Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Bill allowing teachers to carry guns clears Senate committee

by on April 21, 2017 10:59 AM
Indiana, PA

A state Senate committee has approved legislation that would allow licensed and trained teachers to carry firearms on school grounds with permission of their local school boards.

Senate Bill 383, sponsored by Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, emerged from the Education Committee on a 9-3 vote and remained immersed in controversy among education leaders across the state.

White said he drafted the law in response to acts of mass violence in schools including the December 2012 shooting deaths of 26 in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and the April 2014 stabbings of more than 20 students in Murrysville, Westmoreland County.

“Since I first introduced this proposal, there has been much discussion about what the measure does and how it relates to current Pennsylvania law,” White wrote in a legislative roundup emailed to constituents. “To be clear, this bill is not about the Second Amendment. It’s about permitting the 500 school districts of this Commonwealth to have greater choices when it comes to protecting our most precious resources — our children.”

White said Mark Zilinskas, a mathematics teacher at Indiana Area Senior High School, asked him to take action following the violence in Murrysville. Zilinskas has frequently appealed to the Indiana school board to tighten security in classrooms and urged the board to allow school staff workers with carry permits to bring guns on school property.

Locally, there’s division over the idea.

Indiana County District Attorney Patrick Dougherty told the school board in August 2016 that he believes the protection of students is a valid reason, under current state law, for a school employee to be armed.

But the school board has abided by the opinion of district solicitor Patricia Andrews that state law allows only authorized security or police officers the privilege of carrying a firearm in a school.

Statewide education organizations are divided on the legislation.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association commended White and the co-sponsors in a letter written this week to Sen. Anthony Williams, the minority chairman of the Education Committee.

“Senate Bill 383 adds to the security options available to local school boards by making the authority of a school board to permit trained school personnel access to firearms on school property broader and more explicit,” PSBA lobbyist John M. Callahan wrote. “The boards of school directors represented by PSBA generally prefers to have more options available to them, not fewer options, and it is our understanding that the kind of authority Senate Bill 383 would provide is something some school boards would like to be able to consider.”

A union representing school teachers, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, called White’s bill misguided and said it would make students less safe.

“Teachers are not trained law enforcement officers — their job is to educate children and act as role models,” PSEA President Jerry Oleksiak wrote in a statement on the association’s website.

“PSEA is not opposed to the use of appropriately trained and armed school safety personnel in schools, like the school safety officers that some districts employ. What our association does oppose is arming teachers, education support professionals, and other school staff.

“This legislation would create more problems for first responders arriving at the scene of an armed confrontation, making it more difficult to immediately distinguish a perpetrator from a school employee. PSEA is for strategies that keep students safe. This bill doesn’t keep students safe. That’s why we oppose it.”

Characterizing SB 383 as legislation “to arm teachers” is one of the main misconceptions about the bill, Zilinskas said this morning.

“Some of the interpretations I’ve heard on talk shows were portraying it like every teacher’s going to have a gun, walking around with a shotgun over their shoulder,” he said. “That’s just not the intention of the bill.”

Zilinskas said the most common fears he has heard are overstated.

“When people are worried about safety and well being of kids, and their own in particular, they tend to be fearful,” he said. “The biggest ones are that kids are going to try to attack teachers and wrestle the guns off them, or that teachers will shoot students if they have a bad day, or that teachers would get involved in a hail of gunfire and miss their intended target and hit students.

“The thing I think people don’t realize is there are places doing this and these things have never happened. These things are well documented. They don’t happen.”

In Ohio, where school workers can lawfully carry firearms, Zilinskas said, “over 80 school districts have been doing this for five years they haven’t had a problem.

“There are safeguards built in for security of weapons. Students don’t know which teachers are armed. It’s anonymous, and the only ones that know are the administrators.”

Zilinskas said he has twice taken a school firearm training course that sets a higher minimum score for teachers to achieve competency than police officers.

Opposition to the bill also has come from city schools in Pennsylvania, where some schools are equipped with metal detectors and other security measures and may already have full-time police officers stationed in the schools.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan told the Philadelphia Tribune that the bill doesn’t make much sense for urban areas like Philadelphia.

“I don’t agree with the legislation,” said Jordan. “I think the children need to have more books, not bullets in schools.”

Zilinskas agreed that city schools benefit from a very short response time for local law enforcement when there’s an emergency.

“When you look at Indiana, we have that luxury — and even in my opinion it’s not fast enough — that we can have someone here in 10 minutes,” he said. “But at school districts like Penns Manor or Purchase Line, that are far from any type of law enforcement, they would have to wait up to 40 minutes before a single police officer arrives. That’s too much time.”

Another benefit of the measure, Zilinskas said, would be faster medical care for wounded victims when an armed staff member could secure a scene. Teachers with medical training could begin first aid measures and paramedics would not need to wait for a distant police response.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s office pledged a veto if the bill reaches his desk, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

“Harrisburg can help schools be safer by giving them adequate funding so schools can hire trained security professionals like school resource or police officers should school professionals feel they need it, and counselors and support staff for students,” according to a statement from Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott.

Chauncey Ross is the Gazette’s fixture at Indiana Area and Homer-Center school board meetings, has been seen with pen and notepad in area police stations and courts, and is something of an Open Records Act and Sunshine Law advocate. He also manages the Gazette’s websites and answers your questions about them.
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