MARSHALL – Madison County Schools and the Madison County Sheriff's Office made national headlines Aug. 5 after its decision to allow SROs access to AR-15 rifles in each of its six schools in the county.
There are six schools in the Madison County system: Brush Creek Elementary, Hot Springs Elementary, Mars Hill Elementary, Madison Middle, Madison High and Madison Early College High.
The guns are secured in safes, along with other items, including tools to help break through barricaded doors.
"The reason we put the breaching tools in the safes is that in the event we have someone barricaded in a door, we won't have to wait on the fire department to get there," Sheriff Buddy Harwood said. "We'll have those tools to be able to breach that door if needed. I do not want to have to run back out to the car to grab an AR, because that's time lost. Hopefully we'll never need it, but I want my guys to be as prepared as prepared can be."
Superintendent Will Hoffman said the decision and the funding for school resource officers in each school came together through a collaboration between the local school board, the county commission and the county Sheriff's Office.
"This has always been our highest safety priority. We have also worked to fund digital camera systems at each school, additional counseling, and social worker support at each school and site-based therapy through a partnership with MAHEC to create safe school environments at each of our schools," Hoffman said. "We have now seen senseless school shootings over and over again across our nation. As superintendent of schools, my highest priority is the safety and welfare of our students and staff. I believe in our school resource officers. They build strong relationships with students, and they are highly trained in the use of firearms and de-escalation strategies. They have my trust; the trust of our Board of Education and they have earned the public’s trust. They need to be able to take decisive action that includes all appropriate steps to neutralize an assailant, should a critical incident occur."
Madison County residents weighed in on the school system's decision Aug. 6.
Some residents, like Betsy Richards Smith, 68, of Mars Hill, said while she agreed with some components of the decision, she felt the use of AR-15s was unnecessary.
"If there are to be any official guns in a school, the SROs are the ones to have them - not the teachers, not the principal and not the aides," Richards Smith said. "The critical aspects are training and access. A gun is no good if you can’t get to it in time. That said, I don’t see the need for AR-15s. In these scenarios, you only have to take out one person: the shooter. Why risk accidentally killing more students with an AR-15 when a well-aimed service revolver will do the same job?"
Mars Hill resident Jacob Mercer, 29, said he supports the school system's decision. Mercer and his wife, Courtney, have a 5-month-old daughter in daycare in the county.
"I feel like this is a wonderful step into limiting school shootings," Mercer said. "I'm very happy with our school board and sheriff's decision. The children's safety is the number one thing that we should be concerned about. Having AR-15s in our schools definitely is a cost-efficient way of protecting our kids."
Harwood cited the continued occurrence of school shootings throughout the nation in his decision to stow the AR-15s in safes.
"I hate that we've come to a place in our nation where I've got to put a safe in our schools, and lock that safe up for my deputies to be able to acquire an AR-15," Harwood said. "But, we can shut it off and say it won't happen in Madison County, but we never know. I want the parents of Madison County to know we're going to take every measure necessary to ensure our kids are safe in this school system. If my parents, as a whole, want me to stand at that door with that AR strapped around that officer's neck, then I'm going to do whatever my parents want as a whole to keep our kids safe."
Michael Bitzer is the department of politics chair at Catawba College, and the author of "Redistricting and Gerrymandering in North Carolina: Battlelines in the Tar Heel State."
"I think the aftermath of Uvalde has laid open some real divides that may transcend partisan dynamics: the overwhelming number of law enforcement officers at the school during the event, and yet the significant delays that law enforcement officers failed to act that could have resolved the issue has both sides bringing new policy initiatives regarding the worth of increasing security in public schools," Bitzer said. "In this environment of highly polarized partisanship, and with the growing policy divisions regarding the role of guns in our society, I suspect we will continue to hear new policy initiatives surrounding one of the most divisive public policy issues of our day."
Bitzer said the Democratic sheriff's decision could have political motivations.
