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Downstate school system could be state’s first to arm administrators

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Updated: February 23, 2013 6:06AM

Educators in a Downstate community near Peoria are poised to make their school system the first in Illinois to arm administrators with handguns in a bid to “beef up security” following last month’s Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut.

With backing from state gun-rights advocates, the school board in Washington, Ill., began mulling the idea this month after the city’s police chief and the superintendent of the school system touted the approach as a way to make its 1,100-student high school safer from armed attacks.

“This could be a potential next step to giving us one more mechanism to protecting students and administrators,” said Supt. Jim Dunnan, who presented the plan to the Washington Community High School District 308 board with Police Chief Jim Kuchenbecker as a way to “beef up security.”

The idea comes amid a national gun-rights debate stirring in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shootings that took 26 lives last month, including 20 children.

The idea now under consideration in the central Illinois school district mimics a proposal by the National Rifle Association and the Illinois State Rifle Association, whose top official praised the school system.

“I would think with several armed people in the school who are qualified, it would be better,” said Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association.

Kuchenbecker and Dunnan first began forming a proposal weeks ago.

“We both started looking at each other and said ‘what if’ and found that this is something to explore,” Kuchenbecker said.

With other states, including Texas and Tennessee, already arming administrators in some of their schools, Dunnan and Kuchenbecker see their proposal as a way to skirt around the murky gun-rights situation here.

Illinois is the only state without a concealed-carry law. In December, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out the state’s prohibition on carrying concealed weapons and mandated that state legislators pass a concealed-carry law within 180 days. Attorney General Lisa Madigan has asked the court to review its decision.

Under the plan being weighed by the Washington school system, a small number of administrators would undergo training to be part-time police officers. After 40 hours of initial training, they could carry a gun as long as they’re enrolled in an additional eight months of the same training taken by all part-time police officers in Illinois, Kuchenbecker said.

“They would have very restrictive duties,” he said. “They would have the title of part-time police officer, but they wouldn’t be out patrolling the streets.”

Only administrators, not teachers, would be allowed to participate in the program, and they would only be armed on school days on school premises, he said.

The board was open to the proposal but asked for more information, both in terms of how much the program would cost and what other options exist to improve safety.

District 308 school board president Tim Custis said three school administrators have already approached him as volunteers for the proposed program. But when the board was asked how carrying a gun could affect someone’s job as an administrator, he said, “nobody was ready to put forward an answer.”

Custis said the board is looking at more options but is also concerned with incurring more costs, especially higher insurance premiums.

Washington High School recently spent $10.2 million to connect its multiple buildings and create a secured single entrance for visitors, Custis said.

“That doesn’t mean an event like Sandy Hook couldn’t happen,” he said.

The board members also discussed other safety measures — including installing bulletproof glass at the visitor entrance and using metal detectors — but the discussion focused on guns in schools.

“Our idea ... was to get enough things out there to facilitate a discussion,” Dunnan said. “We want to keep this front and center, keep it moving.”

But Colleen Daley, executive director for the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, said that while the school is best equipped to deal with its own safety, she doesn’t condone arming administrators.

“If it’s just a response to keep people out of the school, it sounds as if they have pretty good measures in place,” she said. “No matter what, in my opinion, it’s not going to make kids safer. It’s not going to make them feel safer to see a gun.”

Only one school board member was outright against arming administrators, saying that he favors leaving security to an existing armed “school resource officer” or perhaps adding a second such employee at the high school.

“I think there’s 99 other items ahead of this one that could help [with security],” said board member Jim Gerkin, a past president of the school board.

Custis made it clear the board is still very much in a discussion phase, with the issue expected to surface again at a meeting on Feb. 9.

“The majority of the board is willing to talk about it,” he said.

“That’s pretty much where we are. We’re listening and trying to contemplate what’s best for our district and our kids.”

Kuchenbecker also feels taking time to discuss options is crucial.

“There is no sense of urgency,” he said. “We’re smart enough to know that we don’t know it all.”

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