MONTGOMERY, Alabama -- The role of guns in schools and the need for mental health services before a tragedy occurs took center stage this morning at a legislative hearing on school safety.
The House and Senate Education Policy committees held a joint hearing on school safety in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting that left 20 students and six faculty members dead.
Speakers and lawmakers largely agreed that there was a need to improve mental health services in the state. But a proposal to allow some educators to carry guns to school created a staunch divide.
Rep. Kerry Rich, R-Albertville, said he is proposing legislation that would authorize a school system superintendent and board of education to identify and approve potential administrators and teachers to carry guns.
Rich said schools don't have the funding to put an armed resource officer in every school and in rural areas it could take considerable time for police to reach a school in the event of a Sandy Hook-like tragedy.
"There are people in practically every school who are used to handling guns and capable of that," Rich said.
Rich said the person would have had to go through training and there would be rules set up on related to where the guns could be stored on campus
"I hope today that somewhere in the schools that my grandchildren attend that some adult is carrying a pistol," said Rep. Lynn Greer.
Rich said he would rather his 6-year-old granddaughter go to a school every day "where a trustworthy person had a weapon" in case someone like Adama Lanza, the suspect in the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting, shot his way into the school.
"I hope today that somewhere in the schools that my grandchildren attend that some adult is carrying a pistol. It would certainly help me feel better," Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville.
However, Grover Smith, sheriff of Escambia County and president of the Alabama Sheriffs Association, argued the likelihood of violence would only increase by allowing non-officers to carry guns in schools.
Smith said if lawmakers allow someone to carry a gun in school, "please make sure it is a professional."
"You can teach someone to fire a weapon easily. Teaching someone to know when to shoot and when not to shoot is a lifelong training objective," Smith said.
Rep. Thomas Jackson, D-Thomasville, said more guns in schools is not the answer to gun violence in schools. "Arming people with guns is not going to stop the violence that has gone on," Jackson said.
Marla Vaughn, a teacher at Valley Elementary School and president of the Alabama Conference of Educators, said she also opposed arming educators.
"In my opinion, one of the best options is that each and every school have a uniformed officer, or plain-clothes officer, moving through, inside and outside the school at all times," Vaughn said.
Multiple speakers mentioned the need for more mental health services.
"There is a mental health component that is sorely, sorely missing," said Jimmy Harp, Etowah County district attorney and president of the Alabama District Attorneys Association said.
"We need to get to the root of the problem (mental health) and after that put funding behind it," said Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile.
Alabama Schools Superintendent Tommy Bice said education officials are working with the Department of Mental Health to try to better get services to students.
Department of Homeland Security Director Spencer Collier said only 20 percent of officers are trained in "active shooter" training. Collier said it would only take a small investment of funds to increase that to 100 percent.
Largely absent from the hearing was any discussion of stronger gun control legislation as it focused specifically on school security.
Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said he called for the hearings to debate ideas in advance of the session that begins Feb. 5. Hubbard said lawmakers were trying to avoid a "knee-jerk" reaction to the Connecticut shooting.
"We must do everything within our power to protect Alabama students and Alabama parents from the traumas and horrors experienced first-hand in Newtown," Hubbard said.
Lawmakers and Collier will also meet with Jefferson County area superintendents for a round table discussion on school safety.