Despite McNair shooting, no push for more officers

It was terrifying. It was maddening. It was a tragedy averted.

But there is something last week’s shooting at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy wasn’t: the final crack in the dam holding back state funding for more armed resource officers in Georgia schools.

The state’s political leadership decried the shooting. Thanked the heavens no one was killed. But beyond those words, there seems to be little political appetite for spending the tens of millions it would cost to place more armed officers in the state’s public schools.

Gov. Nathan Deal, who would have to sign into law legislation using state money for more officers, was in Asia when the shooting took place. His spokesman, Brian Robinson, offered no indication that his boss would back bills calling for more spending on officers.

“The state must constantly review security procedures in place and those that are needed to keep students safe,” Robinson said.

House Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones, R-Milton, also reacted cautiously.

“We should carefully assess the risk and cost before hastily responding to one school intruder, although it was a frightening experience for the children,” Jones said. “Safety for children is a paramount concern, but that does not necessarily mean we should mandate armed security officers for 1,335 Georgia elementary schools.”

As it was at the beginning of last year’s legislative session, when the nation was still shaken by the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, school security is expected to be a topic of discussion when the Legislature convenes in January.

Georgia Superintendent John Barge said armed officers could be placed in all public schools if the state gave districts all of the money Georgia’s funding formula called for them to receive.

Last year, districts received about $1 billion in total funding less than the state formula called for them to receive. Many of the state’s middle and high schools already have armed officers, but elementary schools typically do not have them. Placing a single officer in each of the state’s elementary schools would cost $66 million per year if those officers were paid $50,000 in salary and benefits.

“What if we simply fully funded what we’re supposed to?” asked Barge, who is contemplating a run for governor. “Because the state is cutting how much they’re putting in, the local system’s having to pick up the tab.”

Barge said local districts would be free to hire more officers if they got more help from the state.

State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, said the McNair shooting will change the tenor of the school security debate in the Legislature.

“I think most of the discussion has been on the high school and middle school level,” he said. “This will shift the discussion to include elementary schools.”

Fort said Deal should put forward a plan for more officers.

“I think the governor ought to have a plan to see how the state could help local schools finance it,” he said. “It’s a big ticket item, a lot of money. But after what happened last week – an armed, mentally ill man going into an elementary school – something’s got to be done.”

Last year, on the heels the Sandy Hook shootings, state Sen. Ron Ramsey, D-Decatur, introduced legislation to allow Georgia school districts to hire retired police officers. The districts would pay the retired officers a stipend of between $2,500 and $5,000.

Ramsey’s bill, S.B. 138, never passed the Senate.

Indeed, as horrifying as they are, school shootings don’t often lead to a dramatic legislative response.

At Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., 20-year old Adam Lanza killed 20 elementary school students and six adults before killing himself.

The massacre prompted outraged calls for stricter gun control laws. President Obama traveled to Newtown to comfort the survivors and their families.

Later, the Newtown Board of Education put a budget before voters that would have paid for more armed officers. Voters rejected that budget.

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