Armed teachers could be part of school safety strategy

Jana Benscoter

It’s every parents' fear: shots fired at their child’s school. Those chilling words accompany a rush of emotions and a sense of denial that someone has handed them a page ripped out of a movie script.

A state Senate bill, SB383, would leave it up to school districts to decide if teachers and other employees can carry guns on school property. At least one local police chief opposes the plan, saying officers undergo rigorous training to deal with school-shooter situations. Just because teachers are armed doesn't mean they're prepared to deal with an active shooter, Northern Regional Chief Mark Bentzel said, adding that teachers carrying guns actually might make it harder for officers to separate "good guys" from "bad guys" in an emergency.
Photo illustration by John A. Pavoncello

What happens next? In an era when guns are one of the most polarizing topics, especially on school grounds, one western Pennsylvania state senator thinks it’s time for local school districts to take matters into their own hands.

Senate Bill 383, School Safety Options, would allow school board members to craft a district policy that permits approved personnel to carry guns on school grounds and in school buildings. The board members would be tasked with allowing whoever would want to carry a firearm to complete local and state training before entering parking lots and hallways armed.

At least one local parent thinks the bill is a bad idea.

Greg Cochran, 48, a father of four, said introducing guns in a school setting is like "attacking a fly with a nuclear bomb." The need for guns in schools is slim, he said, and having one gun or more than one increases the chance of an accidental shooting.

Greg Cochran, 48, said he doesn't think it's necessary to arm school teachers or staff. He likes current security measures. Jana Benscoter/photo

"What if you have a teacher who snaps?" the Mount Wolf borough resident asked. "And, not that they would do it intentionally, but it increases the likelihood of accidental shootings. One human error could cause an unnecessary shooting."

The bill: Sen. Don White’s bill moved forward in April. The Senate Education Committee approved it 9 to 3, and one Democrat supported it.

“We are just trying to clarify the law statewide,” said state Sen. Mike Folmer, a Republican who represents part of York County. “Basically, it’s not allowing just anyone to carry. People who would carry would have to go through extreme training.”

The legislation is not a mandate, he added. Local school districts don’t have to pass a policy if they don’t want to pass one.

State Sen. Mike Folmer, who represents part of York County, is concerned with the ability of the state election system to withstand hacking.

Safety concerns are viewed differently in districts throughout the state that face financial limitations or are not near a police station, Folmer said. This allows them to have local control.

The bill sits in the Appropriations Committee, where it awaits an estimated price tag. It will then go through a series of votes in the Senate and, if approved there, then sent to the House.

“The governor could veto it,” Folmer said. “I don’t know why he would. No one is forcing anyone to do anything.”

Under the bill, an approved firearms carrier — for example, a teacher, principal or administrator — needs to have a license to carry a concealed firearm. And they would need a current and valid certification in the use and handling of a firearm.

There are a set of rules to comply with under the bill — passing municipal police education and training, as well as passing the Lethal Weapons Training Act, the Retired Law Enforcement Identification Act or any other firearms program that has been determined as proof of proficiency to carry by the commissioner of Pennsylvania State Police.

Police reaction: Local police said they have a number of issues with the bill.

“I’ll be honest, right now, it’s not something I would favor,” Northern York County Regional Police Chief Mark Bentzel said.

“One of the issues law enforcement would have is identifying the difference between the good guys from the bad guys," he explained. "I’m not sure how we would do that, because if we had a teacher standing in the hallway with a gun, it’d be very difficult to determine who that person is with the gun. I don’t know how we’d work that out. That’d be an issue.”

Bentzel said tested law-enforcement officers, who have been part of active-shooter drills, have been trained to approach these types of situations.

“Time is of the essence,” he said.

The five steps police officers take focus on student safety, he said. The steps are: getting in the building and stopping the threats so nobody else gets hurt; creating a safe pathway and passage way to get medical care; securing the building; confirming there is not another threat in the building; and evacuating the building and reuniting students with family.

Bentzel, who has carried a firearm for 30 years, said he has basic training compliance rules questions: Does a teacher or staff member have to pass a qualifications test once a year? Who’s approving the firearms being carried? What type of ammunition would be used? Is the training occurring during the day or at night?

“You don’t want to be carrying around a gun in a school, miss a target, and the ammunition goes through a wall and harms a child,” he said. “What type of gun, what type of ammunition would they be allowed to use?”

Police officers learn how to make sure someone cannot disarm them, he said. Law enforcement carry certain types of holsters, which are called retention holsters.

“Are they going to be mandated to carry retention-style holsters,” Bentzel said. “Because if they are not, and there’s a school teacher walking around with this gun strapped on their side, how do we not know that that gun isn’t going to be removed from the teacher and used against the teacher?”

Local authority: John Callahan, the assistant executive director for public policy and chief lobbyist for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, wrote in a letter to the Senate Education Committee that the association supports bills that give authority to local school districts.

He wrote that the association works with its insurance partners on everything from the dimensions of safety and security risks to legal ramifications, resources, practical challenges and other important considerations.

“Crisis response plans and training for school staff and students will need to be modified to recognize that additional school staff may be armed and having new and special responsibilities in an active-shooter situation,” Callahan wrote. “They will need to consider what tactical training and regular battle drills are needed in addition to weapons proficiency for those designated to be part of an armed response.”

The association suggests that a federal law, the Gun Free School Zones Act that prohibits possession of weapons on school property and is included in the Pennsylvania School Code, would not be an obstacle to implementing the bill.

Opponents: Opponents of the bill include Pennsylvania’s teachers union — the Pennsylvania State Education Association — as well as Ceasefire PA.

Eric Holmes, the superintendent of the York City School District, declined to comment. However, Margie Orr, the York City School
Board president, said she's "totally against" any guns in schools.

"I don't believe in teachers having weapons in schools," she said. "We created our own police department. We are adequately protected for our staff, our children and whomever would be visiting."

York City School Board member Margie Orr. Bill Kalina photo

Orr said there are other measures school districts can take, such as calling the local police department or state police. She explained that the York City district has metal detectors that students enter through every day.

"You don't know how students would react to those guns," Orr said. "What if a student would get their hands on one of those guns. Then what? There is no reason for a teacher to have a weapon whatsoever."

'Comfortable': A grandmother of three, Kimberly Curry, 48, said she doesn't think her grandchildren would have a problem with it. She said they'd be more interested in what was going on in their classes than with whether their teachers or administrators were armed.

Kimberly Curry, 48, said her grandchildren would feel safer knowing there was an armed teacher or staff person in the school.

"I think they'd be fine with it," the East Manchester Township resident said. She thinks that Northeastern School District is good at communicating, and if the students and parents understood their role in situations, she said her family would respect the district's wishes.

"(My grandchildren's) dad is a soldier. They would feel comfortable with it, with authority," Curry said.