NB School Guards Closer to Getting Guns; But Questions Linger

This week's Town Council meeting aired news of the latest plan to equip North Branford School Security Officers with guns.
This week's Town Council meeting aired news of the latest plan to equip North Branford School Security Officers with guns. Pam Johnson

Former police officers manning schools as armed School Security Officers (SSOs) will soon be carrying guns owned by them and not the school district, which is acting as its own security agency.

These details, and the topic of town’s school guards carrying guns, were aired at the Sept. 3 Town Council meeting. The topic gave pause to at least a few at the meeting, including two members of the Town’s Police Commission.

Last year, spurred on by the shooting deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the council voted to allow the district to hire armed SSOs for the town’s schools. The added SSOs were hired in Jan. 2013. The guards went to work in the school buildings, carrying radios with direct police contact; but without the side arms they are presently completing training and certification to carry.

In the ensuing months, the district’s original plan to distribute the firearms was reworked at the behest of Superintendent of Schools Scott Schoonmaker, who wanted to be certain to satisfy any potential legal questions; including avoiding federal “straw gun purchase” violations.

As a result, the district decided the best course of action is to take the seven .40 caliber Glock handguns already purchased for the guards by the schools (and placed in a locker at police headquarters), transfer them to a gun wholesaler, and then on to a local firearms licensed dealer from whom the guards will purchase the guns. Each guard will receive a stipend of approximately $500, which equals the cost of the gun, from the school district.

The details of the new purchase protocol were reviewed at an earlier meeting between Schoonmaker, Town Manager Mike Paulhus, Chief of Police Matthew Canelli and Town Attorney John Gesmonde. Gesmonde then drafted a legal opinion for the town that the actions satisfied legal purchase requirements.

Questions from council members on Sept. 3 included whether the guards will be responsible for where the guns are stored during the summer and whether the guns should not be locked up at the town’s police department when not in use. Additionally, council member Ronald Siena asked Board of Education chair Marcey Onofrio if a guard leaves the job, does the town’s money for the gun leave with that guard.

“Unfortunately, if somebody leaves  in three months, we have to come up with another weapon for a new person,” said Onofrio.

Onofrio also read from an email sent to the district by an Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) official. The email stated that the school district, as government entity, would not have violated the straw purchase laws with its earlier plan and that the district’s revised purchase plan was also viable and one of which the ATF approved. Onofrio also noted 11 towns in Connecticut are “…all going in this direction” of bringing in armed security officers.

Siena also raised concerns about who the guards report to an emergency. The SSO job description (approved by the Town Council earlier in 2013) states that school principals as well as the lead security guard (located at the high school) have decision-making authority, answered Onofrio.

“So the principal, who is an educator, can give direction to an armed guard -- with no training on how to strategically place an armed guard?” asked Siena.

Onofrio explained those are strategies for which the guards are trained and for which the lead SSO and police department are trained.

“(The principal’s) not going to tell them how to handle the weapon – they’re all trained for that,” she answered. “They are reporting to the (lead guard) as well. If anything  happens, he’s the one that’s trained (and) that’s why we have radios to the police department.”

Police Commissioners David Palumbo and John Landolfi commented to the Town Council that they did not agree with  the idea of the guns being purchased and owned by the SSO’s.

“If the individuals are buying these guns and they own them, are we going to be liable for accidents if they happen with these guns?” asked Landolfi.

Gesmonde answered, in his opinion, it would depend on the situation.  He said the town would be mainly be liable if an SSO was hired negligently (for example, without a suitable background check) or, having hired an SSO,  the town later found reason showing the person was unsuitable, but kept him or her on as an employee, known as “negligent maintenance of employment.”

However, Gesmonde cautioned, “… beyond that, the only type of negligence I believe the town could be faulted with …would be if he were acting in the scope of his employment, and if he did something where gun became loose and went off on its own, and somebody became injured or worse… we’re response for anything that happens in the schools. If you put guns in the schools, accidents can happen.”

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