School safety plan puts Stanly County Sheriff in national spotlight

School board and sheriff are coordinating to implement novel volunteer program to protect students

(Eamon Queeney / North State Journal)

ALBEMARLE — Sheriff George T. Burris and the Stanly County School Board are working together to implement an armed Volunteer School Safety Resource Officer Program for Stanly County Schools. The program, which is authorized by state law, allows the sheriff to provide additional safety support to schools using nonsalaried special deputies to serve as resource officers in public schools. To be a volunteer in the program, a person must have prior experience as either a sworn law enforcement officer or military police officer.

Burris is launching one of the first volunteer school safety programs in the country. That has made Burris a prime target for local and regional television reports. He has been interviewed twice by national outlet Fox News and his segment will likely air this week.

The program also requires volunteers to receive training on research into the social and cognitive development of elementary, middle and high school children, and must also meet the selection standards and any additional criteria established by the sheriff.

The program was unanimously approved by the Stanly County School Board last week. According to Burris, the program will act as a force multiplier as his office seeks to protect students from tragic events following the murder of 17 students at a Florida high school in February.

“Due to recent events in today’s society, the well-being and safety of our students and teachers are at the forefront,” said Burris. “We must be proactive and vigilant, and we ask for support from our community members and schools. I look forward to working with our school board, citizens and community leaders in making this program a success.”

The officers would have a primary function of safeguarding students, but will have the full authority to make arrests while on patrol at the schools.

“I commend Sheriff Burris and the school board for taking this important step in protecting our most important and precious assets in Stanly County — our children,” said County Commission Chairman Joseph Burleson.

The Sheriff’s Office currently has a full-time school resource officer at each of Stanly County’s high schools and middle schools. The volunteer program will add a resource officer at each elementary school. Burris said his goal is to have the program running before the school year ends.

The new safety program would be similar to a program that was announced in Rockingham County by Sheriff Sam Page after the Florida school shooting. State House Rep. Kyle Hall (R-Rockingham) supports the program and attended the announcement with Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland).

“We must do everything we can to ensure that North Carolina’s most vital resource, our children, are protected in the classroom,” said Hall.

Actions by local school boards and sheriffs to increase security in schools comes as an Elon University Poll found that most school teachers would not want to arm teachers. The poll, which was conducted between Feb. 28 and March 5, showed that more than 78 percent of teachers do not support having armed teachers compared to 17.5 percent who think it is a good idea. The poll did reveal a slight ideological split, with 95 percent of Democrats and 78 percent of independents opposed to arming teachers with a smaller percentage of Republicans — 57 percent — also opposed. The poll had an overall margin of error of plus or minus 5.03 percent.

Burris said in a press release that he is ready to begin processing applications and performing background checks on program volunteers.

“If you are prior law enforcement or military and wish to serve, please contact me or Capt. Caleb Stewart at the Sheriff’s Office,” said Burris.