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Phelps stands by comments on school safety

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Cole Phelps, Democratic candidate for the state Senate in District 1, responds to a question at a candidates forum at the Pasquotank County Courthouse, Tuesday. Phelps is standing by comments he made earlier this year that metal detectors and school resource officers are not "the answer" to ensuring school safety.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Friday, October 19, 2018

Senate District 1 candidate Cole Phelps is standing by his comments that metal detectors and more school resource officers are not “the answer” to ensuring school safety — remarks that his opponent has turned into campaign attacks against him.

State Rep. Bob Steinburg's campaign has alleged Phelps is “dangerously wrong” on school safety, attacking him in mailers and in a television ad Steinburg also posted on Facebook on Oct. 8. Steinburg's criticisms are based on comments Phelps made during a March 28 forum hosted in Nags Head by the Dare County Democratic Party.

In his ads, Steinburg, a Republican, targets Phelps, a Democrat, for saying, “I don't believe the answer is to increase metal detectors and increase SRO officers.” Steinburg also criticized Phelps for the comment in an interview last week, claiming Phelps doesn’t want to invest in school safety.

Phelps, an attorney and Washington County commissioner, didn't dispute making the comment in an interview last week. However, he said he was making the argument that preventing school shootings — a national concern in recent months — would take more investment in mental health services to help mentally ill people before they decide to commit the shootings. Phelps said he “absolutely” supports placing more SROs, or school resource officers, in schools, but said metal detectors wouldn't be effective at stopping school shootings.

The comments at issue came just over an hour in to the forum, which the Dare County Democratic Party still has posted on YouTube. A moderator asked about school safety, and Dare County school board candidate Jen Alexander answered the question before Phelps. Notably, the forum happened shortly after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The SRO assigned to the Parkland school hid and didn't confront the shooter, according to published reports.

Citing her background as a therapist, Alexander said schools have a great need for social workers and similar professionals. She strongly opposed arming teachers as a way to protect students, but expressed some openness to allowing people with police or military training to guard schools.

“I know that there are ideas floating out there in terms of metal detectors and the possibility of having retired police officers or veterans protecting our schools,” she said. “And although I don't necessarily think that's a bad idea, I think there's so many inherent potential problems and liability issues that I cannot imagine that our state would allow that.”

Phelps picked up on her answer, commenting:

“I'll just say the same thing that, you know, basically that Ms. Alexander said, because I believe the same thing, is that the answer is not to arm our teachers. That is not the answer. I don't believe the answer is to increase metal detectors and increase SRO officers, because most of our teachers and teacher assistants can't even afford to buy the supplies they need for their classroom.”

Phelps expressed skepticism the state would fund major security upgrades, claiming schools are so poorly funded some teachers work on tight rations of paper.

According to the video, Phelps continued that more investment in mental health would improve school safety, but also argued no one knows the answer for preventing school shootings. He suggested school administrators, teachers and other school staff form a focus group or committee to come up with solutions.

In Pasquotank County, local officials have expressed support for more SROs, but have also shared Phelps' position that the state is greatly under-funding mental health services.

The following is a transcription of Phelps’ comments in response to the question about school safety at the Dare County Democratic Party forum:

“I think that safety of our kids should definitely be the number-one priority. Our kids should not have to worry about safety when they're going to school to learn. I was at the march Saturday here in Dare County. I thoroughly enjoyed the march and the joy that I'm getting from seeing young people around the nation take this issue up and advocate for this change is just — I can't put into words how excited I am about it because young people are leading the way. And that's one of the reasons — that gives me hope — that's why I'm running, because I know it's time for the next generation of leaders.

“I'll just say the same thing that, you know, basically that Ms. Alexander said, because I believe the same thing, is that the answer is not to arm our teachers. That is not the answer. I don't believe the answer is to increase metal detectors and increase SRO officers, because most of our teachers and teacher assistants can't even afford to buy the supplies they need for their classroom. So if we're going to increase metal detector fees and increase all these safety measures, we need to make sure we have textbooks, that we have the supplies that teachers need. I know teachers in several schools that, they're only given a certain amount of paper, and they can only use, you know, this much paper per day, and so we want to spend thousands and billions and millions of dollars on safety, but we can't even give our teachers paper — I mean, come on.

“So I think it's a mental health issue, I think, I know there's a group that's studying this right now. I think that nobody knows the right answer, and I'm not going to sit here and say I know the answer either, but I think we need to put together a group of panelists, and I think the folks who would know best would be the teachers, right? We need to hear from the teachers. The teachers are the ones who work in it day in and day out, and I'm sure most teachers would not want to have a gun on them. I think that teachers could tell you how we could make schools safer, I think cafeteria workers, I think school bus drivers, I think principals, administrators, all of them, we need to put them together in a focus group, create some type of committee and determine how we can make it safer, but, giving guns to our teachers, and increasing all of this spending for metal detectors and that is not the answer.”

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