The frequency of school shootings across the country has Campbell County High School art teacher Brian Harmon and his students on edge.
“It’s scary,” Harmon said. “I’ve been teaching for 18 years, and I’ve seen the anxiety for that increase throughout the years.”
He realized just how anxious students were last year during an unannounced fire drill. The class was working on a sculpture project when the alarm went off. Harmon said his students froze and looked at him. No one would go into the hallway until he checked it first to see if it was safe.
“We live in a world where my kids don’t just react and go outside because it’s a fire drill,” he said. “They look to me and see ‘Am I supposed to go outside, or is this some kind of active shooter situation?’”
Harmon was visiting the state capitol in Frankfort with the Kentucky Education Association last week, and had just heard lawmakers discuss a bill that would require all school resource officers, or SROs, to carry a gun. Harmon is against arming teachers, a proposal lawmakers floated after the 2018 deadly school shooting in Marshall County. But Harmon does support this measure, which passed the Kentucky Senate on Monday, to arm trained police in every school.
“If we can find a compromise of having an armed professional, and that’s going to ease parents’ minds and ease students’ minds, then I find that’s a good compromise to have,” Harmon said.
According to the Kentucky Center for School Safety, all of the state’s school resource officers already carry guns. But recently, the board of Jefferson County Public Schools has been questioning whether their SROs should be armed. The Senate bill would mean JCPS, or any other local school board, couldn’t decide to have unarmed SROs.
“I think it’s common sense,” Sen. Max Wise (R-Campbellsville) said of the measure, which he is sponsoring. “I think there’s an expectation of the parent that when they drop their kid off at school, and they have an SRO in the school system, that that SRO is armed. I think that if something were to terribly go wrong, I think you need somebody on that campus prepared and equipped if a certain situation arises, God forbid that it does.”
Wise points to a poll done by Jefferson County Public Schools showing 90 percent of JCPS staff surveyed wanted an SRO at their school, and 82 percent said they thought the SRO should be armed.
But arming police at school has some parents feeling less safe.
Jefferson County mom Cassia Herron walked into the lobby of Meyzeek Middle School one afternoon to pick up her daughter, eighth grade student Bella Sutton, who stayed late to watch a basketball game.
The very first time Herron walked into this lobby two years ago, she was shocked when she saw the school’s SRO.
“I just stopped, and I was like, ‘Why is the police here?!’” she said.
Herron doesn’t believe police officers should be in schools at all. Herron is Black, and so are her children, and she worries about her kids becoming victims of racially biased policing at school. The gun makes her extra nervous. She feels like something is more likely to go wrong.
“The possibility is much higher I think with guns,” she said. “Guns are meant to kill people, and so I’m concerned that, overly, it will be Black and brown children that are killed or abused in the school system.”
Her daughter Bella agrees. She said she worries about a possible school shooting “all the time.” But she’s skeptical one SRO in the building would be able to stop an active shooter situation, even with a gun. And she’s worried about police misconduct.
“I’m not saying that all police officers could be bad,” Bella said. “I’m just saying that certain situations could happen. Like there could be a fight with one student and another student. It could go one way — the police officer breaks it up and everything’s fine, versus pulling the gun or whatever.”
The Kentucky Association of School Resource Officers says that in all the years the state has had armed school resource officers, there has never been an instance where an SRO used lethal force on a student. However, there has been at least one high-profile instance of an SRO tasing a student in Jefferson County.
The measure to arm all SROs passed the Senate Monday afternoon 34-1, and goes to the House for further consideration. It’s part of a larger school safety bill meant to prevent school shootings, and also would require many school districts to hire more counselors. The only dissenting vote was from Sen. Morgan McGarvey (D-Louisville), who called it an “unfunded mandate.”
“I thought this used to be a body that favored local control,” he said.
Sen. Gerald Neal (D-Louisville) offered an amendment to allow local school districts to decide whether to arm SROs, but the amendment was rejected.