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School safety report: Armed officers beneficial, but not practical

School safety report: Armed officers beneficial, but not practical

August 4th, 2019 by Jeff Haldiman and Joe Gamm in Local News

Gov. Mike Parson's Missouri School Safety Task Force held its final public hearing Thursday, May 16, 2019, at the Truman State Office Building in Jefferson City.

Photo by Mark Wilson /Fulton Sun.

Having school resource officers in every school in Missouri would be beneficial, but not practical, according to Cole County Sheriff's Department Capt. Kevin Woodson.

Woodson, who has served as an SRO, was among nine members of the Missouri Governor's School Safety Task Force, which presented a final report of its work to Gov. Mike Parson's office Wednesday. Also among members of the task force were Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, who chaired it, and state Sen. Jeanie Riddle, R-Callaway County.

The group's mission was to study the federal government's school safety report. The federal report was commissioned following the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 people dead.

Members of the group gathered input from Missourians to identify gaps, shortfalls or suggested policy changes to provide frameworks that help connect schools with an array of safety issues.

One takeaway from the report was that it called for armed security in every school, whether school resource officers or armed staff, such as teachers or principals — called school protection officers.

"Of course I'd like to see an SRO in every school — from preschool to high school — but I know that's not possible," Woodson said.

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Woodson, who represented all of the state's SROs, said the report is a great starting point for future conversations or programs that could make schools safer.

Although some school districts are fortunate to have multiple resource officers in buildings, the officers may be spread thin in other districts, where they can't dedicate as much time as they need to each location.

"People wanting to do harm watch the SRO patterns," Woodson said.

And there are concerns about protection officers, he continued.

Missouri has allowed individual school districts to decide for themselves whether they would arm teachers in classrooms, according to the report. Yet most of the state's districts have chosen not to do so.

Committee members discussed in great detail their concerns about school protection officers, Woodson said.

While SPOs are allowed to carry firearms in schools — or, as in many cases, carry a key to a firearms lockbox — they are first required to attend 120 hours of training within an accredited law enforcement academy and qualify for the weapon, Woodson said.

He and Riddle told other committee members it was troubling Missouri requires no continuing education after the initial training.

"We'd like to see something to make sure the SPOs get that continuing education and requalify with their weapons as well," Woodson said. "That's what SROs have to do."

Task force members listened during public hearings, as numerous civilians — mostly teachers — testified they did not consider arming their colleagues a good idea.

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And even if educators go through the training and qualify to carry firearms, that doesn't necessarily prepare them for a real emergency, in which stress and emotions can have a physiological effect on a body.

"Educators are not law enforcement," Woodson said. "Just having a teacher being able to conceal and carry is something I don't like because having a weapon is a big responsibility. You need to know about weapons-handling and weapons-defense. I have no problem with being armed — you just need to get the extensive training."

Staff from the Missouri State Teachers Association said Thursday the report overlooked several of their greatest school-safety worries — particularly threats from within and how inconsistencies in discipline may lead to more serious situations.

Matt Michelson, MSTA government relations manager, said situations are treated differently from school district to school district.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers, and "you can't have a cookie-cutter approach."

However school districts do it, they must address discipline issues, he said.

"They become bigger issues when they're not addressed," Michelson said. "They impact other students' learning — or instruction time for teachers."

Unfortunately, educators' jobs require them, more and more, to be counselors for students.

"I think some (educators') concerns will be looked at in the future — such as school climate with mental health risk," Woodson said. "I'd like to maybe see teams developed to address a student having issues, whether the problems are at home or just peer pressure."

Hopefully, through a program like that, adults may intervene before something happens with a child.

All too often, teachers are the people who see children enough to recognize changes in their behavior. Teaming them with medical and mental health professionals could be extremely beneficial, Woodson said.

"Other states," Woodson added, "have tried programs and thrown money at them, but they didn't have a report like this that can help our governor and lawmakers get a program that can help our schools.'

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