By Emily Nohr
Nebraska News Service
School officials from across
the state are skeptical about a legislative bill that would allow them to carry guns.
“That’s a combination that could only result in tragedy,” said Grant Norgaard, superintendent of McCook Public Schools.
Chadron Public Schools superintendent Caroline Winchester agreed.
“My first reaction is that kids and guns don’t mix. Safety is our utmost concern. Always,” Winchester said.
Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial, who represents Norgaard’s district, introduced LB 516 earlier this legislative session. The bill would allow security guards, administrators and teachers to carry a concealed handgun at Nebraska public and private schools, including colleges and universities.
Christensen’s proposal, however, would be optional and would require a two-thirds majority vote by a school’s governing body, like the school board.
The bill comes in response to the Jan. 5 school shooting at a Millard high school that killed one school administrator and seriously injured another before the shooter, a student, turned the gun on himself.
Currently, firearms are prohibited from school property unless they are in the possession of some military officials and other authorized law enforcement officers.
With about 1,500 students in the McCook district and one school resource officer who is armed with a handgun, Norgaard believes his school is already adequately protected, he said.
“We do have police forces out in rural Nebraska,” Norgaard said, “and we do have crises procedures in case we do have intruders in the school. … That’s not to say that something can’t happen here, but we do try to prepare for that.”
Dan Navrkal, superintendent of Pierce Public Schools, said the Millard high school shooting shouldn’t prompt a reaction by the state Legislature.
“These are isolated situations that happen rarely,” he said. “I have a tremendous compassion to what happened in Omaha, but I don’t think it’s right to have a state law.”
Navrkal said his school of 700 students has ramped up security in the past few years, including locking doors during the day to ensure intruders won’t wander in.
But some school officials from rural parts of the state reacted coolly to the proposal because they feel they know their students well enough to identify potential problems.
Jamie Isom, the superintendent of Valentine Public Schools, said she isn’t aware of any conversations in her community regarding the issue.
“At this point, I haven’t heard anything about it locally,” she said.
Still, some lawmakers are concerned that some rural schools do not have close enough access to law enforcement if a school safety emergency occurs.
At a hearing for the bill on Feb. 16, some state senators voiced concerns about a perceived lack of law enforcement in rural areas of the state.
Christensen said he introduced the bill because some school districts in rural Nebraska are 15 miles from the nearest town with law enforcement. Southern Valley, a consolidated district of 445 students between Beaver City and Orleans, is one school district currently in that situation, he said.
Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha reminded lawmakers that school violence could happen anywhere, including rural areas.
“If we don’t have adequate vigilance on these campuses, we could have further tragedy,” he said.
Such was the case in a 1995 incident involving a 13-year-old Chadron Middle School student who shot a classmate in the upper chest. The classmate was not seriously wounded.
Because of the incident, maintaining school safety at Chadron Public Schools is a high priority for current superintendent Winchester. But instead of arming school officials, she believes that schools should concentrate on identifying problems before they occur.
“Most often, your best defense is really that relationship piece of the puzzle, that piece that ensures your students are comfortable and feel safe in letting someone in authority know that their friend has been acting strangely or has been making inappropriate comments,” she said.
Winchester added that the presence of guns would not be inviting to students.
If the bill became law, Winchester said she is confident Chadron’s school board would not adopt the practice of arming staff.
“I don’t think our community would be comfortable with teachers and administrators carrying weapons,” she said.