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Eagle Point School Board weapons committee resistant to arm staff

Parents, community members and retired law enforcement officers shared their concerns about arming teachers with the Eagle Point School Board and the Weapons Safety Committee during a public forum Wednesday evening.

Many said they would be opposed to the district requiring teachers to carry guns, but some thought it would be OK if the district allowed teachers with concealed handgun licenses to carry their weapons at school.

"I'm a parent, and I entrust these people with the safety of my child every day," said Spencer Hill, whose third-grade daughter attends school in the district. "I do not think the district should arm people because they then would have to take responsibility if something happened, ... but I also don't think they should take that option away from teachers."

"What happens when you walk on school property that makes arming yourself bad?" he asked.

Currently, the district's policy prohibits staff who independently have a concealed handgun license from bringing the weapon on campus. According to information provided by the Oregon School Boards Association, 85 percent of Oregon school districts are silent on this issue, said Human Resources Director Allen Barber.

A panel of four committee members — retired police officer Terry Marks, firearms instructor Greg Mead, parent Nita Lundberg and Eagle Point Middle School Principal Joni Parsons — were available to answer questions during the forum.

Before opening the meeting to public comment, Barber reminded the audience that the purpose of the meeting was not to discuss gun control or Second-Amendment rights but to explore the advantages and disadvantages of various school safety measures.

The Weapons Safety Committee was formed last summer after school board chairman Scott Grissom proposed arming staff. The committee was tasked with researching a variety of security upgrades and safety procedures and making a recommendation to the school board.

Over the last 11 months, the committee has heard from Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters, Capt. Terry Larson, Wayne Tolosa with the Department of Homeland Security, Eagle Point Chief of Police Vern Thompson, as well as members of the military and local SWAT team, on how the district should proceed.

Barber said the committee has looked at a variety of options, not just arming teachers.

Other options being considered include hiring school resource officers, arming security guards, creating a single point of entry and installing buzz entries, panic alarms and bulletproof glass at the school's main entrances. However, each option has a price tag.

Hiring school resource officers for each school would cost the district about $575,000 every year. A Nexar Security System, like the one installed at Shady Cove Elementary last June, would cost about $2.5 million and have an ongoing yearly expense of about $30,000. The system features door locks, panic buttons and cameras that can be accessed by law enforcement in the event of an emergency.

"But what are lives worth?" said Mead. "We need to decide what we want to do, and then go find the money for it."

Allowing teachers with concealed handgun licenses to carry was the least expensive option.

"I am not sure teachers have the mindset to put four shots in someone's chest," said a retired New York police officer who asked not to be named.

Jim Mannenbach, a former Eagle Point school board member, said he would like to see the district hire school resource officers for each of the schools and devote money to hiring back mental health counselors at the middle schools.

One person asked why Tasers hadn't been considered.

Mead quoted Larson saying he would never take nonlethal action in response to a lethal problem, and Marks pointed out that long-range Tasers often aren't very effective.

Marks, who said he was adamantly against arming teachers, said he would like to see schools implement procedures that delayed intruders until police arrived, such as buzzed entries, bulletproof glass, etc.

"Time is an issue so that is why I want to harden the targets," he said.

Audience members also posed questions about whether substitute teachers were being taken into consideration, how staff members would be trained and where guns would be stored.

Barber said the committee would come up with a gun policy if and when the School Board voted to arm staff.

However, Mead said most of the committee was opposed to arming staff.

"The decision that comes out of this will be a very balanced and thought-out one," he said.

The committee will make its recommendation to the board at the May meeting.

The district emailed staff a survey asking them to rank possible safety measures for schools. The results of that survey also will be available at the next meeting.

— Teresa Thomas