School Climate & Safety

Debate Stirred on Arming Teachers, School Staff

By Andrew Ujifusa — December 19, 2012 6 min read
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In the aftermath of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, several prominent voices, including former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and U.S. Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Texas, have argued that allowing teachers and principals to carry firearms could prevent such incidents.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, said Dec. 17 that permits to carry concealed weapons should be valid on school grounds. Firearms are currently prohibited on public and private school property and school vehicles in his state. Another Republican, Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, told Washington’s WTOP radio Dec. 18 that it was time to have a “discussion” about having armed school staff members.

And lawmakers in Oklahoma say they plan to introduce legislation to let school staff members arm themselves, and possibly to make school workers reserve law-enforcement officers.

“We cannot continue to be shackled by politically correct, reflexive, anti-gun sentiment in the face of the obvious: Our schools are soft targets,” said Oklahoma state Rep. Mark McCullough, a Republican.

In the Dec. 14 shootings at the school in Newtown, Conn., 20 children and six staff members were killed by a gunman who shot his way into the building before killing himself.

But allowing school staff members to carry firearms to defend students and themselves could create safety and logistical problems for school authorities and law-enforcement officers, according to a national group representing police officers assigned to schools.

States already have a patchwork of laws that vary widely in terms of who can bring firearms onto school grounds, and when they can do so.

The day before the Connecticut shootings, the Michigan legislature passed a bill that would have allowed people to be exempt from gun bans at “no-carry zones,” including schools and day-care centers. But Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, vetoed the measure Dec. 18. The governor had been asked by teachers’ unions and by gun-control advocates not to sign the bill in the wake of the Sandy Hook incident.

“Permitting firearms in schools—visible or concealed—enables a dangerous set of circumstances that can result in similar tragic outcomes,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and AFT-Michigan President David Hecker wrote to Gov. Snyder on Dec. 16. “We should be doing everything we can to reduce the possibility of any gunfire in schools, and concentrate on ways to keep all guns off school property and ensure the safety of children and school employees.”

Varied Laws

Forty-two states and the District of Columbia prohibit even those holding concealed-weapons permits or licenses from bringing guns onto school grounds, according to a state-by-state survey by the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which opposes guns in schools.

One exemption in many states—the Georgia law is particularly clear—is for those who are on school grounds and have licensed firearms in their vehicles. The exception is typically designed to accommodate those who are picking up or dropping off students at school.

New Hampshire, by contrast, has no law at all “prohibiting persons who are not pupils from possessing firearms in a school zone,” according to the San Francisco group, while Alabama’s prohibition on firearms at public schools does not extend to those who have a permit to carry a concealed firearm.

Law Enforcement, Safety Issues

For school resource officers—by definition, police officers with firearms who work in schools—as well as for all others carrying guns on school grounds, training is the key element to ensuring safety, said Kevin Quinn, a spokesman for the National Association of School Resource Officers, based in Hoover, Ala.

For example, he said, while he as the officer on the scene would have only his handgun to challenge anyone bringing an assault weapon on to school grounds, he could be more prepared to meet the imbalance in firepower than someone without a law-enforcement background.

“I have years and years of training in tactics in order to deal with that,” he said.

If teachers or others were carrying weapons on school grounds to protect themselves and students, Mr. Quinn said, a situation could get “dicey” very quickly, particularly for other law-enforcement officers responding to an incident. While those at the school might recognize a teacher defending students from an attacker, he said, police officers might not.

“We could be challenging the wrong person. We could be wasting time challenging a good guy with a gun, when in fact we could be looking for the suspect,” Mr. Quinn said.

Legal Complexities

States have adopted a variety of approaches to gun-policy issues, such as concealed-weapons permits, complicating the debate over arming school staff members. And the precise extent of the right to bear arms continues to spark court battles.

Last week, for example, gun-control advocates suffered a setback when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, struck down the ban on concealed weapons in Illinois—the only state, along with the District of Columbia, to have an outright ban—on the grounds that it violated the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

However, the 7th Circuit court in that Dec. 11 ruling also cited language related to schools in the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008, the landmark ruling that the Second Amendment provides an individual right to bear arms. The opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia said that states could still restrict guns in “sensitive places” like schools.

In the area of weapons permits, Connecticut is a “may issue” or “discretionary” state, in which the state may grant a person a permit to carry a concealed firearm, but is not required to do so, according to the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. However, in 38 other states, either applicants are not required to demonstrate a need for the permit, or authorities must grant such a permit if the applicant meets all the relevant criteria.

But seemingly clear gun policies can raise puzzling legal questions, even in connection with schools. A state analysis of the Connecticut law governing firearms on school grounds raised the possibility that the statute, in theory, could allow a school staff member to bring a gun to a school with the district’s permission, although that analysis also said that, in practice, districts would not allow it.

Carrying a gun on public school grounds in Connecticut is a felony, with a few exceptions for security guards, for those who have them for uses approved by the school (such as a firearms-safety class), and for a law-enforcement officer “in the performance of his official duties.” A hunter can carry an unloaded weapon across public school grounds as well, with the local board of education’s permission.

In 2006, Soncia Coleman, an associate legislative analyst for the state, noted that when the original law pertaining to guns at schools was passed in 1992, it allowed an exemption for those with locally or state-issued permits. That exemption was removed in 1998.

“While a teacher or staff member would be prohibited from bringing a gun to school without the district’s permission, the statute appears to allow him to do so pursuant to an agreement with said district,” Ms. Coleman wrote. “However, it is not clear from session transcripts that this result was contemplated by the legislature, and a cursory review of related board of education policies reveals that this practice would generally be prohibited by school districts.”

She went on to note that the Stamford, Conn., school board prohibited school employees from bringing “any weapon or dangerous instrument onto school property or to any school-sponsored activities.”

Meanwhile, the debate over how—and in what way—policies should be changed remains unsettled. On Dec. 17, for example, Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, said he wanted stricter federal gun-control laws, arguing that relatively strict gun laws in states like his can be undermined by policies in less restrictive states nearby.

Contributing Writer Mark Walsh provided material for this story.
A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2013 edition of Education Week

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