State, local educators: Arming teachers a terrible idea

Junior Gonzalez
York Dispatch

After a gunman killed 17 people at a Florida high school last month, President Donald Trump suggested arming teachers could prevent another massacre.

But some Pennsylvania educators said that's not a responsibility they want — one local school board member said he was "appalled" at the thought — and a York County police chief doesn't think it's a good idea, either.

Yet a bill that would allow just that has cleared the Pennsylvania Senate and is being considered by the House education committee.

In this Feb. 21, 2018, photo, school students from Montgomery County, Maryland, in suburban Washington, rally in solidarity with those affected by the shooting at Parkland High School in Florida, at the Capitol in Washington. Member of Congress return from a 10-day recess under enormous pressure to respond to gun violence after the Parkland high school shooting. Despite a long list of legislative proposals, including many flowing from President Donald Trump, few ideas seem poised for passage. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Last week, Trump said teachers adept with firearms in a school shooter scenario “could very well end the attack very quickly,” according to The Associated Press.

More:Again the question: Could armed teachers stop shootings?

A day later, the president tweeted that “highly trained” and armed teachers “would also serve as a deterrent" to would-be school shooters.

However, several statewide groups have stated their opposition to the idea, including the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, the Pennsylvania Principals Association and the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

“We are absolutely certain that legislation aimed at arming school employees would make our kids less safe, and we strongly oppose state and federal efforts to put more guns in schools,” PSEA President Dolores McCraken said in a statement.

“Teachers are not trained law-enforcement officers — their job is to educate children and act as role models," she continued.

For some York County educational leaders, the idea of arming teachers also seems preposterous.

“I think that would be fascinating,” said Helen Thackston Charter School Principal Melissa Achuff.

So fascinating, in fact, that Achuff and other school administrators will join students and teachers walking out of their classrooms during the #ENOUGH: National School Walkout on Wednesday, March 14, to state their disapproval of such a notion.

The #ENOUGH: National School Walkout will occur at 10 a.m. local time Wednesday, March 14, in schools across the country, including the Helen Thackston Charter School.

Achuff said teachers will walk out with poster boards with the words “Arm me with” and a blank space to be filled with a statement of the teacher’s choice.

So far, she’s heard some teachers say they will fill in the blank with “Adequate resources,” “school social workers” and other educational tools.

Even though the charter school is not equipped with sworn law enforcement, Achuff said arming teachers is not the solution.

York Suburban school board President Michael Posenau agreed.

"As a personal view, I am appalled by the idea," he said.

Posenau said it would be “unfair” to expect teachers to take such a responsibility on top of educating students.

“What teachers need to be focused on is providing the best possible education for our students,” he said.

Staff members at York Suburban undergo Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate (ALICE) training to respond and survive an active-shooter attack, Posenau said, along with securing and maintaining strong partnerships with local police agencies.

More:York County schools on edge after Parkland, threats

More:Red Lion student to face disciplinary action after social media threat

More:Alleged Dover Elementary threat taken out of context, parent says

Last summer, the state Senate passed Senate Bill 383, which would permit school boards to craft policy allowing select school personnel to possess firearms in school buildings.

The bill passed 28-22 and now sits in the House education committee.

When asked about the idea at a two-hour town meeting at Central York High School on Wednesday, Feb. 28, Superintendent Michael Snell mentioned legislation such as SB 383 and said, "philosophically, I am opposed to it."

Central York schools closed for three days last week after threats posted over social media Tuesday, Feb. 20, sparked an intense police investigation. Threats also were made in 10 other school districts in York County.

A 13-year-old girl was found responsible for Central's threats and is charged with 15 felony counts, according to a news release from the York County District Attorney's Office.

Also at Central's town meeting, Northern York County Regional Police Chief Mark Bentzel said arming teachers is "not something that I would personally agree with." 

Steve Robinson, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said that while PSBA is neutral on SB 383, the organization supports giving school boards the authority to decide what works within their schools.

However, he added the organization does not advise boards to immediately go the route of equipping district employees with firearms.

“We believe that there’s far more effective and less dangerous approaches” to school safety, he said, including hiring school resource officers. 

Local supporters of the bill include York County Republican Sens. Scott Wagner and Mike Folmer.

Eight months after voting for the bill, Folmer said he stands by his decision, stating the law only gives school boards the option to create such a policy.

“It’s not a mandate,” he said. “I believe in local control. If a school district would decide to go that route, they should be able to do it.”

Folmer added the law has strict training requirements for personnel before they would be allowed to carry firearms on campus, and it could apply to any school employee — not just teachers.

On Twitter, President Trump criticized the mantra of schools being “gun-free,” calling it ”a magnet for bad people.”

Folmer stated similar remarks, adding that not allowing guns on campus makes schools targets for would-be attackers.

“Gun-free zones? Take them down,” he said of the signs.

“Why would we just advertise to an idiot that we don’t have guns here? If someone’s got a gun and the other person’s got a baseball bat, you’re not going to get very far with the bat,” he said.

While she has not yet reviewed SB 383, Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, D-York City, said she has reservations.

“I’m just not comfortable with a teacher carrying a gun,” she said.

Hill-Evans, who sits on the House education committee, said she can’t put aside the possible scenario where an armed teacher could erroneously use the weapon against an unruly student with pre-existing and unknown mental health issues.

“If (a teacher) pulls out a gun and shoots (a student), how is that different than a person coming in and shooting?” she said.

Instead, Hill-Evans suggested the hiring of sworn law-enforcement officers, such as school resource officers, who can improve school safety and foster a close relationship between students and law enforcement.

“Unless you’re trained just as law enforcement is trained, you’re asking for trouble,” she added.