Buckeye Local BOE ponders armed guards

UNTIL JUST a few years ago America’s schools were largely considered safe havens from extreme violence or the threat of it: a luxury no longer available.

What can be done to improve the level of safety in our schools nationwide or locally is a question with no simple, singular, clear-cut or guaranteed answer.

In recent months teachers within the Buckeye Local School District have taken individual responsibility for participating in exceptional training and skill building opportunities designed and implemented by area native and Retired U.S. Navy SEAL Senior Chief Frank Hoagland and his staff at START (Special Tactics and Rescue Training) headquartered in Mingo Junction.

Buckeye Local School District is ahead of the national norms for school districts working to augment existing safety practices to help students and adults better respond to potentially threatening and /or violent situations.

In the Buckeye Local School District the additional drills – or evolutions – are part of the “Counter Active Shooter Training – CAST Program” developed by Hoagland, a man who brings a resume and reputation to the mix describing him as an “expert planner and leader of global operations” including counterterrorism, counterinsurgency and counternarcotics.

Recently, resources of the United States Secret Service were shared with the Buckeye Local School District, and other educators and first responders from across the region as a direct result of the attention being given this challenge by the START Team.

Placing guns in the school environment on a routine basis under any circumstances is not something Hoagland, START or the CAST program support.

However, Buckeye Local School Board member Joe Zelek has steadfastly argued for that as being the best response to any potential threat or violence in the school environment.

During the most recent meeting of the Buckeye Local School District Board of Education a number of district employees – many of them teachers – took issue with Zelek’s position on having an armed guard in each building and a marked vehicle be routinely posted in each school parking area as a front line deterrent.

“Our obligation to the taxpayer is to provide the best service we can – the most value for the best price we can get it: that’s with everything. That’s what we should do with this too,” said Zelek.

In response to a citizen’s statement, “You cannot put a price on a child’s life,” Zelek responded directly saying, “Certainly you can – with everything you price it and see if you get the best value for your dollars. That’s what you do with everything.”

Zelek argued START has not provided the district any armed personnel.

Hoagland noted it was not part of the risk assessment and mitigation development plan the firm was hired to do over the course of a year’s time, but he could provide that resource for the district if it put specific insurance policies and coverage in place first.

At that meeting, teachers individually spoke up against any plan to arm school personnel, or to blanketly introduce armed personnel into the mix at the local buildings unless they met the highest standards of training, certification, and more that Hoagland referenced from national agencies and Department of Defense established standards.

“What these gentlemen have taught me is I can get my kids out of harm’s way and, if I need to, I can take that (assailant) guy down. Yes, I might take a bullet to the leg, but I know I can take that guy down now. That’s why I feel safer,” said Jeff Merrill, a longtime member of the Buckeye Local High School faculty.

He was referring to the abilities and practices he and others who take part in CAST activities have acquired – all without involving any arming of teachers or school personnel with a firearm, he noted.

“Statistics have shown having an armed guard and a marked police car at those buildings deters anything from happening,” Zelek said, though offering no specific proof to support that statement.

“All I’m saying is, I am in favor of having armed guards in each building. If the board is not – the board isn’t – but, that’s up to the board,” Zelek said. “I’m in favor of the armed guard and getting the best deal we can for the guards: with qualifications.”

“But they don’t need guns,” said Patty Tustin, a teacher at South Elementary and the parent of a student in the high school building.

“It’s not the point of being armed. It’s the point of being proactive,” said Merrill. “If something goes down, the app that is being designed – with that we can let everyone who needs to know, know what is happening.”

Merrill was referring to a mobile application Hoagland is co-designing and which is just now being introduced through limited channels, most recently it was shown to Congressman Bill Johnson.

Johnson posted a reference to it on his Facebook page this week.

“I was given a demo of brand new interactive technology designed to keep our children safe while at school. It’s aim is to enhance communication between administrators, teachers and first responders during an emergency, and it will be tested at a school in eastern Ohio in the new future.”

“People aren’t going to get there in three minutes like they do in a city school district, and we need to be able to protect our children,” said Merrill

“If you have the deterrent of an armed guard and a marked car usually these people – these crazy people will pass up your building and go somewhere else. They come because there’s no armed guard.” said Zelek. “Why not — if someone comes with a gun — which is a one in a billion chance – and we hope it never ever happens. Why not have an armed guard in every building.

Merrill and Buckeye Local Superintendent of Schools Mark Miller both noted there had been an armed guard on duty at Columbine High School at the time of the attack there.

“That one in a billion chance it was Columbine,” said Merrill.

“We have the money to do it right now: I’m making a motion.” said Zelek in the hope of gaining a second for his initial motion. He was unsuccessful.

“The teachers in the building don’t want armed guards – you should listen to them. We’re the ones who put you there – who put you in place – why don’t you hear our voice – instead of making your own decision, why don’t you listen to us,” said Merrill.

“Why don’t you talk to the people who work there every day,” said Merrill. “I have put 21 years of service to this school district.”

“Most people I talk to want armed guards in each building. If you don’t want it – that’s fine – I’m telling you what I want. Whatever gets voted in is fine,” said Zelek.

Theses individuals can teach our teachers how to get out kids out safely, noted one parent.

Kim Amos, on staff at South Elementary said,” What I have a problem with is getting an armed guard just to stand there with a gun as opposed to having someone stand there protecting us and who is teaching us what to do in an emergency. We need these people.”

“These gentlemen have gone way above and beyond. They provide a custom service to us based on what our teachers want to know about and what they are concerned about,” said Merrill.

Zelek’s motion to put armed guards in each building died for lack of a second.

However, Naoma Kolkedy, made a motion to hire someone from START to serve as a Facility Security Manager for the balance of the school year and to accept the summary provided by Hoagland at the request of the board would be the person’s duties and accept the standards and qualifications he recommended as well.

Board member Brad McFadden said after noting his second of her motion was for the general purpose of allowing discussion on the point.

“Have I seen the wonderful work you guys have done: most definitely. But this was just given to me five minutes (ago) to read and to make an educated decision on so I make the motion to table this. I don’t want to prolong it – but I don’t want t make a decision on something that was just handed to me,” said McFadden. “I believe it’s important I just don’t want to make a hasty decision.”

Zelek seconded the motion to table

All approved the motion to table.

The matter will likely be brought back for discussion at the regular monthly meeting, Monday, March 24 when the board gathers at the Rayland Village offices.

If it is not brought back to the floor for additional action at Monday’s meeting it will die.

Loccisano can be reached at kimfromthetl@gmail.com