Murray Bishoff: Out of the frying pan…

Friday, October 18, 2019

Pierce City School Superintendent Kelli Alumbaugh commended her school board this week for its willingness to hold a public forum on the topic of improving security in the school district by adding armed personnel.

She observed it’s a highly charged topic no one particularly wants to talk about.

Indeed, the 90-minute session on Wednesday prompted many passionate statements. Educators in particular had serious reservations about arming teachers, avoiding accidents and the moral question over the willingness to shoot an unarmed student wrestling for possession of a firearm.

At the same time, school board member Kody O’Hara said, “The answer to a bad person with a gun is a good person with a gun.”

Alumbaugh reduced the grounds for debate by noting Governor Parson’s School Safety Task Force calls for strict concealment of firearms. No one would know who has a weapon or how many are in the building, or how quickly additional help could arrive.

Some of the educators who spoke detailed how in an emergency, they felt their primary obligation would be to the children in their classroom. They did not want to be going out looking for trouble, or be mistaken by another armed person as the source of the problem.

Many people spoke in favor of having someone, trained and armed, available to respond. Their concerns boiled down more closely to who and with what kind of training.

O’Hara’s statement framed the discussion around the very narrow window of a final confrontation — dealing with a person beyond reason, someone who knows how to use a gun who is there only to do harm. That outline leaves few alternatives.

If, on the other hand, the purpose of a skilled school resource officer is not to just end a confrontation, but to stop the need for a confrontation through gathering information, constantly listening, collaborating with other school officials, identifying kids who are at risk, seeking help for troubled kids, listening to rumors and information about social media posts, and acting proactively, then you have much different goals and strategies.

The forum addressed that question too, insofar as how can the district afford such an expense. Susie Gasser, Pierce City resident and retired Monett school administrator, noted the district remains at the state minimum tax levy because the patrons have voted down proposed levy increases over and over. Several people spoke about their personal willingness to give money for making the school safer. They had no problem telling their neighbors to do the same.

Alumbaugh acknowledged she provides research for the board. The board members themselves had not studied what other districts are doing or how. The meeting, board president David Jones said, was not a public hearing at all, but an effort to gauge public opinion.

Therein has always laid the problem with publicly elected boards. People with no expertise, especially relying on “experts,” weighing limited information with limited interest in learning the complexities of their business, are all too often ill-equipped to make decisions. School superintendents in particular can easily direct decisions to their liking. Board members often have their own priorities, or preference for specific players or personalities.

When the public doesn’t trust its boards or like its decisions, voters turn down funding increases. It’s that simple.

This week’s forum provided a positive, up front exercise in public relations. It brought an unusually large turnout. The audience had its chance to speak. The Facebook survey floated to test public opinion was duly trashed as worthless, answered by nameless, faceless people who could live anywhere. The survey was unknown to anyone not plugged into the district’s Facebook outreach, including older taxpayers who don’t troll social media.

There was fear displayed by the cafeteria supervisor, noting there’s no place to hide in a room full of 100 people. The city’s police chief offered no comfort when he would not share details about how he would respond in any given situation. That would not improve safety but reveal too much. He confirmed that for the most part, he alone would be the first to respond to an incident at the school, and that had obvious limitations.

The concern in the room was evident. The first member of the audience to speak challenged board members about making the leap immediately to arm staff, without first going over every other strategy to make the school safer or more secure.

O’Hara’s words remained the memorable ones of the evening. And the teachers who talked about “the babies” in their care.

While Jones said the board is in no hurry to act, the issue will not go away, especially now that the box has been opened. It’s not clear whether the board recognizes the historic distrust that has been sewn between itself and its patrons. Maybe older taxpayers will care less as memories fade about the bungled handling of the old high school, now demolished and out of sight. A very clear, detailed proposal, something the Pierce City school board has had difficulty shaping and articulating in the past, might go a long way this time.

What is clear from this week’s meeting is this is a conversation most school districts struggling with limited funding need to have. There’s danger from doing nothing and doing the wrong thing. A good person with a gun is not always the answer, and sometimes might be the wrong answer. As Alumbaugh said, these are not questions where cookie cutter answers fit all districts.

Now the work really begins. Finding consensus on something this complicated may be harder than ever, but it’s the only way to move forward together.

Murray Bishoff has served readers of The Monett Times since 1988. He can be reached at times-news@monett-times.com, or 417-235-3135.