20 states considering bills to allow armed teachers

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by Ben Wieder, Stateline Staff Writer

States Tackle School Safety After Sandy Hook Shootings

In recent weeks, the South Dakota legislature has been rattled over a bill that aims to make schools safer by introducing “school sentinels” — teachers, administrators, security guards or community volunteers who would carry guns to protect their schools.

“If you have not heard about the sentinels bill, it’s probably time to come out of hibernation,” state Senator Craig Tieszen joked last week, according to the Argus Leader.

The plan, which school districts could adopt voluntarily, passed both chambers of the legislature, despite protest from the state’s school board association and most Democrats, and is headed to Governor Dennis Daugaard.

A fourth-grade teacher aims a 40 cal. Sig Sauer during concealed-weapons training for the teachers in West Valley City, Utah. (AP)

South Dakota is among several states considering new school safety laws in the wake of the December shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut that left 20 young students and six adults dead.

A month after the tragedy, President Obama called for a mix of gun-control measures and increased security at schools. His plan would ban military-style assault rifles and strengthen background checks, but also would include more money for guidance counselors and school resource officers, who are usually armed and trained to work at schools. He also supported requiring schools to adopt emergency plans and beefing up mental health services to earlier identify students in need of help.

Different Approaches

States have pursued a variety of proposals. The day before Obama released his plan, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a new law, which toughens gun laws in schools and requires them to submit school safety plans to a new School Safety Improvement Team. The act also bans assault weapons, puts greater restrictions on ammunition, and requires counselors and therapists to report potentially dangerous patients to mental health officials. In February, Arkansas passed legislation requiring the state to determine whether schools are equipped to respond to acts of violence.

Kathy Christie, who heads legislative research at the Education Commission on the States, says a new trend in school security strategy stresses greater emphasis on training teachers to spot mental health problems in students and refer them for help. “They’re looking at what is the first line of defense,” she says.

But the question of beefing up security in schools — particularly allowing teachers and other school staff to be armed — has proved more divisive. Many education leaders criticized the National Rifle Association after it recommended putting an armed guard in every school. After Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell also suggested that the state consider arming teachers, leaders of the country’s two largest teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, jointly condemned the idea.

“Guns have no place in our schools.” Dennis van Roekel of the NEA and Randi Weingarten of the AFT said in a joint statement.

Paying for Security

In just under a third of the nation’s schools, guns do have a place, at least some of the time. According to Department of Education statistics from the 2009-2010 school year, about 28 percent of schools had some armed security staff, with more than 50 percent of middle schools and 60 percent of high schools reporting the presence of armed staff.

Those numbers could increase under the president’s proposal, but it could be expensive. Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, estimates that each resource officer costs $50,000 to $80,000, depending on location.

In the early part of the last decade, the federal government helped pay for these officers through its Cops in Schools program, which gave police departments up to $41,666 a year to help hire them. Funding for the program dried up in 2005. Some in Congress have called for it to be renewed, while Obama’s plan would give priority to existing Department of Justice grants to police departments hiring school resource officers. Sequestration cuts could affect just how much grant money is available.

To cut costs, some lawmakers are considering retired police officers as potential school security, which Canady says could work if they have the right temperament for a school environment. South Dakota state Representative Scott Craig, who introduced the “school sentinels” bill,  says his plan to arm already employed staff members or volunteers is an even more cost-effective approach for districts and localities, including the small and rural, that aren’t wealthy.

“These folks can’t afford it,” he says. “They’ve got one sheriff.”

Craig says law enforcement would approve the sentinels who would receive mandatory training. But while teachers in a few states have flocked to free gun training provided in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, some question whether arming teachers actually would make schools safer.

Canady says that armed staff could make things more complicated if police officers were called to a shooting at a school. “In Wild West terms, how would we know who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?” he says.

Francisco Negrón, General Counsel for the National School Board Association, says it could also open up schools to liability in the case of an accident. “A teacher has qualified immunity in performing his or her duties,” he says, “but are his or her duties to carry a gun?”

Limits of Success

The South Dakota bill has had more success so far than measures in at least 20 other states that would allow some school employees to be armed, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A Virginia bill introduced shortly after McDonnell’s suggestion never made it out of committee before the end of session. Similar bills in TennesseeCalifornia and Alaska are also stalled. Some districts have even gone in the opposite direction, with schools in Denver recently reducing the role of police in schools.

Even if states add security and develop better safety measures, Canady says there is always a limit to what they can accomplish. He says the safety protocol followed in Sandy Hook, where many teachers locked their classroom doors and moved students away from them, is in line with the best practices.

“When you have a madman with that kind of weapon, it’s hard to defend unless you’ve got a properly trained and armed professional on the other side,” he says. “You can’t have police officers everywhere.”

Stateline.org is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Center on the States that reports and analyzes trends in state policy.

  • mike

    Maybe with armed teachers the kids would do their homework??

  • JacklordGod

    There are two approaches to the problem of people shooting up schools:

    Approach One – Magic. Simply make the schools gun free zones and hope that magic will enforce the zone. This is the Obama approach with banning guns with pistol grips and magazines over 10. Magic hasn’t worked very well in the past, it is hard to see how it would work in the future.

    “Guns have no place in our schools” is the extension of this argument taken to the absurd level. Guns most certainly have a place in our schools. If a madman is loose in my school, I vote for sending someone in with a gun to get him rather than waiting until he runs out of bullets.

    Approach Two – Allow guns in schools. The only way these people have ever been stopped in the past is by gun, either self administered, by the police, or by someone on school grounds.

    The first one, self administered, works well, but generally occurs after several people have been shot. The second also works well, but also occurs after some delay of the police getting there. The third also involves some delay, but less than the police.

    Therefore the third option, armed person on school grounds, is likely the best. Is it a guarantee? No, armed personnel, although present, did not stop the Columbine shooting. However neither did the semi auto ban, which was in effect at the time.

    One might think this provides evidence against both solutions, magic and armed personnel. However that is not the case, as there is additional evidence that tilts the scale against using magic as a deterrent.

    What is that evidence? The fact that Obama’s kids go to a school that has more armed guards around it (even when a president doesn’t have kids) than Fort Knox. Additional supporting evidence is that virtually everyone arguing that magic should be used as a deterrent uses the other approach for themselves. Obama, Di Fi you name it, virtually all of them either have armed guards or carry a gun themselves.

    Therefore reason would dictate that armed personnel are more likely to work than magic.

  • DavidAppell

    Sure, like this will work.

    The first time — the very first time — a teacher accidentally shoots a student, or a student steals the teacher’s gun — and you know these things will certainly occur with a probability of 100% — let’s watch the aftermath.

    Is there anyone more irrational than a gun nut?

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