OPED: Police oversight key to guns in schools

Matt Helfrich
Harleysville, Pa.

State Senate Bill 383 would provide school districts with the authority to decide if their teachers could carry handguns on school property to protect their students and faculty. The bill passed the Senate 28-22 last week and will be reviewed by the House when members return from summer break.

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

I generally support SB 383. I have the utmost respect for the teachers in my school district. They have earned my trust because they consistently demonstrate how much they care for the students and their educational, physical and emotional well-being. If an incident occurred at school in which my kids and other students were in danger, I would prefer they have a fighting chance if there was an armed teacher to defend them.

This controversial bill initially received little support because the requirements for a teacher to carry firearms on school property were not well defined. Consequently, the bill was amended to add specific requirements for any teacher authorized to carry a gun.

The amended bill would require that all teachers, principals or other school employees carrying firearms must undergo the same type of psychological evaluation and training that a police officer goes through to carry a gun. The amended version of SB 383 would also require schools to inform local law enforcement which specific employees were carrying their weapons on campus and to inform parents in the district that they have staff storing firearms. Lastly, the bill would require school boards to inform the nearest hospital about its firearm policy.

Despite these amendments, I still believe that SB 383 lacks the specificity to provide adequate safeguards at schools where teachers are authorized to carry.

Armed teachers could be part of school safety strategy

I'm concerned the bill doesn't require the implementation of adequate controls at schools where a teacher or teachers is permitted to carry their gun(s) on school grounds. The bill also lacks any oversight requirements to ensure the armed teachers are following proper gun safety while on school property.  SB 383 would allow the school districts to develop their own policy for armed teachers.

I don't believe the school districts have the expertise to be creating gun policy, controls and oversight.

At a minimum, they should be required to coordinate any policy and oversight requirements with the Pennsylvania State Police, local police and other organizations with expertise in firearms and practicing gun safety for institutional settings. As a result, I would encourage the House to push for more stringent controls, detailed guidance and closer cooperation between the school district and the state and local police before voting on the bill.

School safety is a complex, emotionally charged issue that teachers, principals, parents, students and legislators have been trying to address for decades. SB 383 may provide a viable option for strengthening school security in cases where teachers have extensive firearm experience and a license to carry and meet the other requirements listed in SB 383.

However, I believe this option will continue to raise concerns from both parents and teachers unless SB 383 is amended to ensure school districts develop sound policies for armed teachers with input, and possibly approval, from state and local police.

— Matt Helfrich is a York Dispatch guest contributor and a resident of Harleysville, Pennsylvania.