MANASSAS, Va. - Armed guards in public elementary schools has been a topic of much debate in the D.C. area. But this year, Prince William County Public Schools has become the first district in the state to employ armed retired police officers for its elementary schools.
The pilot program was approved back in April. During a school board meeting Wednesday, the school district put the finishing touches on an agreement between the Prince William County Police Department and Prince William County Public Schools over the selection, training and equipping of the armed community safety officers.
High schools and middle schools in the county already have armed school resource officers who are employed by the police department. However, elementary schools do not.
Through the pilot program, Prince William County approved $500,000 for six retired officers – five community safety officers and one supervisor – to start the pilot program.
“It strengthens an already robust security program, just adding more to what we already have,” explained Diana Gulotta, director of communication services for Prince William County Public Schools.
There are 60 elementary schools within the school district. Officials declined to say how the six community safety officers would be utilized.
School board members are taking advantage of a Virginia law passed in 2017 that allows school districts to hire retired police officers, which are more affordable than school resource officers. The district has hired three retired officers so far and are looking for three more.
“It's not just about having a security officer with a firearm,” Prince William County Police Chief Barry Barnard told FOX 5 in April when the pilot program was first approved. “It's about the right people –retired law enforcement officers that have experience or interest in this.”
This comes at a time when the debate rages on over how to protect America’s schools. Just last week, Virginia’s attorney general released an opinion that arming teachers would be unlawful.
"State law provides options for schools to employ security personnel who have law enforcement training,” Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said. “What the law doesn't allow, is for schools to deploy unqualified personnel – and with good reason.”
While other school districts in the D.C. area are still weighing their options, Prince William County Public Schools said the decision came fairly quickly after the Parkland, Florida school shooting and without parent objection.
“We just feel like this is a great compromise in trying to really reach out and expand that program into the elementary schools,” added Gulotta.
In order to apply, potential community safety officers must be retired for less than 10 years, in good standing with their previous agencies and complete active shooter training.