By Stephen Smoot
Last week, the Jackson County sheriff’s department reported that it “responded to a call for service regarding a potential school shooting threat” aimed at Ripley Middle School. The department added that “under further investigation, the threat appeared to be sincere in nature and somewhat thought out by the suspect.” Sheriff R. H. Mellinger added “thank you to all that have aided in this quick intervention.”
Jackson County’s successful foiling of a school shooting plot comes as Amy Grady, Senate Education Committee chair and one of the state senators representing the area, has joined four other senators in sponsoring a bill to create the West Virginia Guardian Program.
The purpose of the bill would allow county school boards to “contract with an independent contractor who is an honorably discharged veteran, former state trooper, or former federal law enforcement officer to provide West Virginia Guardian services.” These services include providing for “public safety and/or security to protect life and property.”
Contractors would have to meet a stringent set of standards designed to protect children and schools. While they are “considered an authorized individual for purposes of the Gun Free School Zones Act of 1990,” contractors under this legislation have no arrest powers. Contractors may carry a concealed weapon, however.
Last fall, Charles Hedrick, superintendent of Pendleton County Schools, spoke in support of a county levy to enhance school safety that ultimately did not pass. The bill provides a list of required training in order for the contractor to be employed. Additionally, these contractors have no eligibility to participate in public employees’ insurance, workers’ compensation, retirement, or other state employee benefit plans.
“So in a nutshell this bill reduces the cost of the school resource officer that our proposed school levy would have funded,” Hedrick said. He raised concerns, however, that the lack of employee benefits could keep many from seeking the role.
According to Grady, “local school systems should support this legislation because it is a positive and safe way to provide extra safety measures in schools.” She also stated that “those retired officers and veterans will be there because they want to be there. Positive interaction can come from students seeing these people on a daily basis and can give students a positive outlook and opinions of veterans and law enforcement.”
Traditionally, West Virginia school resource officers are pulled from the top tier of experienced law enforcement officers. The ideal school resource officer understands how to build a trust-based rapport with students. Students who trust their school resource officers have confidence in sharing what they see and hear, helping officers to head off problems before they harm children and school staff.
According to West Virginia Metro News, Rob Cunningham, deputy secretary of the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security, helped to put together the bill. He told Metro News that “we have several holes throughout the state in each of our schools when it comes to safety.” He added that “the training aspect will be key” in helping veterans learn a “quasi law enforcement role.”
Grady explains that “this idea was actually brought up by a group of veterans who were interested in how they could help school safety.” She and other legislators “heard ideas from all kinds of angles,” and said that “this idea helps to not only improve school safety, but it provides an important role for our veterans and law enforcement retirees.”
Earlier this week, the bill passed the Senate 32-0 and moves on to the House of Delegates for consideration. Hedrick stated that “if this bill does become law, Pendleton County Schools will take an in-depth look at the potential employment costs of the West Virginia Guardian program.”