Forum on Tasers in schools reveals sharp divide

by Jordan Green

The Guilford County School Board offered parents and community members a pressure valve to express anxiety about county sheriff’s deputies carrying Tasers in some of the district’s middle and high schools, but school officials gave no indication that they plan to discontinue the practice.

The star of the Aug. 22 forum at Smith High School, which included a panel of about 20 law enforcement officers, principals, teachers and parents, was Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes. The sheriff spoke forcefully in defense of Tasers – plastic hand weapons that propel two hooked wires into a human target’s body and send a brief electrical shock – being carried by his officers in school halls.

“Basically, what it comes down to is our officers are armed with Tasers, which is just an alternative to a .45 automatic [pistol], which is what they carry,” Barnes said. “We have never used Tasers in a school. That’s a record I’d like to keep. It’s gonna hurt, folks, but it doesn’t leave a mark like a .45 does.”

The Greensboro and High Point police departments, which police the schools within their respective city limits, do not equip their school resource officers with Tasers. While representatives of both departments attended the forum the absence of their chiefs put Barnes in the spotlight as the top-ranked officer of the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office.

The moderator privileged authority from the start of the forum, asking for opening statements from law enforcement officers, principals, teachers and parents on the panel, in that order.

School Board Chairman Alan Duncan made a closing statement seeming to express the official will of the district. After Duncan’s remarks the second-ranking board member, Vice Chairman Amos Quick, asked why the sheriff’s office needed to patrol schools with Tasers when Salvation Army Boys and Girls clubs provide after-school programs in public housing communities across Greensboro without armed security. Rather than ask Barnes or his police counterparts for a response, the moderator ended the event by saying she was sure the school board would give due consideration to the question. Other than Duncan and Quick, no other board members spoke publicly.

Duncan indicated that the matter was out of the school board’s hands.

“The armament of the officers is the authority of Sheriff Barnes in the case of the school resource officers under the command of the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department,” he said.

When the moderator opened discussion to members of the audience – which numbered about 50 – the screen of reassurance fell away, revealing a wide disparity of opinion about the role of armed security in the public education process, disagreement about the potential harm of the weapon under scrutiny and confusion about when it should be used. Many of the speakers – current and former school employees and parents – spoke in favor of school resource officers being allowed to carry Tasers as a deterrent against assaults by students or outside visitors. Many others said the weapons have no place in an educational setting.

“Tasers are designed for a healthy adult, not a middle school child,” said Berkley Blanks, director of security for the American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro and the Democratic candidate running against Barnes for sheriff. “We don’t have Tasers for every deputy on the street. So why does every SRO in the schools have to carry one?”

Barnes retorted: “This is a political ploy on your particular part.”

“It was a mistake for you to put Tasers on campus,” Blanks continued. “We should have been having this discussion six months ago. The African-American community, they don’t want their children Tased. The Caucasian community, they don’t want their children Tased. And the teachers don’t want to be Tased. And this is going to be a political issue.”

Trina Regues, whose two daughters attend Allen Middle School, was one of at least two parents who said the sheriff’s office should be supported in carrying Tasers if they believe the weapons are needed.

“They have been trained in these areas,” she said. “Just like when they’re out on the highway, they use their judgment.”

Donna Greeson, a teacher at Southwest High School in High Point, said, “I would rather there be an alternative to an officer pulling a gun if there’s an intruder on campus. I don’t see these officers as just Tasing people.”

Others were not so sanguine.

“We want safety the same way y’all do,” Sterling Freeman, a rising eighth grader at Kiser Middle School, told the panel. “We feel like we’re in jail. If we feel like we’re convicts, we’re going to act like inmates, hang out in gangs and do what we need to do. If we feel like we’re in a place that traps us’… I’m sorry, I’m a little nervous.”

He added that school administrators and teachers should come to the students to find out about potential trouble and work harder to open lines of communication instead of building up security.

Other audience members noted lawsuits filed by law enforcement officers injured by Tasers, and reports that people with pre-existing health problems have died after being shot by the weapon.

“With all the education at this table, I can’t believe we’re talking about this,” Millicent Lee said. “We’re teaching our kids to fight violence with violence. Young African-American men are being picked on and picked out. I’m against Tasing children. The jury’s out on the effect of Tasing.”

Barnes indicated that he has no intention of withdrawing Tasers from the schools in the jurisdiction of the sheriff’s office. As a concession, he said he had offered Duncan the option of having a school board member join his internal affairs department in reviewing any incident in which a Taser might be used on a student to determine if use of force was justified.

“The kids aren’t noticing the Tasers,” he said. “This is just another tempest in a teapot. It’s just another tool in the officer’s tool belt. There are multiple law enforcement officers that have been assaulted. There are many administrators that have been assaulted by students.”

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