To Teach, Protect, and Serve: A county backed against its borders

*This article originally appeared in RVA Mag #37, on the streets now at all your favorite spots.

Each morning, 384 miles west of Richmond, Deputy Sheriff Dustin Lane clips on his badge, buckles his belt, tightens his gun holster, and heads to work. His commute is upwards of 40 minutes, driving along unforgiving roads through early morning mists that fog his windshield. Any distraction could send him into a river bank or mountainside, but for Lane, it’s obligatory. 

Lane is the School Resource Officer (SRO) at Lee High School in Lee County, located at the southwestern tip of Virginia. He is solely responsible for the school’s 860 students and staff. Further, he is one of only four SROs in the county, charged with the safety of 11 public schools, which are spread across 437 square miles. On average, Lane’s nearest fellow officer is at least 45 minutes away. 

This morning, Lane must spend the first half of the day at the courthouse attending school-related duties, leaving Lee High unattended. Returning around noon, Lane will remain at school late into the evening, seeing off every student and staff member before he heads home. 

“My wife works at one of the elementary schools here,” Lane said. “They don’t have a resource officer. She’s a secretary. She’s had irate parents come in before trying to jump the counter to get to her because they’re so mad over her just doing her job, performing her duties. She’s the first line of defense, and she has nothing to defend herself. Not even a resource officer.” 

Having an armed staff member at her school would change that. The urgency around the question of whether she should has been heightened since the Parkland school shooting in February 2018. Consequently, the Lee County School Board seeks to equip school staff with firearms through a designated conceal and carry program — a program which challenges existing Virginia law. 

One of the poorest counties in the state, Lee County has a poverty rate of 26 percent. This widespread poverty affects even the school board. With adequate funding, they would hire more officers to cover the county’s 11 schools. However, given the current constraints of their budget, finding an alternative solution may prove financially impossible. And if a Lee County law enforcement officer is needed to respond to a crisis — a fire, a medical emergency, or an active shooter — rapid response will not be an option. 

“When I first got here, we had two SRO officers that were paid the same as a teacher, which means [for] 180 days a year instead of around 260,” said Dr. Brian Austin, Lee County Public School Superintendent. “So their salary was extremely low, and there was a high turnover rate.” 

Lee County is closer to eight other state capitals than it is to its own; the Cumberland Gap is just minutes from the county’s westernmost school. That school mainly relies on park rangers when they need first responders because police are too far away. The landscape is tangled and the roads are indirect; driving to Lee County from eastern Virginia requires cutting through Kentucky. At best, the county is decidedly remote. 

“I feel like we’re forgotten about sometimes in Southwest Virginia, this far down,” Lane said. “I know when I go to Richmond to train or something, I hear other departments talking about getting grants for this and that; here, we’re lucky to be able to get the money for SRO grants.” 

Leaky roofs, chipping paint, and faulty electrical systems are just some of the issues found in Lee County’s schools. Holes in hallway ceiling panels reveal vines of hanging wires, pockmarked lockers leak paper, mold adorns the walls. And there isn’t enough money to remedy everything at once. 

“If you look at our funding level, we’re the second-poorest county in Virginia,” said Rob Hines, a member of the Lee County School Board and budget committee. “We were the poorest a year or two ago. We just have to use what resources we have in the best way we can. We don’t want to end up a national story that has these tragic events, where people just walk up into a school and start shooting, and we’re not doing anything to protect our kids and our staff.” 

With prudent spending and state grants, the school board was able to provide schools with magnetic doors and an intercom system, requiring everyone to buzz into buildings. Austin recently hired a fifth SRO through a state grant, but with few able-bodied candidates applying, and a single-year funding cycle, the community still worries about whether it will be enough. 

According to CNN, in the year since the Parkland shooting, there has been, on average, a school shooting every 12 days. With communities across the country in disarray, Austin and Sheriff Gary Parson felt they needed recourse, and immediately began formulating a plan. 

