Lee County Schools files lawsuit against state for rejecting plan to arm teachers

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The Lee County School Board has filed a lawsuit against the state for blocking the implementation of a school safety policy that would allow teachers to carry firearms on school grounds.

According to the lawsuit, the state denied Superintendent Brian Austin’s application to become a special conservator of the peace, or SCOP, a designation that would exempt Austin from a Virginia state law banning guns in schools. 

The Lee County School Board made headlines in July when they became the first in the state to vote in favor of the policy, which has been at the center of a national debate on how to protect students in the case of a school shooting.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring released an advisory opinion in August that ruled the policy unlawful, pointing out that the General Assembly has many times declined to enact bills that would allow school teachers and adminstrators to carry guns on school grounds.

But Virginia’s Former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who will represent Lee County in the case, said in an interview Wednesday that Herring’s conclusion that Austin cannot be exept from state law is wrong. 

“Essentially they want to vote ‘no’ on the school board’s policy from last July but they don’t get to decide that on the state level. That authority is vested with the school board,” said Cuccinelli. 

He said Virginia law lists specific reasons why the Department of Criminal Justice Services can reject SCOP requests. 

“The basis for the rejection that DCJS issued is not in there,” said Cuccinelli. “Without legal basis, they will lose the case.” 

Lee County School Board Chair Debbie Jessee said in an interview Wednesday that the board has yet to discuss a backup plan for school safety improvements if they lose the lawsuit. 

Jessee described the board’s policy of arming certain teachers as a “viable alternative” in light of their inability to hire seven more school resource officers to cover all of their school buildings.

“Right now we’re simply unable to afford to have a school resource officer in all of our schools, which would be the preferable position,” said Jessee. 

She estimated these new hires would cost the county about 350 thousand dollars. 

She said the school system does get grant money from the state to fund school security, as Herring pointed out in his opinion. 

“Right now the state budget situation is pretty rosy. However, in another couple years, who knows. The funding may simply dry up. It’s not a reliable source of money,” she said. 

Jessee admitted this lawsuit could cost the county, already strapped for cash, thousands of dollars. 

Cuccinelli said the case could last anywhere from a few months to a year, depending on how many times the school board is willing to appeal a decision not in their favor. 

“If this case is looking into the thousands of dollars it’s something that we might have to re-examine,” said Jessee. “I would think that would be the only sensible way to do things because one of the reasons we did this is because of the cost.” 

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Lee County Circuit Court. 

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