Trump’s proposal to arm teachers would face legal, union opposition in Pennsylvania
If President Trump’s proposal to respond to school shootings by training and arming teachers were to be implemented in Pennsylvania, it would take amending state law restricting guns in schools and overcoming opposition from many groups.
State law makes possessing a weapon on public and private school grounds or school transportation a Class 1 misdemeanor, though the law has a loophole for weapons “possessed and used for a lawful supervised school activity … or is possessed for other lawful purposes.”
“There would have to be legislative action on this,” said Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania. “We oppose arming school personnel. It would threaten to turn our schools into a free-fire zone.”
Trump’s tweets and comments throughout Thursday broadly outlined his proposal to allow teachers with military experience or special training to carry concealed weapons, hoping that 20 percent or more of a school’s staff would be able to carry a weapon and fire at a school shooter or deter a shooter by their presence.
“If a potential ‘sicko shooter’ knows that a school has a large number of very weapons talented teachers (and others) who will be instantly shooting, the sicko will NEVER attack that school. Cowards won’t go there…problem solved,” Trump tweeted.
….History shows that a school shooting lasts, on average, 3 minutes. It takes police & first responders approximately 5 to 8 minutes to get to site of crime. Highly trained, gun adept, teachers/coaches would solve the problem instantly, before police arrive. GREAT DETERRENT!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 22, 2018
In a speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee on Thursday morning, National Rifle Association President Wayne LaPierre echoed Trump’s sentiments, calling for the nation to “harden” its schools.
‘Our banks, our airports, our NBA games, our NFL games, our office buildings, our movie stars, our politicians, they’re all more protected than our children at school…Evil walks among us & God help us if we don’t harden our schools & protect our kids’ -Wayne LaPierre #NRA #CPAC pic.twitter.com/TaIWqfjy2s
— NRATV (@NRATV) February 22, 2018
Unions, gun-control groups opposed
Robert Conroy, director of organizing for gun-control group CeaseFire PA, said his organization interpreted the state’s laws as meaning schools were “gun-free zones” with limited exceptions.
He said CeaseFire opposed arming teachers out of concern that improperly secured weapons or someone determined to wrestle a gun away from its carrier could lead to guns in the wrong hands, or that armed teachers firing in a school-shooting situation could hit bystanders or confuse responding police.
— CeaseFirePA (@CeaseFirePA) February 22, 2018
Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, called Trump’s idea of allowing teachers to be armed “ludicrous and kind of insulting.”
“Teachers already have an extremely important job to do,” Esposito-Visgitis said. “We would recommend some more common sense kinds of things instead of arming our teachers.”
Esposito-Visgitis said Pittsburgh Public Schools doesn’t allow its own police officers to carry guns in schools — a policy she said she’d be willing to revisit with the district’s school board and administration. The district’s police department has 23 officers, including nine who are assigned to individual schools.
“I would be willing to discuss that, along with a lot of other safety measures,” Esposito-Visgitis said.
Pittsburgh Public Schools Police Chief George Brown referred questions to district spokeswoman Ebony Pugh, who did not return a message.
School districts that want to employ armed police under the current law can petition their
county court for permission to form a school police force, or they can have “school resource officers” detailed from their local police departments. Gateway School District in Monroeville added armed security in December with court approval.
Greensburg Police Capt. Robert Stafford said teachers and school staff would have to be properly trained if they were to carry weapons.
“It’s easy enough to put a trained officer in the school, one who knows how to use lethal force,” Stafford said.
Often, school districts do not want to have a school resource officer because of the cost, Stafford said.
After the school massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado in April 1999, Greensburg Salem considered hiring a school resource officer who would be a Greensburg police officer, but that proposal did not come to fruition.
School officials debated whether to have an armed officer in the school, and the Greensburg Fraternal Order of Police did not want to send an officer into the schools without being armed.
In a statement, Pennsylvania State Education Association President Dolores McCracken condemned the proposal, noting that teachers should be focused on teaching.
“PSEA is not opposed to the use of appropriately trained and armed school safety personnel in schools, like the school safety officers that some districts employ,” McCracken said. “What our association does oppose is arming teachers, education support professionals, and other school staff.”
“The vast majority of schools superintendents & boards don’t even blink before saying, ‘Thanks but no thanks.’ We know that by and large there’s mass opposition to this in the education community.” https://t.co/W5Z8cTVZJl
— PSEA (@PSEA) February 22, 2018
Similar proposal stuck in Pa. Legislature
Last summer, the State Senate passed a bill that would have allowed school districts to do something similar to what Trump proposed, albeit in a broader way.
Senate Bill 383 would permit districts to pass policies permitting school personnel to bring guns onto school grounds, as long as they keep a list of who can bring guns and give notice to parents, police and nearby hospitals.
But that bill, sponsored by Indiana County Republican Sen. Don White, has been stuck in the House Education Committee since late June, and Gov. Tom Wolf has vowed to veto it if it passed .
White, whose district also includes parts of Westmoreland County, said he’d been reaching out to the committee chairman and House leaders in the wake of the Parkland, Fla. school shooting in an effort to get the bill moving again.
“I look at what happened in Parkland, and shame on me for not pushing harder when it got through the Senate,” White said. “It’s a heck of a good deterrent. … These cowards, they don’t want to go into a school when they know there could be someone firing back at them.”
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland had an armed deputy from the Broward County Sheriff’s Office in the school, but he never encountered the shooter or fired his gun. A resource officer responding to the Columbine school shooting arrived three minutes after shooting began and exchanged gunfire with the shooters, but missed.
When Alex Hribal began stabbing and slashing students at Franklin Regional High School in 2014, security guard John Resetar was among the first school staff to tackle and subdue Hribal.
White said his bill would only give districts the option of arming teachers, and would be more appropriate for schools that are in rural areas far from first responders or are too cash-strapped to hire guards or resource officers.
CeaseFire’s Conroy said the group had opposed White’s proposal as well, and noted that it didn’t spell out enough about keeping teachers’ weapons secure and training them.
White said he’d been inspired by a teacher from Indiana, who had undertaken special training for armed teachers in school-shooting responses, though White noted that the training had apparently been intense and too much for some participants.
Even without weapons, many districts undergo realistic and sometimes-frightening active-shooter training under the “ALICE” program that emphasizes throwing up barricades, escaping and even distracting a shooter to buy others more time to flee or hide.
In Ohio, state law allows teachers to carry weapons and a nonprofit organization called the Buckeye Firearms Association trains teachers and administrators in armed response, crisis management and emergency first aid.
“It’s taken a while for this idea to catch on,” said Dean Rieck, executive director of the association. “Some educators are skeptical. So we invite them to observe the training and see for themselves.”
White doubted that the kind of training and certification that would be necessary for staff to carry weapons would draw the 20 percent volunteer rate that Trump imagined.
“I don’t think that’s reasonable at all,” White said. “There might be a lot of people that initially step forward, but then they find out about the training that’s involved and they might step back.”
He hoped the shooting and Trump’s proposal might spur Harrisburg Republicans to take another look at moving the law forward.
Tom Fontaine and Joe Napsha contributed. Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724 836 6660, [email protected] or on Twitter @msantoni.