Sworn law enforcement officers, like Douglas County Sheriff's Lt. Brian Murphy, seen in this file photo at Buffalo Ridge Elementary School, have access to semi-automatic weapons. But the Douglas County School District's new plan to give the long guns to non-sworn security officers is stirring heated debate.

 (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)

Douglas County school district’s decision to give some of its security staff access to semi-automatic rifles is raising questions with national safety experts – and some parents.

Semi-automatic assault rifles in the hands of school safety officers aren’t new in Colorado, or across the nation. Since the Columbine school shootings 17 years ago, many schools have trained law enforcement officers employed by the local police or sheriff’s department who provide school security. Many of these officers have access to semi-automatic rifles -- also known as long guns, often locked in patrol cars.

“Any of my school marshal personnel or my school resource officers will have to access to a long gun during the course of their duties,” said Sgt. Lori Bonner with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department.

Most districts don’t like to advertise the fact that semi-automatic rifles are already on campus, says Michael Dorn, a school security expert who has reviewed thousands of schools security programs. He says that’s because handguns are less offensive to people. Still he explains handguns are not always the best weapon.

“It is absolutely the worst thing to have if you have to engage in a gunfight because it’s less accurate which means it’s less safe for bystanders,” he says.

So what’s different about Douglas County’s new policy? It's who will be getting the semi-automatic high-powered rifles.

Four-Layered Security System

First, it’s helpful to understand the Douglas County School District’s four-layered security system:

  • Campus security specialists: They are unarmed school district employees assigned primarily to high schools.
  • School marshals: They are armed law enforcement officers who make multiple unannounced visits to middle and elementary schools. There are seven of them.
  • School resource officers: They are also armed law enforcement officers. They are assigned to high schools. There are nine of them.
  • Armed security patrol: They are school district employees who are not law enforcement officers. They carry handguns and they patrol the entire district. There are eight of them.

It’s the fourth layer, the armed security patrol, employed by the district, which will now have access to semi-automatic long rifles.

The district says the members of the “armed patrol unit” are all former law enforcement officers with more than 100 years of experience between them. They train alongside sheriff’s deputies and already carry handguns.

Richard Payne, the district’s chief of safety and security, says several months ago his armed patrol unit was training with county sheriffs during an active gunman situation.

“One of my patrol officers may be the first responder and the first on scene so supplying the officers with the necessary tools was very important,” said Payne, who has a 25-year background in law enforcement.

He adds that at 900 square miles and 86 schools, Douglas County is a huge area to cover. 

"That’s really where the basis of our decision was made -- was to make sure that we had the necessary tools to keep everybody safe," he said.

Semi-Automatics Rare For School Districts

Several national security experts said the decision to give non-sworn law enforcement officers access to semi-automatic rifles is unusual.

“Never do I recall seeing a school security department – an in-house security non-law enforcement operating with long rifles or other high-powered weaponry,” said Ken Trump, a national school security consultant.

Michael Dorn, of Safe Havens International says most of the non-sworn security people his team has encountered have not been armed at all.

The new Bushmaster brand rifles would be locked up inside of patrol cars. Still, Trump is concerned that the decision didn’t go through a school board.

“Arming your in-house security staff with high-powered rifles ratchets up the security posture," Trump said. "Along with that responsibility comes some potential liabilities that need to be well-covered through school board policies, administrative regulations and very clear standard operating policies and procedures, staff selection and training."

At Tuesday night’s school board meeting, Highlands Ranch parent Kathy Boyer raised some other questions:

“Why was this expenditure prioritized above so many other things such as so many other things, such as the $300 million in capital needs or other possible security purchases like security doors, cameras, back door buzzers, security kiosks, or the mental health of our students?" she asked. "How does the district justify spending money on semi-automatic weapons when parents are footing the bill for buses, text books and copy paper among many other things?”

The ten new weapons will cost about $12,000. The Douglas County school districts spends an estimated $3 million annual on school security but much more -- $18 million annually - on mental health services like counselors, according to director of security Richard Payne. The yearly budget for the eight-member armed security patrol unit is $650,000 a year.

Board member Doug Benevento says the board was comfortable with the priorities set by its security director and supported by the county sheriff.

“In this case we’re going to err on the side of caution and make certain that when we’re told by the experts that this is a prudent step to take in order to protect children in the event of an unthinkable act, that step is taken to ensure that we’re prepared,” Benevento said.

Board president Meghann Silverthorn says at times there are differences of opinion about when district matters should be reviewed by the board and when to trust district employees.

“With this, I certainly heard loud and clear that people want additional input so I’m sure in the future we can find a way to make sure that’s accommodated,” she said. “I’m absolutely open to what people think is appropriate in terms of conversation.”

Complicated Picture In Colorado

National security expert Michael Dorn says he’d need to know more about the level of training for the district’s in-house patrol unit to say whether he agrees with giving them access to semi-automatic rifles. But he understands Colorado’s sensitivity.

“Going by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security definition of active shooter, we’ve had less than 30 events in the history of our country, and to have so many right in that area [Colorado] and other incidents of violence like the Platte Canyon hostage situation, I think there’s a much greater sensitivity to this issue in [Colorado] than probably anywhere else,” he said.

Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, the organization which represents law enforcement officers who contract with schools for security, takes a strong position that armed personnel in schools should be sworn, trained law enforcement officers. But he admits the Douglas County scenario is complicated.

“Obviously they’ve [armed security patrol] been trained at some point, they’ve done the job - so that’s a tough one,” he said. “I’m not in a state that has experienced Columbine, nor have we experienced anything like Platte Canyon so there have been some pretty significant events that are going to lead each community to make their own decision.”

Under the new policy, armed patrol unit staff will get 20 hours of training before the new weapons are issued. That's expected sometime in the new few weeks.