Parents protest decision to arm school personnel

UNITED LOCAL

HANOVERTON–The United school board Wednesday night approved the hire of a school resource officer amid public scrutiny regarding a decision to allow qualified school personnel to carry a concealed weapon on campus.

The board approved a contract with the Columbiana County Sheriff’s Office to provide a full-time deputy at the campus for the remainder of the school year. The school will pay the sheriff’s office $40 per hour, which will equate to approximately $25,000 for the remainder of this school year, according to Treasurer Melissa Baker.

The move is part of what Superintendent Lance Hostetler called a “layered approach” to school safety, an approach that also includes a mental health counselor, structural safety enhancements such as doorjambs and bullet-proof film for windows and doors and, controversially, allowing qualified personnel to carry concealed weapons on campus.

The board unanimously approved in December a resolution “authorizing selected employees to possess firearms on school premises and designated safety zones.” Hostetler said at that time the resolution provides the authorization to create a committee, composed of administrators, staff, community members and board representatives, to investigate the possibility of allowing employees to carry firearms and no action has been taken yet to approve the use of firearms by anyone at the campus.

Approximately 75 parents and community members filled the high school library and spilled out into the hallway in response to the decision, many claiming they did not know about it until after it was made and criticizing the board and administration for not including the public in the issue.

Parent Heather Mercer said she is part of a group of parents opposed to arming staff members and submitted a written petition expressing support for hiring multiple full-time armed resource/security officials in addition to a full-time mental health counselor, implementing structural safety upgrades such as reinforced doors and metal detectors at entrances and arming school personnel with non-lethal weapons. The petition also expressed opposition to arming classroom teachers or personnel in direct supervision of students.

Finally, the petition expressed support for public forums to be held through which the community can be part of the decision-making process, noting the decision “to arm classroom teachers was fully made without community input.”

Mercer said the petition has gained just under 200 signatures in one week and that she will present the signed petition to the school board at a later date.

“We have a common ground–caring for the children,” Mercer said in urging the board and administration to involve the community. “The community is a big part of this school and we want to be a part of the problem-solving process.”

Several other members of the audience, some in favor and some opposed, spoke on the issue, many of whom wanted to know greater details about the safety plan, who would be armed and how they would be qualified. Others just shared Mercer’s opinion that the community should have been consulted before moving forward with the resolution in December.

Hostetler briefly responded to the concerns, noting that the issue had been discussed in open session before the board approved the resolution and that a letter regarding the issue had been sent home with all students as well as posted on the district’s Facebook page. But he did say that the community voice is important in the decisions made by the administration and school board.

Board President Mike Ellyson, as well as other members of the board, reminded residents that the security plan cannot be discussed in open session due to the danger of compromising it. They assured those in attendance that they are taking the issue very seriously and that staff members will have to go through a battery of evaluations by the committee, established to determine who should be allowed to do so, before being permitted to carry a concealed weapon on campus. They also noted 228 districts across the state currently allow staff members to carry a concealed weapon on their campuses.

The board members said they will take into consideration the concerns expressed at the meeting and will continue to discuss how to proceed at this time.

khowell@salemnews.net

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