Tamaqua wanted to be the first Pennsylvania school district to arm teachers; now it’s defending the policy in court
The marches and tours are over, but the school safety debate that escalated in the wake of the Valentine’s Day shooting that claimed 17 lives at a Florida High School is far from resolved.
In Pennsylvania, where lawmakers set aside $60 million to underwrite grants to enhance school safety after the Feb. 14 Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre, the Tamaqua School District is testing a policy its board unanimously adopted to permit specially trained teachers, administrators and staff to carry guns.
If the policy holds up in court, where a teachers’ union is challenging it, Tamaqua, located in the heart of the state’s northeastern anthracite coal country, could become the first school district in Pennsylvania to arm teachers and other non-security personnel.
President Trump was among those promoting such a policy in the wake of the mass shooting in Florida.
Frank Wenzel, a sixth grade math teacher who is president of the Tamaqua Area Education Association, hopes the policy never comes to fruition.
“We’re not trained to do this kind of job. We did not go into the teaching profession ever thinking this would be a consideration,” Wenzel said. He said arming teachers, administrators and staff could create new dangers and liability for the school district.
While the district’s policy calls for providing special training for those authorized to carry firearms, Wenzel said he’s not sure it would be sufficient to enhance security.
“It takes a special individual to run toward gunfire,” he said.
The concept of arming school personnel is not new.
Many states, including Pennsylvania, have laws that permit trained school police to carry weapons.
Some take their policies a step farther.
A report from the Education Commission of the States, released in August, found that 21 states, including Ohio, West Virginia and New York, have policies that give schools or school districts the discretion to permit individuals to carry firearms.
Attempts to pass specific legislation in Pennsylvania that would have given school districts the discretion to arm teachers stalled, both before and after the Stoneman Douglas shootings.
The Tamaqua Area Education Association is asking the court to declare Tamaqua’s policy void, saying it “exceeds the powers granted to the district by the General Assembly and violates the School Code, because it authorizes government employees to carry firearms in schools and to use deadly force when such government employees have not been authorized to carry firearms by the General Assembly.”
The Pennsylvania State Education Association supports the union’s position.
“At the heart of the legal argument is the fact that the Pennsylvania School Code is very specific about who can carry and use firearms on school property. It limits it to certain law enforcement personnel and lays out very specific training that is required. They must complete either municipal police training or be graduates of the state police academy. What the school district policy is creating is a new class of public employee who could carry firearms,” said PSEA spokesman Chris Lillenthal.
Wenzel said discussions about arming teachers first cropped up in Tamaqua after the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting that left 20 children and six adults dead.
“Back then, the school board president brought up the idea of arming teachers. The superintendent asked what I thought then and my immediate action was ‘yea, I’m willing to do that.’ But, after thinking about it and realizing the danger I’m putting everyone in by doing that, I thought better of it. And, then, it just kind of went away,” Wenzel said.
Six years and multiple school shootings later, the issue came up again.
Nicholas Boyle, 30, had just joined the Tamaqua school board in December 2017. He said the recent spate of mass shootings prompted board members to take up the discussion anew shortly after he was seated.
“The board had been discussing this for four or five years. Once the Stoneman Douglas shootings occurred, it came up again,” Boyle said.
Although Boyle has no children in the schools, he supports the policy, adopted in September, saying it would enhance safety and that hits close to home for him.
“We’re a big Irish Catholic family and I have 10 or 12 cousins in the schools,” Boyle said.
Citing pending litigation in the Schuylkill County courts, Boyle declined to discuss how far the district has gone with its plan to implement the new policy.
While some have been supportive of the policy, other parents question it.
Aimee Dotson, a mother with children in fourth and fifth grades and another child who will enter kindergarten in Tamaqua next fall, said she wasn’t aware the issue was being considered until after the board adopted the policy.
“After I found out about it, I started doing a little research and looking at different studies and everything I was finding said it was a really bad idea. … I feel like we went from zero to 60 with no steps in between,” she said.
Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.