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Pennsylvania’s guns-for-teachers bill hailed, panned

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A bill in the Pennsylvania Legislature to let school districts arm teachers has plunged local educators into the debate over guns.

“Each and every community has different circumstances, challenges and resources to best prepare for emergency situations and protect their students, staff and visitors,” said Timothy Gabauer, superintendent at the Mt. Pleasant Area School District, which serves about 2,000 students. Mt. Pleasant has its own district police force, consisting of two full-time and one part-time officers.

The state Senate passed S.B. 383 in a 28-22 vote last week.

The state House will not take up the bill until this fall at the earliest, House Republican spokesman Stephen Miskin said.

Gov. Tom Wolf said in April he would veto it.

Gabauer said the district’s safety and security committee will monitor the bill’s progress.

Implementing any of the options afforded by the bill would be a board of education decision, said Cheryl Walters, superintendent of Derry Area School District. The district serves about 2,000 students.

Derry Area staff receive ALICE training to respond to active shooter situations. The training does not teach fighting techniques; rather, it instructs individuals to lock down a space and interrupt a violent intruder’s actions, according to the organization’s website.

Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, stressed that the final decision to allow teachers to carry weapons would fall to local school boards, describing the legislation as “local control at its best.”

He argued that it would benefit rural school districts in areas where response times for law enforcement and emergency medical services could be slower.

Supporters of the bill said it would benefit districts that can’t afford security or school resource officers.

Some also cited violent incidents at places such as Franklin Regional High School, where a student stabbed 20 students and a security guard in 2014, and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where a shooter killed 20 children and six adults in 2012.

Seeking alternatives

Parents such as Ray Warner of Bethel Park worry that the bill is moving too quickly, without sufficient input from parents and community members. He said many parents in his community did not know lawmakers were considering such a bill.

Warner is the parent of a fourth-grader in the suburban Bethel Park School District in Allegheny County. His eldest child just graduated. The district serves about 4,000 students.

“Teachers are there to teach our children, not to be sharpshooters or looking out for bad guys to shoot at,” Warner said.

Eric Pringle, a history teacher at Laurel Highlands High School in Fayette County, agrees that lawmakers should seek input before making such a major change in the name of safety.

“I don’t know that there’s a clamoring for it anywhere,” Pringle said. “They should ask us as a group of teachers about what we need to make school safe.”

Pringle, who opposes the concept of arming teachers, expressed several concerns about increasing the number of guns in schools, including the practical matter of how the guns should be stored. He said he’d worry about the likes of mischievous students or malicious intruders trying to wrestle away firearms from teachers or steal the weapons when they spot an opportunity.

“I go to the bathroom, I’m in lunch,” said Pringle, noting that guns locked away too securely wouldn’t be much use during an active-shooter situation. “It’s not a good idea. The last thing we need in our schools is more firearms.”

Laurel Highlands serves about 3,000 students.

Pringle joins education advocacy groups such as the Education Law Center in urging the state Legislature to consider alternatives. They propose, for instance, that lawmakers instead consider increasing funding for rural schools that can’t afford armed guards.

Preparation stressed

Mark Zilinskas, a high school math teacher of 27 years at the Indiana Area School District in Indiana County, has been involved with advocating for the legislation for about three years.

Indiana Area is in a rural area and serves about 2,800 students.

While he appreciates concerns about the bill and thinks that armed teachers must be trained and competent with their firearms, he also thinks districts must do more to prepare teachers for these situations.

“Teachers are going to act no matter what, whether they’re armed or not armed,” Zilinskas said, adding that part of training teachers to protect students involves training them in first aid to treat severe injuries, such as gunshot wounds.

And if teachers are likely to put themselves in between a violent intruder and a student, districts owe it to their staff to have policies and training in place that support them in fighting back, said Joe Eaton, program director with the FASTER Saves Lives organization.

“There’s no other emergency that we rely 100 percent of the time on outside help,” he said, explaining that teachers should be thought of as the first responders in violent intruder situations.

Jamie Martines and Natasha Lindstrom are Tribune-Review staff writers. Reach Martines at 724-850-2867, [email protected] or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines. Reach Lindstrom at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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