W.Va. lawmakers hear pitch for random, armed school security

W.Va. lawmakers hear pitch for random, armed school security
Published: Dec. 5, 2022 at 6:54 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - When your child or grandchild leaves for school, you hope they will be safe.

That almost didn’t happen months ago -- April 6 in Jackson County, West Virginia. A student smuggled a gun onto the bus, the would-be shooter with a target in mind upon arrival at Ripley Middle School.

“We were within a matter of minutes of being headlines on the six o’clock news,” Jackson County Sheriff Ross Mellinger told lawmakers. “We were about to be the next national tragedy.”

Another student saw the gun, grabbed the magazine and became the hero, but Mellinger knew more had to be done.

In speaking to lawmakers Monday, the sheriff said he met two obstacles -- funding and staff. That led to development of The Shield Program, required overtime that forces every Jackson County deputy to spend two hours a week monitoring a school of their choice.

“So, if you can’t put an officer in every school, then you make it as random as you can to leave that prospective shooter guessing,” he said. “‘Is this the day I meet resistance? Is this the day they fire back? Does this school have the officer in it today?’”

A random approach is also being pursued in Kanawha County Schools.

Its safety director, Keith Vititoe, told lawmakers the district plans to hire retired law enforcement to be an armed presence in plain clothes -- a team of 12 to rotate among 55 schools with no on-site officer.

“They won’t be law enforcement,” he said. “They’re there to protect the school, bottom line. Their mission would be to provide protective services to prevent the act of murder or serious bodily injury. That is the goal.”

With neither program able to cover every school, lawmakers asked what happens when a school is not monitored. Also, how would larger cities, such as Huntington, implement the Jackson County strategy, if it were to become state law.

“I just think it will be trouble for a city of our size, that already doesn’t have enough law enforcement officers in the department, to be able to carry out the required minimum that he set forth,” state Del. Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, said of Mellinger’s plan. “Now again, good idea, but we need to refine it to make sure that it fits each municipality.”

Mellinger estimates the cost of The Shield Program at $21,000 -- a cooperative effort between Jackson County Schools, the County Commission and his office.

Vititoe asked lawmakers to make it easier for counties to hire security personnel. He also requested that small and large schools alike have equal access to any security protocols adopted by the Legislature.

The 60-day regular session begins next month.