Lee County School Board takes on state over guns

Editorial Board • Jan 24, 2019 at 9:30 PM

The Lee County School Board could not be more physically removed from the halls of state government in Richmond, nor any more politically relevant. But in its effort to protect school children, the board is making waves nationally and not just for its David vs. Goliath legal squabble.

Rebuffed by the state over Attorney General Mark R. Herring’s ruling that Lee County may not arm teachers in its schools, the county has filed suit. That doesn’t happen often, and the case has national interest as other states face the same issue.

But there’s another side to this matter that could impact the state’s highest office.

Leading Lee County’s fight against the state is former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who was the Republican nominee for governor of Virginia five years ago. On the other side is Herring, who has already announced that he is a Democrat candidate for governor of Virginia in the 2021 race.

Herring opined that state law limiting guns on school grounds extends to teachers and other staff who don’t fit into security and law enforcement roles as defined. Well aware of that law, the school board asked for an exemption based primarily on the fact that it cannot afford to pay trained officers to act as school resource officers. It asked that Superintendent Brian Austin be registered as a special conservator of the peace.

In suing the state over its denial, the board believes that Dr. Austin fulfilled all legal requirements for that designation but that “the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, in reliance on the attorney general of Virginia, has taken the position that it will not issue a SCOP registration for a school employee who will be armed on school property.”

“It is important for the members of our community to know that keeping the children in our schools safe is a top priority for every member of the school board,” said school board Chair Debbie Jessie.

“This was a unanimous decision to move forward with training and adding security,” said Mike Kidwell, the school board vice chair. “As a school board member, I would vote to hire seven new school resource officers if that was an option in Lee County. In my opinion, adding security against an active shooter in this day and time is a must for all public schools. Several other states have already taken this common-sense approach with real results.”

As a candidate for Virginia’s next governor, Herring needs to win this case. He cites his efforts to reduce gun violence as among his premier issues, and it would not do for him to lose against Cuccinelli, a longtime gun rights advocate who sponsored legislation to repeal the state’s prohibition on carrying a concealed handgun in a restaurant or club.

In using his perch as the state’s top lawyer as a springboard to the executive mansion, Herring is vulnerable on his announcement four years ago that he would not defend state law providing that marriage is between one man and one woman. He was accused of violating his oath of office to defend all state laws regardless of his personal opinion about them.

While that law was later overturned, if Herring loses this fight against the Lee County School Board, it will damage his campaign. And that campaign aspect may draw as much attention as the safety aspect. That will be unfortunate if attention turns to the politics and away from the reason for the litigation.

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