Cheshire County sheriff, NH education commissioner suggest placing armed civilian guards in local schools | #schoolsaftey

This story was originally produced by the Keene Sentinel. NHPR is republishing it in partnership with the Granite State News Collaborative.

Cheshire County Sheriff Eli Rivera is proposing a pilot program in which armed civilian guards could be placed at schools to serve as a “first line of defense” to confront an active shooter.

He still needs to find funding, develop training and hiring protocols, and reach agreements with school districts. But Rivera said such a program could advance security beyond the typical measures of strengthening doors, locks and windows to keep intruders out.

The sheriff’s office would be responsible for the hiring and training of the guards, as well as performing background checks, and for physical and mental testing for the candidates for these positions. The guards would not be considered law enforcement.

Rivera worked with New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut to develop a $1.5 million proposal to hire 15 guards for Cheshire County schools in a program that ultimately could be expanded elsewhere in the state.

The New Hampshire Senate Finance Committee rejected that request last week. Sen. James Gray, a Republican from Rochester, the committee chairman, said in an interview that the panel agreed to propose $10 million in the next two-year budget for physical school security improvements but didn’t want to extend the financial commitment beyond that.

But Rivera said he is still interested in pursuing the proposal if he can find a way to pay for it. It would be patterned after a program now in place in Florida.

The FBI said there were 50 active-shooter incidents — cases where one or more people killed or attempted to kill people in a populated area — in the U.S. last year.

Rivera said Wednesday the March 27 mass shooting at Covenant School in Nashville, Tenn., was particularly concerning to him. In that case, police said the perpetrator shot out the glass doors at a side entrance of the school and killed six people before police killed the shooter about 15 minutes later.

Rivera said that in such cases, an armed guard could protect students and teachers until police arrive.

“In the event — I hope it never happens — that an active shooter or an intruder walked into a building, the school guardian would be the first line of defense,” he said, adding this would be particularly important in rural areas where police aren’t nearby.

“In Keene, you know, if it happens in one of the local schools, you’re going to have police there within 30 seconds or 60 seconds,” he said. “But if there’s an incident at the Gilsum school, at the Marlow school, the Stoddard school, we might be 10 to 20 minutes before we can get there.”

He acknowledged it would be difficult for an armed guard, even with good training, to confront a gun-wielding intruder.

“But it’s better than nothing,” Rivera said. “It buys us time. The last thing an active shooter is thinking about, probably, is being confronted by a response from somebody who is defending the school.”

Edelblut, the state education commissioner, said it’s important to think about new ways to protect schools.

“We’re just trying to pilot a program that helps security in our schools in a way that plays to the strengths we have as a state, namely a high retirement population that is composed of many law enforcement officers, emergency responders and retired veterans who may with a certain amount of training help support our schools,” he said.

Edelblut noted that retired law enforcement officers are already utilized to provide security in state courts in New Hampshire.

Some police departments station armed officers in high schools and middle schools in the state, but most schools do not have these school resource officers. Keene High School and Monadnock Regional Middle/High School in Swanzey Center have such officers.  

Edelblut also pointed out that law enforcement agencies have trouble recruiting personnel in general, so it would be difficult to find enough regular police officers to greatly expand to many more schools.

State Sen. Donovan Fenton, a Democrat from Keene, said solutions are needed to protect children in schools, but that he would like to know more about training and background checks that would be required of the guards.

“You’d need buy-in from everyone, school boards, parents, superintendents,” he said. “But I think we’ve gotten lucky so far, and we really need to do something to prevent a tragedy from happening in the state.”

Monadnock Regional School District Superintendent Lisa Walker said she’s “a champion for outside-the-box thinking” when it comes to school security.

“In theory, sure, having additional folks that are there for a specific purpose around safety is not a bad idea,” she said.

But she said there would likely be significant public concerns about having civilian security guards carrying guns on school property. She added some of these concerns could be mitigated once details were worked out regarding training, credentialing and qualifications of these guards.

Walker said she has much respect for Rivera and appreciates that he reached out to her and New Hampshire School Administrative Unit 29 Superintendent Robert Malay to discuss the proposal.

“I hope that conversations continue on this and I hope that we are included with a seat at the table moving forward,” Walker said.

Malay said that since the proposal is still in the conceptual stage he didn’t have much to offer in the way of comments.

“It’s hard to comment until details are clear,” he said.

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