"While Republicans won 55-60 percent of the top three elections (U.S. President, U.S. Senate, N.C. governor) in the 2016 and 2020 elections in Madison County, Harwood has run in midterm elections (and thus avoided the Republican ‘top of the ticket’ ballot influence in very partisan presidential election years) and been either unchallenged, as in 2018, or able to make it against a Republican challenger, as in 2014," Bitzer said. "This year, he does have a Republican challenger, along with confronting a Republican-advantage electoral dynamic with this midterm year.
"So the policy decision may be an honest look at this year’s election dynamics — a Republican challenger in a pro-Republican election year — and Harwood seeking to solidify his more ‘conservative’ credentials to blunt campaign attacks. Certainly, Harwood’s power of incumbency is a major advantage to any candidate (long name-recognition, able to withstand the growing Republican influence in the county), but this year may be a real test to see if a Democrat can continue to win a local office in a county that has shifted more and more Republican in voting dynamics."
Online security measures
Caroline Fletcher, 39, lives near the Petersburg neighborhood of Mars Hill.
Fletcher's 17-year-old son had previously attended Madison County Schools but moved out of state to be with his father in April 2021.
"We should be doing more to help these kids handle strong emotions and prevent them from feeling the need to commit these acts," Fletcher said. "We should be training them on what it looks like to be manipulated by online predators. We should be putting many more psychologists into schools."
The school system will work with the FBI in Asheville this fall to present to middle school, high school and early college students and their parents/guardians about how to be safer online, especially in regards to of online enticement and "sextortion" awareness.
The school system's online security and student surveillance measures will include:
Web filtering and monitoring tools for all web traffic.
School security door systems and safety glass at each school.
Anonymous tipline for students and families.
Student social media filtering.
SwiftK12 alert call system w/emergency call feature dials multiple contacts per student.
Network firewall appliance prevents network intrusion that can compromise sensitive student and personnel records.
Anti-bullying web form allows anonymous reporting of suspected bullying.
Digital surveillance cameras in schools.
Stop-arm camera systems on all yellow buses.
Cameras installed on all 45 buses.
Two-way radios on all buses.
In 2020-21, the school system was slotted to receive $5.6 million in Education Stabilization Fund through the Coronavirus Aid Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER Fund) draft plotting allotments.
The funding will be in place through 2024, according to Hoffman.
In the superintendent's view, the pandemic highlighted the critical need for an increased presence of mental health professionals in the school system.
As a result, using the ESSER funds, MCS administration brought in a number of personnel to assist students with mental health concerns, including a nurse and counselor at Hot Springs Elementary School. Additionally, the school system added curriculum interventionists, a speech language pathologist, an additional Exceptional Children teacher and social workers.
"We understand the importance of social emotional learning, and we have added additional student services positions with ESSER funding," Hoffman said. "Our counselors, social workers, school nurses, and Exceptional Children’s staff have been on the front lines for students who have been in crisis during the pandemic. One neighboring school district recently reported that they cannot account for hundreds of students as a result of the pandemic. We are not in that predicament thanks largely to the work of school administrators and this group of individuals."
Other security measures
The rifles in safes and the increased online security presence are not the only security measures the school system is rolling out for the upcoming school year.
The school system will have an SRO and a school safety liaison at each school. Additionally, each school will also have a school counselor, as well as a nurse and social worker. There will also be certified first responders throughout the school district, according to Hoffman.
Crisis teams and plans will be in place for each of the six MCS schools, and the school system will work closely with the county DSS and Sheriff's Office, the superintendent said.
In 2022-23, the school system will conduct lockdown and safety drills, as well as threat assessment training for administrators and SRO staff.
A host of other measures will be implemented as well, the superintendent said, including:
Entrance gate at Madison High School and Madison Early College High School.
Panic button system in each building that reports to monitoring center and Sheriff’s Office.
Updated intercom systems at each school.
IP phone system with one-button emergency feature enabled on key administrative stations, sends alert announcements to all handsets, including those in use.
This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Madison County parents and residents weigh in on AR-15s in schools