After the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, lawmakers, educators, and law enforcement immediately looked for ways to improve school safety. Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page announced during a Feb. 28 press conference plans to enact a volunteer school resource program. The same day, Page sat down with Carolina Journal Associate Editor Lindsay Marchello to talk about the program and how it might make schools safer. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
LM: Why did you open the door for volunteers instead of focusing on expanding funding for more school resource officers?
SP: I support doing that, but you got to have the funding. What I’ve learned at the local level is see what you can do without funding. See what you can do with existing resources before you reach out for funding. After the shooting in Florida, I said, “Is there something somewhere we can do that we are not doing that we can look at?” We already built on a volunteer base. I have a inactive reserve and an active reserve group that comes out. There is no charge, and they give us so many hours a month of service. They are formal law enforcement officers. A lot of formal law enforcement officers provide so many hours of service monthly. We see it work with volunteer firefighters. We see it work with the rescue squad. The volunteer base is a valuable base. But in this particular law it specifically says they have to come from a law enforcement background or military police. Now I was in the Air Force, so I came from the military law enforcement side, so I understand that side, but I also transitioned to the civilian side and I [have understood] that side for 35 years. [I]f I had the funding I would like to see every school in North Carolina with a school resource officer. Like the governor down in Florida said [recently], “I’m going to find $500 million to provide for school resource officers in every school in Florida.” Now, I don’t know what our funding capabilities are in North Carolina, but that’s going to be a big bill. But the kids are worth it, and we should do something. Doing nothing is unacceptable. At this time in America schools are viewed as soft targets. I can’t wait around for another child to be killed because we didn’t do something.
I’ve got six elementary schools, and a couple years ago we got a grant. It was the biggest grant across the state where you can get elementary school resource officers following Sandy Hook. We participated and I got two school resource officers — full time, trained — but they have to cover six elementary schools. We also augment with our regular patrol zone deputies. They are asked to stop by, visit and walk, do a check. Every one of my captains, my major … has an elementary school that we are required to do a walk through at least once a day. We try to fill those gaps where we have to, but our children’s safety and school safety … we got to do something for them.
LM: The law allowing for volunteer programs was put into place in 2013. Why are you only starting the program now?
SP: I think what happened was that about that time … the state and our school system offered to hire full-time school resource officers in the schools. So, we went with the full-time program and tried to see how we could work with that. Now we have been working with that for a few years now and then the shooting kind of jogged my memory. I said, “We need to do something.” That’s when I reached into the toolbox. I already have a law. How many times do you have a law already written for you? I don’t have to talk to anyone from the legislature because they already wrote the bill. The volunteer school safety resource officer program is one option. It isn’t the total fix, but it is one option to help us have safer schools by utilizing the most valuable resource in the community, which [are] volunteers.
LM: How would the volunteer program work?
SP: With the volunteer program, it’s pretty much modeled after the school resource officer program. First, you have a law enforcement presence as a deterrence to violence with an armed officer in the school, but also they are there to be a resource to the teachers and kids. They are also there as a role model. The kids love the resource officers, and they want them to be there. We have some grandparents and parents who have kids in school who want to participate in this program. If they vet and meet the standards — again trained, qualified persons — those are the people I want protecting kids. They have to be former law enforcement or military police, though.
LM: Are there other things we can do to harden schools?
SP: Absolutely. Metal detectors are fine. There is a cost factor. You also have to have someone monitor those metal detectors. Now if the school system or if there is some federal funding to cover those metal detectors, maybe we could integrate our volunteers or resource officers with that. Remember, when you have one person on duty it pulls them from another duty. I really want my school resource officers to focus on who is coming through those doors, and if there are any threats they need to address. The volunteers, there’s a lot of things we can work with them on around the school like parking lot security. When you pull up in the morning and drop your child off at the curb, there’s your volunteer there in bright-colored clothes. We want everyone to know that’s an armed volunteer school resource officer that is there to protect your children and the teachers to keep the school safe.
LM: What are your thoughts on arming school teachers? It’s an idea suggested by President Trump.
SP: That’s a conversation for the White House. I’m sure during discussions there’s a lot of ideas floating around. There’s some good ideas and some ideas that are different. I am a big supporter of the carry-conceal process in our county, state, and across the country, but I do believe that if a person is going to conceal carry they need to be trained and proficient in the use of firearms. I think the law enforcement model and the education model needs to stay in the realm of we protect citizens, we protect children and the teachers from harm so the teachers have an environment where they can teach and the kids have an environment (where) they can learn. I think that’s the best model. As far as arming the teachers, that’s a discussion for the local school boards and superintendents. They would have to make those decisions.