“I can’t tell you the number of times after Parkland that we had [Sheriff’s] staff going to people’s houses to follow up perceived threats, threats made on social media, to make sure that everything was okay,” Austin said. “Am I going to say there’s a heightened state? No, no more so than usual. But are we always cognizant of the mental health and safety of our students? Yes.” 

Austin and Parson began researching ways to legally allow certain staff members at each school to carry a concealed firearm. Under a particular statute in the Virginia Guns in Schools Law, schools can create programs that allow firearms on the premises; however, the limits are vague. They could choose to either design their own program, or find one that had been used in similar circumstances in the past. Eventually they went with a program set up by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), titled the “Special Conservator of the Peace,” or SCOP. The SCOP program requires a psychological evaluation, 40 hours of training, and continued training to refresh every couple of months. Positions with similar training include security guards in some malls and amusement parks. 

Initially, Austin told LCPS staff members they could volunteer to be considered for the program; While no staff member was approached directly, many decided to volunteer. According to the sheriff, in an active shooter situation, armed staff would only protect students until law enforcement arrived. Staff would then give full responsibility to law enforcement. 

“I’m looking for someone who has competency with a firearm, one that feels comfortable with a firearm, someone that can display safety, things they’re already aware of,” Parson said. “A lot of people have already been through hunter safety classes in our county. We’re just a very gun-oriented area. Most rural areas are.” 

The county’s foundation is in its volunteers. The fire department relies heavily on their volunteer firefighters. Many parents also teach, or lead after-school programs. And this is a county of carriers. 

“I lived on a farm with my grandmother, who slept with a .38 under her pillow,” said Sarah (not her real name), one of the staff volunteers who has begun SCOP training. “I’ve been around guns all my life.” 

For Lee County residents, guns are a household mainstay. Most adults are licensed to hunt, and many recall growing up within reach of a firearm. 

“[In Indiana, there] was a young man who had gotten shot while he was trying to defend his students,” Austin said. “In response, school boards started passing out bats and buckets of rocks to teachers to be able to defend students. We can do better than that. We have a significant number of individuals in our community who are concealed-carry, that frankly have to make an effort not to carry weapons on school property.” 

As part of their screening, volunteers also filed a psychological evaluation. Questions touched on topics like impulse control, stress, and personal bias — elements crucial to determining a dependable candidate. 

“I guess they’re just looking for a pattern of a dark side,” Sarah said. “It asked a lot of questions about anger and anxiety, sleeplessness… I hadn’t really thought about it a lot, but it didn’t bother me.” 

As of now, at least 13 volunteers have undergone the two-week preliminary training, led by the Lee County Police Department. Austin asserted that if the SCOP program is approved, training sessions would be continuous; they would not, however, be nearly as comprehensive as full SRO training with the police academy. 

“If we could afford SROs, I would prefer that route over what we are doing,” said Debbie Jesse, a member of the Lee County School Board. 

One volunteer, while insisting her training on the matter was thorough, could not recall the specifics of how to approach hostage negotiation, calling into question the efficacy of the training and the suitability of its applicants. And yet, volunteers felt confident about their ability to handle situations that might arise. 

“I feel positive that I could be level headed and calm enough to be able to talk to someone. I think so,” Sarah said. “As far as shooting and feeling comfortable with that, it was not hard.” 

However, in spite of a person’s best intentions, paralyzing fear fused with paramount responsibility could result in shooting at anything that moves — including children. 

“Training is obviously an important part of this. But most important is, you really have to have the mindset to be…. I don’t want to say an aggressor, but to be able to confront a threat,” said Tim  Spivey, a retired police lieutenant, who was a member of the Chesterfield SWAT team for 16 years. “If you don’t have the proper mindset, you’re not going to react the way you should.” 

Police academies typically hold 30-week course programs, three to four weeks of which focus on firearms training. This includes both target shooting and live-action scenario training, during which trainees weigh the safety of others. Spivey insists that this is paramount. 

