Originally created 01/11/00

Panel expected to OK arming school officers



If the tentative vote last month is any indication, Columbia County school board members may finally give their approval to arming school safety officers with guns.

The board meets today at the Evans Government Complex with public participation beginning at 5:30 p.m.

In December, the majority of the board gave tentative approval to arming officers. Board member Debbi Brooks voted against the measure, and Chairman Ray Hicks abstained.

Opinions haven't changed much since then.

"I think I'm going to stay with my vote," board member Mildred Blackburn said.

"I think when it's all said and done, I can say I really did what I thought was best."

Regina Buccafusco and Roxanne Whitaker said they also plan to support the measure.

For months now, the school system has been studying the possibility of arming safety officers. Board members have been presented several drafts of a procedures and policies manual that would govern how the five safety officers would operate as a law enforcement unit.

Mr. Hicks said he's still not sure how he will vote, but that he will probably support whatever the majority wants.

Still, he said he's not sure if armed officers will prevent violence from occurring on school grounds.

"Safety has to be the most important thing we do other than instruction," Mr. Hicks said. "Is this the thing that's going to make the schools most safe?"

Mr. Hicks has said he's had difficulty gauging public opinion on the issue. And public input at meetings has been slim.

Mark Balcer -- a parent who has followed discussions on the matter -- said he thinks the school system has a misperception of how the public feels. He said he doesn't think most people support arming safety officers.

"My concern is, have they established a need to arm the officers?" Mr. Balcer said. "I haven't heard anything that does establish that."

Parent Jim Adkins -- who served on a safety committee for the school system -- said the county must be pro-active and use all the resources it can to ensure safe schools, including armed officers.

"For us to have them there is important and to have them armed is the appropriate measure to give our schools as much deterrent level as we can," Mr. Adkins said.

While Mrs. Buccafusco said the majority of people she has heard from have supported arming safety officers, Mrs. Brooks said she has heard only negative responses from the public.

And, Mrs. Brooks said, she has financial and legal concerns about establishing an armed unit and she doesn't believe the school system's level of violence justifies armed officers.

She said she would prefer the system concentrate on anti-violence programs.

"I don't see that's it's going to serve as a deterrent," Mrs. Brooks said. "There have been a number of schools that have had armed safety officers and it has not served as a deterrent in the past."

Reach Peggy Ussery at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 112.