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Arkansas schools defend plans to arm employees

Andrew Demillo, Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- The superintendents of two Arkansas school districts defended training teachers and staff as volunteer security guards before a legislative panel looking at whether changes in state law are needed after a licensing panel blocked the schools' efforts to arm employees.

The superintendents of the Clarksville and Lake Hamilton school districts said they believed their plans to arm employees under a little-known state licensing law was the best way to protect students from deadly shootings. The state panel that licenses private security guards has temporarily suspended the licenses of the two districts, plus 11 others, as it considers revoking them permanently.

"We have to do something that's meaningful to provide adequate security for that terrible event, should it ever happen," Clarksville superintendent David Hopkins told members of the House and Senate Judiciary committees as they met jointly.

Clarksville, a 2,500-student district in western Arkansas, had trained 22 teachers and staff this year to work as volunteer, armed security guards. The district was one of 13 that had been licensed by the state as private security firms, allowing them to arm some employees. State law prohibits guns on campus, but an exception is included for licensed security guards.

The Arkansas Board of Private Investigators and Private Security Agencies earlier this month blocked the licenses and is considering revoking them permanently. The panel agreed with Attorney General Dustin McDaniel's opinion that the state did not have the authority to allow districts to employ their teachers and staff as security guards.

Jeremy Hutchinson, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said lawmakers may need next year to act to allow the districts to arm employees if the board revokes the licenses. Considering such a change during next year's fiscal session would require a two-thirds vote since it's not a budget issue.

"What we're wanting to do is each school board be able to make up their own mind and create their own program based on the input from parents," Hutchinson, R-Benton, told reporters after the hearing. "What we shouldn't have, in my opinion, is the Legislature setting up roadblocks or a board setting up roadblocks that prohibit schools from local control and parents having input in front of their schools."

Hutchinson said another proposal he's considering is making the names of employees allowed to carry weapons on campus exempt from the state's Freedom of Information Act. McDaniel ina separate opinion told the Clarksville district it couldn't withhold the names of the teachers it had trained to work as volunteer guards.

The Lake Hamilton School District has been using the same licensing law for years to train a handful of administrators as security guards, but the guns are locked away and not carried by the administrators during the school day. Steve Anderson, the school's superintendent, told lawmakers the district's approach isn't "one size fits all" and may not work in other parts of the state.

"I just feel like we need the tools required to protect our kids, protect our staff and protect ourselves," Anderson said. "We're going to respond whether we've got a .40 caliber semi-automatic weapon or we've got a stapler. We're going to respond."

One lawmaker said he was more comfortable with the Lake Hamilton approach of only a limited number of administrators trained as armed guards, versus arming teachers who would carry them into classrooms.

"There may be situations in some small schools where that may be a necessity, but I really don't think that's where we need to go because a teacher is there to teach," said Sen. Eddie Cheatham, D-Crossett.


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