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Should teachers be armed? Fairbanks, state officials weigh in on debate

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Posted: Saturday, December 22, 2012 11:57 pm

FAIRBANKS — While gun-control advocates push for stricter regulation on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, pro-gun advocates both nationally and locally are calling for looser laws that could put firearms in the hands of teachers.

Could Fairbanks find itself with armed teachers?

Fairbanks North Star Borough School District Superintendent Pete Lewis said that’s out of the question here, but he said additional police officers could be part of the school’s plan to increase security.

“At this point, we’re certainly not going down that path,” he said when asked about allowing teachers to carry firearms. “Law enforcement goes through a lot of training ... and our background is that we’re more about educating kids, and there’s a difference there.”

Lewis made the statement Friday when interviewed about safety measures in the wake of the mass killings Dec. 14 at a Newtown, Conn. elementary school.

Putting guns in the hands of teachers has been an idea floated by national and local advocates as school districts nationwide re-evaluate their emergency and lockdown plans.

Arguments for, against

Tanana Valley Sportsmen’s Association President Grant Lewis argued against gun control and said having a firearm at a school could lessen the likelihood that an event such as that in Newtown, Conn., could happen in Alaska.

“If someone is armed in a school and something like this happens, maybe somebody is going to get hurt, but then there might be a chance to reduce the carnage,” he said. “We need to stop something while it continues and continues. (Without a gun) no one can mount a defense and stop the individual.”

The head of the Fairbanks Education Association, the union representing local teachers, flatly rejects the idea of armed teachers. Tammy Smith, the union president, said the safety protocol is for teachers to get their children out of harm’s way and not waste time by fumbling with a lock on a gun cabinet.

“Arming teachers quite frankly would be absurd for lack of a better word,” she said. “It would be a very uncomfortable idea.

“There may be a few teachers who are already gun enthusiasts and have training in that, but that is still not our expertise,” she said.

What the law says

While having armed teachers is an unpopular prospect among educators, state law could allow it, said Alaska Assistant Attorney General John Novak, who is counsel to the Department of Public Safety.

“Under the currently existing law, it’s within the discretion of the chief administrative officer of the school whether or not firearms can be possessed on school grounds,” he said. “I can’t comment if it would be a good idea.”

State law forbids possession of firearms on school grounds except through the direct permission of the administration. That’s what allows police officers to be on campus, but the provision could be used to allow other individuals to carry firearms.

The federal government has adopted a gun-free school zones law, but it has exemptions for people with a concealed carry permit. One Texas school district began allowing its teachers to conceal carry in response to the mass shooting on the Virginia Tech campus in 2007.

Police in schools

Lewis, the Fairbanks schools superintendent, said he would consider expanding the presence of police officers on school campuses. Both Lathrop and West Valley high schools have what are called school resource officers, who are trained and armed.

If an improved safety plan includes more firearms at a school, Lewis said they should be in the hands of a trained and practiced officer.

“We still have school resource officers, and they are armed,” he said. “If you’re talking about individuals and support staff and substitutes, boy there’s some challenges there and you think about it differently.”

The police positions were instated a few years ago and are initially paid for by federal grants before the school district and local law enforcement shoulder the cost. Lewis said his experience with the officers has been positive and said the officers are not only an increased school security presence but are a friendly community link to local law enforcement.

“I think it’s a great program, and it’s a wonderful opportunity. It allows students and staff to develop relationships with the police,” he said. “That makes more sense.”

Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544 or follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.

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