource officer in each of its schools. CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer

La Grande police chief presents two options to school board for protecting city’s schools from violence 

The question is on the mind of almost every administrator, teacher, staff member and parent with close ties to the La Grande School District.

What are the steps the district can take to protect its students and staff from acts of violence by intruders? 

The top two options are clear in the mind of La Grande Police Chief Brian Harvey, who spoke to the La Grande School Board Wednesday. One option would be embraced by almost everyone if not for its expense. The other would cost little but likely spark controversy. 

Harvey said the district’s best option would be to have armed police officers at each of its schools. The individuals would serve as school resource officers.

“This would be a tremendous deterrent to shooters,” Harvey said.

Unfortunately, this would cost the financially strapped La Grande School District at least $360,000 a year. Such an expenditure would force the district to cut teaching positions, said La Grande School District Superintendent Larry Glaze.

The second option calls for the school district to adopt a policy allowing faculty and staff, with concealed weapon permits, to bring firearms into schools. This would be legal since Oregon law permits anyone with a concealed weapon permit to take a firearm into a school, Harvey said. 

Both options would put firearms into schools, something Harvey believes would be a major deterrent to shooters. Nothing is more inviting to a shooter than a place where guns are not allowed. Many police officers, Harvey said, are blunt when discussing schools and other places where guns are banned.

“Many in law enforcement call these places ‘gun-free victims zones,’” Harvey said. “Predatory criminals know these places are going to offer no armed resistance.”

Harvey said almost every shooting in a school ends with a violent encounter. The shooter is either killed or commits suicide. Often the shooter commits suicide before taking all of his intended targets when he realizes people with guns are closing in on him, Harvey said.

Should the La Grande School Board later vote to allow teachers and staff to bring guns into schools, steps would be taken by law enforcement officials to assist them. Harvey said that the La Grande Police Department and the Union  County Sheriff’s Department have offered free training to approved school district employees. Training on appropriate tactics has also been offered.

Harvey emphasized that in an active shooter situation those with firearms would have the choice of defending themselves from others until law enforcement officers arrived but would not be expected to take action.    

School board member John Sprenger said he would not support allowing teachers and staff to bring guns into schools.  

“If you arm teachers, the liabilities would be endless. The liabilities would be just extreme,’’ Sprenger said.

He said if a gun injured a student after being dropped and discharging, the school district would face terrible consequences. 

“(Allowing teachers and staff to have guns) would be a wonderful first line of defense, but the cure might be worse than the illness,’’ Sprenger said.

La Grande Middle School Principle Kyle McKinney also said he would not support having teachers and staff members bringing guns into schools. The LMS principal believes many teachers and staffers share this sentiment.

“I can’t think of anyone who would be excited about bringing a gun to school and having that responsibility,’’ he said.

The LMS principal said that he personally would be leery about bringing a gun to school because he is not trained for an active shooter situation.

“It is huge responsibility. I don’t think that as educators we signed up for this,’’ McKinney said.

 La Grande High School Principal Andrea Waldrop said she would not want to bring a gun to her school.

“It would make me uncomfortable. I don’t have the skills (needed to handle a gun),” Waldrop said. 

She used to live near a firing range where local law enforcement officers practiced often. Waldrop was impressed with how much time they devoted to honing their firearms skills. She doubts that her school’s teachers would be able to devote similar amounts of time keeping their firearm skills sharp.

The principal also noted that teachers who have expressed reservations about the option of being able to bring firearms into schools include those who use rifles  to hunt deer and elk.

“Even the teachers who are hunters feel uneasy,’’ Waldrop said. 

LMS Vice Principal Brett Jackman also would be leery about bringing a gun to school, but he is keeping an open mind.

“The idea of carrying a gun to school is unfathomable,’’ Jackman said. “If I had to vote on the changing of the policy (to allow teachers and staff to bring guns to school), I do not know how I would vote.’’

Presently students in the school district are seeing local law enforcement officers on a daily basis. Officers with the La Grande Police Department and the Union County Sheriff’s Department have been making random regular visitors to all schools following the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December. Harvey said officers are delaying responses to other calls for service to make these school visits.   

“They are doing a wonderful job of coming by and checking on things,’’ Jackman said. 

School board member Bud Walker would like to see the law enforcement presence on district campuses heightened by the addition of school resource officers. He understands their value for he once served a student resource officer in Provo, Utah. Walker had five school resource officers working under him at more than five schools.  

Walker said resource officers provide a level of insight beyond that of their schools’ faculty. 

“They are aware of all kinds of things teachers are not,’’ Walker said.

He explained that not only do resource officers know how to react in an emergency, “they also know the potential threats.”

Walker said the officers also serve as great role models.  

Joe Justice, chair of the La Grande School Board, said he greatly appreciates the assistance provided by Harvey at the district’s request as it looks for ways to make schools more secure.

“Safety is our most paramount concern,’’ Justice said.  “We always want to make our schools as safe as we can.”

Justice said the board will be evaluating the information provided by Harvey.

“It is a lot of information to take in. It is a complicated issue we are looking at,” he said. 

Harvey said he applauds the La Grande School District for taking steps to improve security. He noted that these steps were taken before the shooting in Connecticut.  

“The school district has been very proactive,” the police chief said. 

Harvey said school officials all around the United States need to know that unless they take new steps to prevent and react better to shootings, they will continue.

“If you keep doing what you always have done, you are going to get the same result,” he said.