Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Bill would permit arming teachers

by on December 19, 2013 11:00 AM

State Sen. Don White has introduced a bill that would leave it up to Pennsylvania's school districts to choose whether faculty and staff could carry guns on school grounds.

Senate Bill 1193, one of two school-safety bills White, R-Indiana, introduced last month, clarifies existing laws on weapons possession in schools by specifically allowing for it, with conditions:

A school district would have to adopt a policy allowing staff to carry a firearm, and then those who would carry would have to obtain a concealed carry permit.

They additionally would be required to hold a current certification under weapons training and education laws pertaining to active and retired police officers, sheriff's deputies or to those who are required carry a weapon as part of their job.

To be clear, the bill doesn't require school districts to have an armed presence in their schools; it simply gives them a choice as to whether they want one.

And having choices is important, said White.

"As we weigh our options, I believe we need to consider providing school employees with more choices than just locking a door, hiding in a closet or diving in front of bullets to protect students," White said in a statement.

"With the legal authority, licensing and proper training, I believe allowing school administrators, teachers or other staff to carry firearms on the school premises is an option worth exploring."

White went on to say that his district includes many rural districts that are miles from local police departments and therefore rely on the undermanned Pennsylvania State Police for protection.

"While the PSP does a tremendous job, some schools face the reality of a delayed response time and may want to consider an option such as outlined in SB 1193."

White said the idea for the bill came from a group of local teachers who had approached him and asked that he explore the idea.

"I just want to get the discussion going to see whether that’s a feasible solution or not," he said.

In other states, that discussion already has occurred.

During the 2013 legislative sessions, at least 33 states introduced bills specifically relating to arming teachers and staff in primary and secondary schools, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"This legislation ranged from allowing school districts to set employee (firearms-carry) policy, to creating 'school sentential' programs in schools, to allowing teachers with concealed-carry permits to carry on private school grounds," the organization said.

It said that by its count, more than 80 bills were introduced, and eight that it knows of passed.

One of those bills was in Kansas, where school employees now can carry on campus if there isn't a district policy prohibiting it.

In Tennessee, certain employees may now carry if they are licensed, meet certain qualifications and have written authorization from law enforcement and school authorities, the organization said. And in Texas, legislators created a "school marshal" program.

Under that program, marshals have to already be employed for the school, are required to undergo 80 hours of training, and have to keep their firearms locked but within easy reach. And rather like an air marshal on a commercial airliner, they're identities are known only to a certain few.

Whether Pennsylvania becomes the next state to adopt a law along those lines remains to be seen. And if it does, its passage probably won't come without some considerable debate.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, for instance, said it is categorically opposed to giving weapons to teachers.

"The bottom line is teachers are not trained for this," said Wythe Keever, an association spokesman.

And locally, some school board members said they'd have a difficult time agreeing to a policy allowing for armed staff.

Among them is Vicki Smith, Homer-Center School District's board president.

"I wouldn't want to put our teachers or administrators in a position where they would have to choose to shoot one of our students," she said. "How do you live with yourself if you’ve had to shoot a student?

"I can't imagine."

What she is for, however, is the other bill White introduced.

That bill, Senate Bill 1194, would allow school districts sitting in municipalities covered by state police to contract with nearby municipal police departments for police protection. In other words, the bill would give districts the ability to decide who patrols the schools, regardless of the location of the schools.

Having that ability would solve a problem for districts whose borders fall on top of two or more police jurisdictions, as is the case in Homer-Center, Smith said.

The same sort of situation exists for the Blairsville-Saltsburg and Indiana Area school districts.

Smith said Homer-Center, whose campus is entirely in Center Township, already has already worked out a police coverage agreement with the township and the borough, designating borough police as the agency responsible for patrolling the schools. But if the district hadn't been able get that agreement together, it would have taken advantage of the law White is proposing, she said.

And the same goes for Indiana Area officials.

They, in fact, were the ones who asked White to look into drafting a bill along those lines. That request followed the district's unsuccessful attempt to have Indiana Borough police be responsible for patrolling all six of the district's schools, regardless of whether they sit in White Township.

The attempt failed because township and borough officials couldn't agree on what state laws say about the jurisdictional matters involved in such an agreement.

Tom Harley, Indiana Area school board president, said that allowing a local police department, as opposed to a regional state police barracks, to patrol a district's schools is ultimately better for the district. The local departments are often closer, he said, and officers better know the students who attend the schools and the people who work in them.

And, he said, allowing districts to choose the agency responsible for patrolling their schools eliminates jurisdictional confusion that might arise in a serious incident.

Sam Kusic is a staff writer for The Indiana Gazette.
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