I backed out of my driveway at 5:30 AM on Wednesday morning, arriving in Montgomery about 8:45. The meeting started promptly at 9 AM with a packed conference room and several overflow conference rooms with standing room only. Shortly after the meeting began we discovered that the audio was not working properly and those in the overflow conference rooms were unable to hear our discussions. The meeting Chairs decided to move the hearing to the House Chamber, allowing attendees to participate on the floor and the public to view/listen from the gallery.
After opening remarks the first speaker was State Superintendent Bice. His remarks included an overview of efforts by the 1500 schools in the 134 school districts across Alabama. He reviewed the minimum standards set by the state school board and reiterated that these are minimum standards that can and should be tailored to each community. His focus is on limited access to schools and ensuring that our state schools plan, prepare, mitigate, respond and recover should any incident (intruder to weather event) occur. He concluded his remarks with a renewed effort to develop a plan to identify and provide counseling assistance to children in our schools.
The next speaker was Director Collier of the Department of Homeland Security. His remarks centered on not only schools but other places people gather to include entertainment districts, theaters, etc. He provided an overview of Virtual Alabama – a computer program that uses Google Earth technology, overlaying a building with the blueprints. The system also allows access to onsite video cameras, enabling real time viewing of the interior of the location. This is a secure system and allows first responders to “see” the inside of a building and plan/react accordingly. Director Collier’s comments also included a request for additional funding allowing the department to provide comprehensive active shooter training to law enforcement across the state.
An elementary school teacher from the Birmingham area followed Director Collier. Her comments were fairly brief but to the point. She opposed arming teachers but was open to applying “less than lethal” such as taser – provided proper training and use policies are applied. She recommended trained law enforcement be only allowed to carry weapons in a school and is a big supporter of the School Resource Officers (SROs). She also recommended that schools review plans and ensure measures are in place for segregated areas, locked doors, controlled access, video cameras, etc.
The next speaker was Sheriff Smith, President of the Alabama Sheriff’s Association. His comments were pretty straight forward – simply put, we shouldn’t consider arming anyone other than law enforcement in our schools. He commented on the seriousness of not only the training involved but the decisions made to “take someone’s life”. He recommended and supported a holistic approach to the problem and not just focusing on the active shooter. A brief, yet informative debate occurred between Rep Rich – who has proposed a plan allowing teachers and administrators to be armed, and Sheriff Smith.
Decatur City Schools Safety and Alternative Programs Supervisor followed Sheriff Smith. His comments reinforced the RSO concept and routine training/drills involving school officials, first responders, mental health professionals, etc.
Mr. Harp, President of the Alabama District Attorney’s Association was next. His comments reinforced the holistic approach and mental health considerations coupled with SRO and increased physical security measures. I am concerned that he recommended legislation to enhance schools as "Gun Free Zones"; we will see if/when that comes back up in the debate.
The last scheduled speaker was the President of the National Association of SROs. His comments focused on the Triad response from educators, counselors and law enforcement. Additional information about this non-profit organization can be found at their website.
Following the scheduled speakers, several legislators asked questions or provided comments. I touched on four points in my comments.
1. I requested that our committee formally request a report from Connecticut on what actually occurred at Sandy Hook. I stated that the national media did a terrible job of reporting on this event resulting in confusion on where actual breakdowns in security measures may have occurred. For example, first reports stated that the shooter gained access to the school through familiarity because his mother taught at the school. That later proved wrong but now we are told via the media that he shot the locks off. My point is – we need to understand what actually occurred so that we can employ proper counter measures as needed.
2. I requested that the state school board and local boards of education consider portable classrooms in their overall security and safety plan. It is time to reevaluate the tradeoff between using portables and overcrowding in our classrooms from a security perspective.
3. I noted that no comments were made from any of the speakers regarding a plan similar to what the NRA has proposed where volunteers are vetted and trained to provide additionally security at local schools. I submitted a draft proposal put together by a group in Madison County called The Madison Institute. The plan calls for NRA training of volunteers to help protect our schools. You can review a copy of the draft plan here.
4. Lastly I reminded my colleagues that there will be many distractions during the upcoming legislative session but that we must not allow this to become a debate of distractions and rather must focus on solutions and workable outcomes.
Readers are encouraged to submit their thoughts to the committee at this email address or you can submit them direct to me and I will forward to the commitee.
As a closing note, some in the press noted that absent from the hearing was discussion on gun control measures such as banning military style assault weapons and high capacity magazines. I’m certain this debate will come to Montgomery in the months ahead – we are all aware that it has already started in Washington – but the simple reason it was not included in Wednesday’s hearing is they have nothing to do with School Security and Student and Teacher Safety. Gun control measures such as banning military style assault weapons and high capacity magazines will have no affect on those that choose to not follow the law and therefore will do nothing to bolster safety and security in our schools.
Semper Fi - Bill