The high-stakes debate on arming Hamilton school staffers brought out a high number of residents Wednesday evening during a special town hall meeting.
The standing-room-only event, which was co-sponsored by Hamilton Schools and the city’s police department, was designed to gauge community opinions about the school system’s plan to arm some specially trained school employees in the coming school year.
Out of more than a dozen speakers, more than half didn’t care for the idea.
“I am against staff and teachers being armed,” said Becky Hoskins, a school nurse with Hamilton Schools told the board and more than 100 in the packed event room at the district’s central office.
“I do not want this to be our new normal. Adding more guns to schools will not make them safer,” said Hoskins. “Let’s leave that to (school) officers.”
“We already have this shoot-them-up, video game mentality and good guy with a gun is a myth,” she said.
But Hamilton school parent Jim Graham praised school officials for moving toward arming some staffers who volunteer and qualify to have access to firearms.
“I truly believe a good person with a gun can stop a bad person with a gun,” Graham said.
“There are school districts throughout the country that have been permitting this for some time. This is a great way to add safety to our schools,” he said.
Two of Hamilton’s five school board members — Tom Alf and Laurin Sprague — attended the forum under an agreement by members so that the attendance of all five would not make it an official board meeting, precluding the possibility of any board action.
Also attending were Hamilton Police Chief Craig Bucheit, Hamilton Mayor Pat Moeller and Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones.
Of the three, only Bucheit spoke publicly, saying he favors creation of a program that would have vetted, qualified school staffers — ideally those with military or law enforcement experience — who would have access to firearms to help protect the city’s schools.
Currently Hamilton Schools uses armed school resource officers supplied by the local police department at its schools. And the board has already approved hiring two additional school resource officers for the coming school year.
Some contended, however, those officers may not be enough or may not be stationed throughout a school building where they can react quickly in case of an armed attack.
Bucheit said he backs a plan to arm some staffers “in a very limited capacity, allowing people who do possess the requisite background and training to have access to tools to keep themselves, students and our schools safe.”
If the arming plan is done — individual staffers would have to be approved by a vote of the school board after training is completed — Hamilton Schools would be one of the largest districts in Southwest Ohio to allow firearm access to non-police personnel in schools.
But Larry Knapp, superintendent of the 10,000-student district with 1,200 employees, said there is not timeline for moving on the firearm access plan.
Classes in Hamilton begin for the 2018-2019 school year on Aug. 8.
Last month the Hamilton board announced it was taking the historical stance of planning to arm staffers days after Jones — a long-time advocate for arming qualified school employees — posted a billboard downtown questioning the board’s allegedly lax approach to security.
Earlier this year Jones also offered local teachers free Conceal Carry Warrant (CCW) firearm training.
Jones stood in the back of room for a portion of the meeting, he said, “out of respect” for the process and officials involved.
He did not speak but later told the Journal-News that school officials are taking action “because of the pressure” he brought with his billboard and public statements.
Knapp said, “we think there’s a place for armed personnel” in the city schools.
But he added, some people mistakenly think “every teacher is going to have a gun.”
“That is not our stance with this. The main criteria for what we have been discussing is number one for (staffers) to have a military background or a law enforcement background,” said Knapp.
Of Hamilton’s 1,200 employees, “we only have two people right now that are meeting those initial criteria,” he said. “So we’re looking at a very limited number.”