LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - A state licensing panel on Wednesday blocked schools from arming teachers and staff, halting a west Arkansas district's plan to equip more than 20 employees with concealed handguns as volunteer security guards when classes begin next week.
The Arkansas Board of Private Investigators and Private Security Agencies suspended the licenses that had been issued to 13 school districts classifying them as private security firms. Members of the panel said they agreed with a legal opinion issued by the state's attorney general that the schools could not use the licensing law to arm staff.
The seven-member panel planned to hold hearings next month to consider permanently revoking the licenses.
"You can't be watching students with one eye and the door with another," Jack Acre, a member of the board, told reporters after the vote. "I just think if you're doing security guards, then the school needs to hire outside security who are trained to do security."
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said in an advisory opinion earlier this month that the state did not have the authority to allow districts to employ their teachers and staff as security guards. State law prohibits guns on campus, but an exception is included for licensed security guards.
Warren Readnour, a senior assistant attorney general, told the board that the licensing was intended for private security firms and not public entities.
"Simply put, the opinion came to the conclusion that a public school is a public entity rather than a private entity," Readnour said.
The opinion was requested by a lawmaker a day after The Associated Press profiled the Clarksville School District's plan to use the law to arm more than 20 administrators, staff and teachers on its campus. The superintendent of the 2,500-student district told reporters he was disappointed by the decision, but the district would halt the program while the panel considering whether to revoke the licenses.
"The fact is, the board appears to be in a position to withdraw our commissions from our guards, so at this point we're going to stand down with that program and we're going to allow the process to take place that is already outlined in the law," Superintendent David Hopkins said.
Participants in Clarksville's program are given a one-time $1,100 stipend to purchase a handgun and holster. Hopkins said the district has paid about $70,000 for the stipends, ammunition and for training by Nighthawk Custom Training Academy, a private training facility in northwest Arkansas.
The 53-hour training program included roleplaying drills of school shootings, with teachers and staff using "airsoft" pellet guns, with students wearing protective facemasks and jackets.
Hopkins said he still disagreed with the AG's legal opinion. The district set up the program in response to the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and six teachers dead.
"Our motivation is simply to put something in place to take care of our kids, and that's been the goal from the very beginning," Hopkins said.
About 60 school employees have been registered as security guards statewide, but state education officials have said Clarksville was the only district they knew of that used the law to train teachers to carry concealed handguns on the job. The Lake Hamilton School District has been using the same law for years to train a handful of administrators as security guards, but the guns are locked away and not carried by the administrators during the school day.
Steve Anderson, Lake Hamilton's superintendent, said he believes the dispute over the licenses would eventually land before a court or state lawmakers.
"This is an issue that is much larger than Lake Hamilton and will be dealt with by courts and lawmakers," Anderson said in an email. "As I have said many times, we have a multi-level security plan and this is only one small area of our plan to provide safety and security to our students and staff."
Hopkins said he's talked with state legislators about changing Arkansas law to allow the program to continue, a step that the chairman of the licensing board indicated would be needed.
"The board understands the concern for school security, but this issue is going to require legislative change," Chairman Ralph Sims said.