By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A bill to make it easier for retired law enforcement officers to become armed school security personnel passed the Alabama Senate Thursday and could get a vote in the House next week.
“It will give schools and sheriffs departments more options and opportunities to hire people,” Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, said about Senate Bill 255 and House Bill 209.
The legislation changes state law to allow former state, local or federal law enforcement officers with at least 25 years of experience and who retired in good standing to become armed school security personnel. They would not have to be certified by the Alabama Peace Officers’ Standards and Training Commission (APOST), as is currently required of school resource officers.
Rep. Phillip Pettus, R-Greenhill, the sponsor of the House bill, has previously said the weeks-long training is unnecessary for former law enforcement and a hinderance for getting them into schools.
Melson said the bill came from local law enforcement who were facing shortages of potential school resource officers.
“In Alabama, we have a lot of retired FBI agents, state troopers, and police officers, many of whom also have extensive military experience,” Tom Sisk, superintendent of Limestone County Schools, said in a written statement. “Sen. Melson’s bill will allow the schools to have a larger pool of qualified security officers from which to draw.”
The bill also requires that retirees complete active shooter prevention training approved by the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and have completed a firearms certification course.
The bill is similar to one Pettus sponsored last year. It was approved in the House, but died without a vote in the full Senate on the final day of the session.
“I think the House is eager to tackle this problem and with the officers being part time it will save the counties and municipalities a lot of money than hiring full-time officers,” Pettus said Thursday. “And the amount of experience these retired officers have shouldn’t be wasted, and should be put to use defending our children.”
Schools can hire their own security staff or contract with local law enforcement for school resource officers. Schools can currently hire non-APOST certified security force members, but they can’t be armed.
Ryan Hollingsworth, executive director of School Superintendents of Alabama, said his organization didn’t have a stance on the bill.
He said the majority of school systems currently use school resource officers who are members of the local police departments or sheriff’s offices rather than hiring their own school security personnel.
Some law enforcement agencies charge school systems to have their officers on school grounds while some provide them for free as part of their mission of protecting and policing their communities.
“In schools, there are a lot of members of a community gathered at one time,” Hollingsworth said.
The Senate voted 33-0 to pass Melson’s bill.
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he supported efforts to bolster school safety as long as they were in line with Gov. Kay Ivey’s “Smart on Safety” initiative.
Last May, in the wake of the Parkland, Florida school shooting, Ivey created a task force charged with recommending policy changes to improve school safety. Among the recommendations was allowing schools without an SRO to have administrators trained and armed on campus.
The House had Pettus’ companion bill on its agenda, but adjourned before it came up. A vote could occur as soon as Tuesday.
No school security line item in budget
The Alabama State Department of Education earlier this year requested a $22 million line item in the 2020 education budget for school security.
That funding isn’t in the budget proposal Gov. Kay Ivey sent lawmakers, but schools do have options for spending on security, Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said Thursday. He’s chairman of the Senate education budget committee.
Last year, lawmakers agreed to let schools use money from an annual technology fund for security needs.
Orr said Advancement and Technology funds available to K-12 schools in a few months will total about $198 million.
Orr said in 2020, projections are that a “sizable amount” of money will again be available.
“The decision (to handle school security funding this way) was collective by the governor and legislative leadership,” Orr said.
Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, is the House education budget committee chairman. He said lawmakers are taking a holistic approach to school safety.
Asked about state funding specifically dedicated to school safety, Poole said he would wait and see what the Senate passes first.
“I just don’t know yet. We got the governor’s office budget, so we are looking at that and what comes to us from the Senate as well.”
Ivey has touted school security as a priority and said plans need to be specific to a community. A comment on funding wasn’t available from her office Thursday.
“Our preference is for more decisions to be made at the local level especially with funding,” Hollingsworth said. “With the Advancement and Technology Fund allocation this year, some of these local issues can be addressed. Every school district is different with different needs.”
Alabama Daily News reporter Caroline Beck contributed to this report.