Utah Grapples With Concealed Guns in Schools

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Are schools safer when teachers pack heat?

That question continues to roil the political waters in Utah, as school district leaders there come to grips with a new state law allowing teachers and others with permits to carry concealed guns in schools.

Around the nation, 34 states have passed laws allowing members of the general public to carry concealed handguns if they have permits. But most of the statutes, including more than a handful passed in recent years, put school property off- limits to such weapons, or let school districts ban the guns if they so choose.

In Utah, though, legislation passed last winter took away the authority from school boards to exempt school property from the concealed-gun law. That cast into stark relief the question of whether guns under someone's jacket or in someone's handbag add to or detract from the safety of schoolchildren.

It also put school boards in the awkward position of carrying out a law they by and large abhor, while writing policies that will protect them legally and actively discourage school staff members from exercising their new right.

Proponents of allowing concealed weapons in schools argue that schools, like other spaces with lots of people, are less likely to be invaded by attackers when they know there could be a "good guy" with a gun around. They also point out that the people who carry guns under a state-permit system are unlikely to be careless with their weapons, minimizing the risk of accidental injury or death.

But opponents, which in Utah included virtually every education group, contend that people with state- issued permits aren't necessarily marksmen, and that in a crisis, innocent people brandishing guns make the job of the police more difficult.

"I worry every day about an incident like Columbine," in which two students at that Colorado high school went on a shooting spree, said Stephen F. Ronnenkamp, the superintendent of the Granite school district in Salt Lake City, "but I also worry about the situation that could arise because people in our schools are not trained [in gun use] or don't have good common sense."

Slowly, Utah districts are coming forward with policies and strategies in response to the change in the state's concealed-weapon law.

Policies Clamp Down

In a move applauded by the state affiliate of the National Education Association, the state's two largest school districts have approved policies that clamp down on concealed weapons in their schools without banning them.

The policy put in place by the 70,000-student Granite district as the new law went into effect in June defines the lawful carrying or use of a weapon as "outside the scope of employment" of district personnel, suggesting that the district will not accept liability for any gun-related mishap.

It also prohibits employees from revealing to anyone in the school that they have a weapon, and from using district property for storing it.

The school board of the 75,000-student Jordan district, also in the Salt Lake area, approved a similar, but slightly narrower policy in July. There, district policy states that if a teacher brings a concealed gun to school, it must remain with the teacher at all times.

Martin W. Bates, who oversees policy for the Granite district, says that about 10 of Utah's 40 districts have asked for copies of his district's new gun rules.

Pat Rusk, the president of the Utah Education Association, the NEA affiliate, said she believes that eventually every district will draft a policy so teachers will know what they can and can't do with regard to concealed weapons.

Clearly, the battle over the issue is not over.

Many teachers, for their part, believe that the risks for school employees and students grow when any adult might be concealing a gun. "I hate to think of a day when there is a teacher-assisted suicide," said Ms. Rusk, who suggested that a student could think, "'I'm going to make my teacher blow me away in front of other kids.'" While she's sure that some Utah teachers back the law, Ms. Rusk added: "I haven't had anybody tell me personally, 'I feel safer now.' "

Safe Havens for Learning, a coalition of education and church groups in Utah, has filed suit against the state as part of a campaign to put the issue of guns in schools before voters.

In August, a state judge upheld the University of Utah's longstanding campus gun ban. The ruling prompted the Safe Havens group to call for the legislature to reconsider the changes enacted last winter.

But the chief sponsor of the legislation wants to extend the reach of Utah's concealed-gun laws. Senate Majority Leader Michael G. Waddoups, a Republican, wants to appeal the court ruling and sponsor a bill that would override the University of Utah ban.

Vol. 23, Issue 6, Page 5

Published in Print: October 8, 2003, as Utah Grapples With Concealed Guns in Schools
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