ALBEMARLE, N.C. – A North Carolina county has approved a program that will place armed volunteers at schools to serve as school resource officers.
The program in Stanly County, trumpeted as the first of its kind in the nation, comes as the country grapples with a growing concern over gun violence in schools. And it comes in the wake of a fatal school shooting in Parkland, Fla., which has amped up the debate over gun control and school safety.
Several other rural counties in North Carolina are also considering arming volunteers, but Stanly County was the first to approve it. It will be overseen by the county sheriff.
"After seeing what’s been going on in our nation and the states around us, we have become aware of how many lives that have been lost tragically," Stanly County Sheriff George Burris told Fox News. "I looked at other plans in other states, other sheriffs and it was time to step up and do something."
Stanly County, located 109 miles southwest of the state's capital, has eight school resource officers, or SRO’s, protecting 21 middle and high schools.
"If everything was great in life and we didn’t have taxes to have to pay for everything, we could definitely afford to put SRO’s in our elementary schools," county schools superintendent Jeffrey Ray James said. "But I think the program offers us the ability to actually have boots on the ground without trying to find additional resources to pay for that."
Burris and the county school board are looking to add at least a dozen volunteers to their list of SRO’s by April. The goal for the Volunteer School Safety Resource Officer Program, which was passed by the school board last week, is to train community members on how to protect four out of 11 of the county’s elementary schools.
Millingport, Endy, Richfield and Aquadale Elementary School were chosen specifically due to their proximity to police stations and the time it would take for officers to respond to an incident.
"As a parent, I would want to know that my child is in a safe environment," James told Fox News. "When it comes to our 11 elementary schools, we are hard pressed to try to provide that protection."
Applicants will undergo extensive and thorough background checks and drug testing. They are also required to have years of experience in law enforcement or as a military police officer.
"I think the idea of having one "volunteer" to literally die for the protection of another property or persons is noble yet foolish," the person told Fox News.
So far, Sheriff Burris said, 12 people have applied but many were turned away because they did not qualify.
"It’s difficult to tell them no when their heart is in the right place," Burris said. "I’ve had a lot of county folks want to come in. We’re limited to Stanly County residents – so, that knocked two or three out."
Training will consist of at least 40 hours of in-classroom, firearm and combat training per year. Volunteers will also have one-on-one training with Sheriff Burris, emergency response teams, and current school resource officers.
"We will keep the school board, superintendent and principals up to date on the training and let them have input in this course," Burris said. "Being the first one we look to do a good job for not only our county and our state, but maybe our nation."
According to North Carolina law, a person selected by the sheriff to serve as a volunteer will have the power of arrest while performing official duties as a volunteer school safety resource officer.
But not everyone is sold on the program.
"Will the families receive compensation,” a concerned parent asked, “if the volunteer is killed while trying to prevent harm to others?"
The parent said the idea of having volunteers put their life on the line is “noble yet foolish.”
"By only allowing two sources of parties to volunteer, I don't feel that a non-paid position to risks one's life will yield as big of a turn out as the sheriff’s thinks it will," the parent said.
As a parent of three children currently attending schools within the county, Burris said he believes someone who is willing to work for free truly cares about the children in the community.
"When you have people that are willing to donate their time and energy and, if it comes to an active situation, risk their life – it’s a good program," the sheriff said.
Standard operating procedures for the program are still being finalized by the sheriff and his volunteer SRO lead advisor. They aim to have armed volunteers in the county’s elementary schools by 2019.