Alabama police chief: Do not arm teachers

"I don’t think we need to complicate the situation by putting more guns into the school," said Chief John Barber


By John Sharp
al.com

SPANISH FORT, Ala. — Teachers should focus on their jobs and not be bringing guns into schools, the police chief with the Spanish Fort Police Department said this week during a unique town hall-style meeting focused on school safety.

Chief John Barber, who has headed up the Eastern Shore police agency since 2020, said he believes the addition of more guns into a school could complicate an active shooting scenario, and potentially lead police to misidentify a gunman.

“We are complicating a matter by saying, ‘let’s arm teachers,’” said Barber. “From a law enforcement perspective, introducing additional guns doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. “Our teachers need to be educators.”

Barber noted that law enforcement officers receive over 800 hours of basic training, and additional training on firearms.

He said questions abound on how much training a teacher should get before he or she is allowed to carry a gun into a school.

[POLL: Do you believe schools are safer if teachers are armed?]

“Where will you lock it?” Barber asked. “Do they know the rules of engagement and when to use force? How do we (the police) discern who is the shooter? I don’t think we need to complicate the situation by putting more guns into the school.”

Barber’s comments came during a Tuesday night event that was televised live on WPMI-TV and on Facebook.

State Rep. Matt Simpson, R- Daphne, attended the event held inside Spanish Fort City Hall, and he echoed Barber’s concerns about arming educators.

“We need to take the advice of the people with the boots on the ground and see what the teachers’ position is and what law enforcement’s position is on this,” Simpson said to AL.com on Wednesday. “It won’t be a legislator responding to a first responder call. It will be a (school resource officer) or someone in uniform.”

Simpson added, “If someone in uniform says you walk into a scene and there are five people with a gun and you don’t know who the active shooter is, and that there is a danger of having a gun on campus and there are concerns of the gun getting into the wrong hands … then that becomes an extreme concern for law enforcement. I don’t think we serve the public well if you don’t take law enforcement concerns into consideration.”

Arming teachers

As of January 1, 2020, 28 states allow schools to arm teachers or staff in at least some cases or part of a specific program, according to a RAND Corporation analysis. Alabama allows it through a limited capacity via its Alabama Sentry Program that authorizes certain administrators the ability to undergo training and have firearms stored on campus.

At least nine states, including Tennessee and Florida, specifically list school employees as exempt from their ban on firearms on K-12 school grounds, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Tennessee and Florida are among seven states that require teachers complete a gun training program.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey authorized the Sentry program in 2018, around the same time the governor created the Securing Alabama’s Facilities of Education (SAFE) Council.

“That group was formed to make recommendations, and those recommendations are largely being implemented, including the implementation of school-based mental health, a bond-issue for building improvements, district safety coordinators, as well as regional safety leads,” said Gina Maiola, spokeswoman for Ivey.

Maiola said that Ivey supports increasing SRO presence across Alabama and credited the program for taking action during an officer-involved shooting earlier this month at Walnut Park Elementary School in Gadsden.

Maiola said that Ivey “remains supportive of education personnel having the option of participating in the Sentry Program.”

But it’s unclear how popular the program has been since it started four years ago. The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA), citing “sensitive information,” declined to provide statistics to AL.com following the Uvalde shooting.

In some states, officials are providing details that illustrated an overwhelming minority of teachers willing to be armed on campus.

In Texas, Politico reports that the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement disclosed that fewer than 300 educators in their state are signed up to be campus “marshals” since the program began in 2013.

The Texas Safety Center, following a survey of more than 1,000 school districts, reported that 280 school systems participated in an older, separate and far less regulated “guardian” program that deploys armed teachers as last-ditch guards against active shooters, according to the Politico story.

Law enforcement nationwide has been hesitant to support a push to arm educators, despite calls from conservative lawmakers in states like Texas where Lt. Gov. Ken Paxton, following the Uvalde massacre, called on schools to arm teachers.

The National Association of School Resource Officers opposes proposals to arm teachers due to the risk it would pose to law enforcement and students, and the Major Cities Chiefs Association – representing the 75 police forces from the largest cities in North America – also believe it’s not a good idea.

The nation’s largest teachers’ unions also oppose it.

School resource officers

Meanwhile, in Baldwin County, all 45 campus that make up the state’s third-largest school system, have a trained SRO stationed at them.

Barber said the county’s SRO program is praised statewide, and he made a call for lawmakers to consider expanding funding to add more of the trained school-focused officers into other areas of the state.

“We are going into our fifth school year now,” said Barber. “What great foresight our leaders had in saying, ‘this is something we needed to do.’”

He added that SROs are more than “physical security at a school.” He said in many cases, they provide mentorship and counseling for students through their daily presence at a school building.

“I can’t go to a football game here without a kid saying, ‘Hey, Doc,’ and running up to me,” said Spanish Fort police officer Derek “Doc” Correa, who is the SRO at the city’s middle school. “I want to instill that trust with these kids and that if a friend is making a terrible decision, they can come up to us.”

Barber said there had been confusion on whether Baldwin County’s SROs are armed, which he confirmed they are.

In next-door Mobile County, the state’s No. 1 largest school system does not have armed SROs at its school campuses.

That could be changing. Longtime board member Reginald Crenshaw recently said he supports arming SROs.

Rena Phillips, the school system’s spokeswoman, said the school system is in the process of researching the issue, but was uncertain on when it might come before the school board. The next time the board meets for a work session is on July 20. The regular monthly meeting is July 25.

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