“I hope part of their training is [making clear that] you can’t just wildly shoot if it’s going to harm other people around,” Spivey said. “Being a disciplined shooter is being sure of your target and what’s beyond it, and not causing other casualties. Training is the first step, the basis for accomplishing the job. But training is kind of like education — it’s ongoing. You can never get enough.” 

Spivey stresses that, in high-risk situations like these, giving a staff member leeway to handle an emergency situation with deadly force would be unwise without more extensive training and multiple psychological evaluations. However, back in Lee County, Sheriff Parson feels there are more important concerns. 

“I understand there’s a liability involved, but honestly I’d rather get sued for saving kids’ lives than sit here and do nothing, and we lose a bunch of kids,” he said. 

In July of 2018, the Lee County School Board voted unanimously to introduce the SCOP program, allowing carefully selected employees at each of the schools to use firearms as a preventative measure against any potential active shooter situation. These employees would be trained and designated as Special Conservators of the Peace. 

The requirements to be an SCOP, created by the Supreme Court of Virginia, include a background check, a drug test, proof of training with a certified Virginia law enforcement agency, and proof of liability insurance. Austin and Hines insist the cost of insurance premiums are more than affordable, despite concerns within the county for available insurers. 

“It would be a larger expense, yes, but the Special Conservator of the Peace has certain levels of protection that are expected so we met those standards through our insurance,” Austin said. However, Austin says, that cost has not been added to the school district’s premiums yet. 

Last July, Austin completed the requirements for SCOP and became the first Lee County school staffer to submit his request to DCJS. They rejected his request and, a week later, the Virginia Attorney General’s office released an opinion condemning Lee County for their decision to implement the program. 

“Our kids deserve a safe, secure learning environment when they come to school, and adding guns and armed, unqualified personnel to our classrooms is incompatible with that goal,” stated Attorney General Mark Herring. “The law already provides several options for employing armed security personnel with full law enforcement training, but the law doesn’t allow for the arming of unqualified personnel, and for good reason.” 

However, former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who represented Lee County in their lawsuit against the current Attorney General before that suit was dropped in March of this year, feels that Virginia’s Guns In Schools Law does provide for exceptions to the prohibition of firearms on school grounds — one of which fits with Lee County’s current program. 

“For their community, I think this is a very intelligent solution,” Cuccinelli said. “I actually think it is a very intelligent solution for many communities. Part of my interest is making sure they can safely and smoothly undertake this.” 

The citizens of Lee County have put a great deal of thought into this program, but flaws have been revealed as part of its implementation. While Austin recognizes these flaws, criticism from outside the county only increases his determination to complete the project. 

“Your presumption about the presence of additional protectors posing a danger reveals an assumption on your part that the Lee County School Board and Lee County Public Schools administration do not share,” he said. 

The issue of gun usage is a polarizing one, but this decision isn’t as simple as whether or not individuals have the right to bear arms. For Lee County residents, it has everything to do with their local tradition of volunteerism. People here feel compelled to step up, take action, and assume protective roles when called upon by circumstance. After all, the closest hospital is 40 minutes away; to residents of Lee County, it feels as if they have no one to rely on but each other. 

But what ultimately happens in Lee County will set a precedent for the entire state. 

“Their first priority is protecting their own children, but they want other counties to be able to do it, too,” said Cuccinelli. “And I strongly suspect that there are plenty of other school boards in Virginia, while they’ll stay perfectly quiet while this is going on, they’re definitely pulling for us to win.” 

Even if Lee County is allowed guns in school, though, it won’t feel like a victory. The only thing they’ll gain is a somber reminder that this is the reality of school safety today. 

“They’re hired as teachers. We don’t expect them to make [a life-or-death] decision,” said Lane. “But… if they’re willing to step in and help, offer their services, I don’t want to tell them that they can’t do it.” 

Written by Madelyne Ashworth and John Donegan; Photos by John Donegan; The cover photo is by PS Magazine.

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