Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey took educators across the state by surprise last week when, just days ahead of Tuesday’s primary election, she initiated a program to arm certain school administrators.
Ivey signed an executive order launching the Alabama Sentry Program May 30, which would allow trained school administrators in facilities without a School Resource Officer (SRO) to keep a firearm on campus in a secured location to use in the event of an armed intruder.
It’s a plan that grew out of the Securing Alabama Facilities of Education (SAFE) council Ivey created in the wake of the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17. The SAFE council made 10 suggestions to improve school safety but Sentry is the first being implemented.
Ivey acknowledged there is still more to be done to ensure Alabama schools are secure, and billed Sentry as a stopgap measure until the Legislature can fund a more long-term solution.
“Until we have a concrete plan to increase the number of SROs, we must provide a way for schools to protect their students in the upcoming school year,” Ivey said. “With the unfortunate continued occurrence of school violence across our country, we cannot afford to wait until the next legislative session.”
Exactly how it will play out or be funded has yet to be determined. Ivey gave the Alabama State Department of Education and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency until June 15 to develop an implementation plan that will detail how sentries will be selected, trained and evaluated.
In practice, an approved administrator authorized by a school system superintendent, board of education and the county sheriff would have the full authority of a deputy sheriff in the event there is an active shooter at a school, but would still have to follow restrictions established by the Sentry Program.
Sentries will be required to put on a “distinctively marked bullet-proof vest” before ever engaging a weapon, which must also be kept in a safe accessible only with a sentry’s fingerprint. Police will also be trained to identify a sentry’s bullet-proof vest so they aren’t mistaken for an intruder.
Ivey first unveiled the Sentry Program at a televised news conference May 30. She appeared with ALEA Secretary Hal Taylor and newly hired State Superintendent of Education Eric Mackey, whose departments will be integral in determining how the program will operate.
However, the news conference was the first time most superintendents, administrators and teachers heard of Ivey’s plan to arm school personnel. Lagniappe obtained a copy of an email Mackey sent to superintendents across the state the follow day addressing that and other concerns.
“I regret that most, if not all, of you found out about this program via media outlets, but the memorandum’s release was strictly embargoed,” Mackey wrote. “The training will be developed by ALEA and will be available by the end of summer. It will probably be a two-day course.”
Mackey said ALEA would develop a method to certify each prospective Sentry participant’s physical fitness and ability to handle a gun, while the Alabama Department of Mental Health would evaluate their “mental fitness” on an annual basis.
In his email to superintendents, Mackey acknowledged the varied opinions expressed among Alabama educators about the effectiveness of arming school personnel and concerns about the potential legal liability school systems could be accepting if they participate.
“We are well aware of an array of potential legal and logistical hurdles, but I assure you that a team of attorneys, law enforcement and educators is now working diligently to provide you with answers,” Mackey said. “I heard from a few of you, and the reactions are about equally mixed.”
At this point, it’s unclear how the Sentry Program might affect local school systems or whether they’ll even participate. Both Mobile and Baldwin county public school systems are saying they need more information before deciding whether to arm their administrators.
Outgoing Mobile County Public School System Superintendent Martha Peek has been frank about her opposition to anyone other than law enforcement being armed on campus, and Baldwin County Public School System Superintendent Eddie Tyler has likewise said it’s a proposal he would like to avoid.
“The ALSDE is developing the training procedures and protocols. So, we’re waiting for that, and then we will study it,” said MCPSS spokesperson Rena Philips. “We will consider it seriously with input from local law enforcement and the board of school commissioners before we make any decision.”
Spokesman Terry Wilhite said BCPSS officials are still reviewing the Sentry Program proposal, though he noted both Tyler and Sheriff Hoss Mack remain committed to adding more SROs at schools throughout Baldwin County.
However, it’s unclear how the Sentry Program might affect SROs. It specifically states that “participation in the program shall be terminated immediately if the school hires an SRO.” Many systems use SROs, but not all of them are armed and many work in multiple schools.
The 12 SROs who work in MCPSS schools are employed directly by the school system, and according to MCPSS Security Director Andy Gatewood, that has prevented them from carrying weapons since 2007. Both Gatewood and Peek said they’d support changing that law.
At this point, it’s unclear whether Ivey’s executive order might allow SROs to act as a school’s sentry and once again carry a weapon on school campuses.
In Baldwin County, SROs do carry weapons because they’re not, nor have they never been, on the school system’s payroll. Instead, they are contracted through municipalities or the county.
“We have always believed and continue to believe that having full-fledged law enforcement officers is the best way to provide school safety,” Wilhite said.