How is Mississippi responding to the threat of school shootings?
Armed teachers, keycard locks, and lockdown buttons — these are just a few of the ideas and facility updates school districts are exploring as a way to protect campuses from the rising threat of school shootings.
School shootings have been on the rise nationally over the last decade, with 93 incidents in the 2020-2021 school year. Mississippi’s most notable school shooting occurred in 1997 at Pearl High School. More broadly, the Clarion Ledger reported there have been at least 25 incidents involving guns and students in Mississippi over the last 40 years.
Experts and school leaders interviewed by Mississippi Today agree that additional school resource officers are one of the best ways to respond to this threat, but acknowledge that without the funding to do so, arming educators could be a worthwhile secondary solution. At least nine states — Idaho, Florida, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming — have a provision or program for arming educators, a list that some in Mississippi hope to join.
A recent survey by Mississippi Professional Educators showed 64% of its members supported having properly trained educators or school staff respond to active shooter situations, a proposal that was also suggested by the governor in his recent legislative budget recommendations.
Gov. Tate Reeves proposed the creation of a “Mississippi School Safety Guardian Program” that would train and arm nominated school employees through the Department of Public Safety. The program was developed with recommendations and input from the newly formed School Safety Alliance.
Borne of concerns regarding student mental health and the frequency of school shootings, Mississippi Department of Education officials convened a group, launched in July of this year, to review existing school safety law and make recommendations for updates. The group consists of representatives from the Department of Public Safety, the Department of Homeland Security, the State Attorney General’s office, local school district employees and several advocates.
Earlier this year, the State Board of Education voted to update its weapons policy to conform with state law, which allows enhanced concealed carry permit holders to carry weapons on school campuses. Once the policy was adopted, MDE Director of Safe and Orderly Schools Brian McGairty said districts had concerns about the added liability of more guns on campuses and struggled to find an insurance carrier who would be willing to take it on, leading to discussions about creating a standardized guardian program.
While the training required to receive that enhanced permit is “very credibly issued,” McGairty said it “… doesn’t take into account that you may have rounds being fired back at you when you’re forced to make those decisions.”
“You may have moving targets that are not the offender coming towards you. When you have 25 kids running down a hallway, can you make that shot?” McGairty said.”
Erica Jones, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, said teachers have voiced concerns about the training process and the possibility of the gun ending up in the wrong hands.
“Many of our educators do not want this added responsibility,” she said. “They feel as if they have enough duties as it is.”
For districts that opt-in to the potential guardian program, Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell is proposing a two-week training academy that specifically focuses on responding to active-shooter situations. The training will cover how to use firearms, self-defense, and communications training. The two week academy would also include background checks and mental health assessments, and the certification granted by this program would need to be reauthorized once a year.
Tindell said in the legislation his office is drafting, the firearms would be issued to school employees by DPS and would be standardized across the state, and the “guardians” would receive a $500 a month stipend. He added the department hopes the bill will have liability protections for districts and teachers in the case that an active shooter event does occur to help get buy-in from insurance companies.
Officials from the Department of Education and the Department of Public Safety agreed that having a school resource officer on every campus would be the best solution, but that sometimes the funding or local personnel may not exist to make that happen.
“I know some people are very wary of teachers carrying guns, but under the (policy) changes, they can do this anyway, and all we’re trying to do is provide an additional level of training … to give (districts) more comfort in the choice their making,” Tindell said.
Phillip Burchfield, Director of the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents, agreed that the guardian program could be a good substitute measure in districts that can’t get a school resource officer on every campus, but he is still concerned about the additional liability and stress it places on teachers. Burchfield also said he is not convinced the program is more cost effective than just hiring school resource officers once supplies, training time, and increased liability costs are factored in.
Some districts are also modifying their facilities to make them safer, should an active shooter event occur.
Fred Butcher, superintendent of the Natchez-Adams School District, said the district placed keycard locks on the exterior fencing at the newly renovated high school. Buildings were also renovated so that students don’t have to go outside as often to move between classrooms. The district has also added more cameras and created a lockdown feature that will shut down the campus in sections at the push of a button.
In Covington County, a federal grant allowed the district to install an access control system, which placed keycard locks on exterior doors, and cameras similar to Ring doorbells that secretaries can use to buzz in parents. Only staff have the keycards to open exterior doors from the outside, but a motion sensor on the inside of the door unlocks it for any person exiting.
“You don’t want to ever have a situation where a school is not welcoming, so it’s a really fine line and a balancing act,” said Superintendent Babette Duty.
Duty said she prefers school resource officers to the guardian program — she hired two more resource officers when she first became superintendent, and she would like to add more to ensure there’s one on every school campus.
“If you fully fund (the Mississippi Adequate Education Program), I can make decisions to keep our kids safe without somebody having to have a pistol,” she said.
“That person chose law enforcement. That is their field and that’s their skill set, and so that’s the person that I feel most confident about carrying a gun on campus rather than an educator.”