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Board hears case for arming school officials

Staff Writer

Bruce Hankins, superintendent of the Dolores County School District, was a guest speaker at the Archuleta School District Board of Education’s Tuesday night work session, leading a discussion about armed security personnel on school campuses.

Hankins made headlines recently when his school board designated him as a security officer and allowed him to carry a concealed handgun on school property.

“Five years ago we had an incident in our school district that could have made national news,” Hankins began. “We had a couple of former high school students burglarize several residences in the area to steal some guns. They had a written plan to come to school and have one on the roof to shoot at first responders and one in the school with a list of who they were going to target.

“It just so happened that the day they had planned to do this, school was not in session. If school had been in session we would have had a whole different outcome, so it is really a hot topic with us. It was really a traumatic event for the school and the community. We’ve done several things, but Sandy Hook (the second deadliest school shooting in United States history) really changed everything for me.

“My first issue was response time. If you look at the response time, you have five minutes. Anything after five minutes is usually cleanup. I talked to my sheriff about Sandy Hook and he said that with all the police and the SWAT teams, it was really too late for all of that. Our initial conversation was, ‘How do we reduce that response time?’ We need immediate response to deal with a shooter in our schools.

“That led naturally to a conversation about arming our staff, and the next conversation was, ‘Who do we arm?’ We don’t have any intention of arming our whole staff. We all know teachers and administrators that we would not be comfortable with carrying a gun to school, and this is the next piece. The board … has to have a hundred percent confidence, and be a hundred percent comfortable if you go in this direction, with who you are going to arm.

“Sandy Hook had done everything right. They had controlled entrances, they had buzz-ins, and they had video cameras. They had everything that is recommended to keep your school safe.”

Jim Huffman, one of the members of the audience, chimed in, “Except somebody with a pistol to shoot the guy as he broke in the door.”

When asked for his opinion on the appropriate level of school security, Archuleta County Sheriff Pete Gonzales said, “It would be to have a police officer in each school, but I know that, financially, this county is not in a position to do that. And I am here to tell you guys it has been made known to me the town is not going to come on board so, therefore, what you’re looking at is the school district and the sheriff’s office.”

Last month, Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon asserted, “Right now everything is just conceptual, but just off the top of my head I would say, unless somebody could tell me something different, I do not support the idea of someone with a gun being inside the school, regardless of who it is. I look at that and someone would have to show me that this would work.”

Police Chief William Rockensock had addressed the school board and promised he would do everything in his power to assure the safety of local schools, but apparently his efforts were not enough to convince the mayor of the need for a School Resource Officer (SRO).

“I can assume jurisdiction,” Gonzales continued at Tuesday’s meeting. “If the town doesn’t want it, as the county sheriff, our office can take over. I have that authority. The problem is, if you’re looking at the finances, with salary and benefits you’re looking at about fifty thousand dollars. Times three would be a hundred and fifty thousand. Divided between the school district and the county — and I don’t have the authority to tell you if the county is willing to do that — you’re looking at seventy-five thousand dollars apiece.

“I raised eyebrows just throwing out the idea of one resource officer. Mark was at that meeting with us.” Gonzales referred to a meeting held last month between ASD superintendent Mark DeVoti, Gonzales, Aragon, Rockensock and several other county, town, and school authorities.

“At that point we were looking at perhaps having the school district pay for half and the town and county a quarter each. That’s not even an option anymore, and that was just for one. Can you imagine if you made the request for three?

“You have three options: Do nothing, hire law enforcement as security, or go with the teachers. I’ve heard arguments for all three. I’ve even heard, ‘We are safe. That’s not going to happen in our county. We’ve got Sheriff Pete who’s gonna come in riding on his white horse and he can take care of it.’

“I think what you are going to find is that law enforcement, the ‘professional cop,’ would be adverse to arming teachers. Again, it’s the mindset that you are educators; we’re cops.”

“That is essentially what police chief Rockensock said the other night,” school board member Greg Schick chimed in. “He would like to have armed security in the schools, but he would like to have it under his control.

“Number one, I am in favor of armed security in schools, but I am very leery of arming teachers or administrators unless they have an equal amount of training to what you guys have had. If you arm teachers or administrators and something happens in the school, and they pull out their guns and they start shooting, and the SWAT team or the sheriff or the city police show up, and they don’t know who’s shooting who, and they start shooting and so now you’ve got bullets going everywhere.

“Maybe that’s the worst case scenario, but we have to be very careful of the unintended consequences of arming too many people. I know there are some teachers that are very capable of becoming appropriately trained, but if you’re carrying a weapon it’s got to take a different mindset to pull the trigger if you’re pointing it at somebody. That’s not an easy thing to do.”

“And that’s a good point, Greg,” Gonzales agreed. “That’s the element of experience. I mean, when I was in L. A. we went to the range every two weeks and I could be blindfolded and still know where the targets were, but when you’re actually in that situation — what we call the ‘pucker factor’ -— that comes into play and all of a sudden you find out your hands are shaking. So you can train an individual, but you don’t know, because that individual isn’t facing what a police officer faces on a daily basis, whether or not they can really step up to the plate when the time comes.”

ed.fincher@pagosasun.com

This story was posted on March 14, 2013.