When the school year begins in Madison County, North Carolina, on August 22, it will come with what the county sheriff says will have enhanced safety features – AR-15 rifles.
In an interview with The Asheville Citizen-Times, Sheriff Buddy Harwood said that the new measure for this school year, in collaborating with Madison County Schools, comes in the wake of the Uvalde school shooting that left 19 children and two teachers dead.
"Those officers were in that building for so long, and that suspect was able to infiltrate that building and injure and kill so many kids," Harwood told the outlet. "I just want to make sure my deputies are prepared in the event that happens."
Each of the six schools in the district, including three elementary schools, will have an AR-15, the sheriff said. The guns will be handled by school resource officers, who have been undergoing training at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, Harwood said.
Social workers and school counselors have also been added to each school as part of this year's safety and security plan.
Harwood said that along with the rifle, a safe will also be put in each school. Breaching tools and additional magazines with ammo will also be kept in the safes. Harwood's staff has also met with first responders and other law enforcement and security officials.
"We'll have those tools to be able to breach that door if needed. I do not want to have to run back out to the car to grab an AR because that's time lost," Harwood said. "Hopefully, we'll never need it, but I want my guys to be as prepared as prepared can be."
Schools are also going to have a panic button system that's connected to a monitoring center.
The county's superintendent Will Hoffman said that school administrators have had regular meetings with local law enforcement to discuss the new measures. He said he's also been assured that law enforcement can monitor school camera systems and has met with the school attorney.
Harwood said he hates that the nation is in a place where AR-15s need to be kept in his schools, but that he thinks it's necessary to help keep children safe.
"We can shut it off and say it won't happen in Madison County, but we never know. I want the parents of Madison County to know we're going to take every measure necessary to ensure our kids are safe in this school system," he said. "If my parents, as a whole, want me to stand at the door with that AR strapped around that officer's neck, then I'm going to do whatever my parents want as a whole to keep our kids safe."
The week before the academic year begins, the school system and Sheriff's Office will conduct a live scenario training, including all of the district's teachers, that would require an emergency response, the Citizen-Times said.
The decision to arm the schools, however, is controversial. Many have argued for years that having firearms in schools can create sometimes more dangerous situations or lead to firearm incidents.
Giffords Law Center has found nearly 100 publicly reported incidents of mishandled guns in schools within the last five years, including at least one incident of a student grabbing an officer's gun while the officer was attempting to subdue them.
A report by Texas lawmakers released last month found that the May 24 mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde was the result of "systemic failures and egregious poor decision making" among responding law enforcement.
The report found that 376 law enforcement officers responded to the shooting, most of whom were state and federal officers. Despite this, the report said there was no clear leadership or communication during the situation. The gunman was barricaded inside a classroom with children for more than an hour that day, and bodycam footage shows several officers in the building and near the room with weapons during that time.
The committee responsible for the report said it's plausible some of the victims would still be alive "if they had not had to wait 73 additional minutes for rescue." Children inside the room were calling 911 for help up until the moment police entered.