Although one Senate Republican says the decision to arm school teachers likely won’t be made until the next session, the Senate Education Committee moved forward with a hearing on a bill that would make the “controversial” measure an option for districts statewide.
“I don’t see anything happening with this in lame duck,” Majority Chairman Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, told reporters Tuesday. “So if it doesn’t happen by the end of October, it will have to be reintroduced.”
Folmer calls the legislation — Senate Bill 1193 — a “may” bill, meaning school districts can choose whether to implement it, thereby allowing teachers to carry firearms into the classroom with the goal of protecting students from armed intruders.
Sen. Don White, R-Armstrong, sponsored the bill last spring in the wake of a mass stabbing in his district at Franklin Regional High School that injured 21 students and a security guard.
“I was there with Governor Corbett on the day of the incident last spring,” he said “The devastation I saw…it was hard to witness.”
Mark Zilinskas, an Indiana County high school math teacher, echoed White’s sentiment, telling lawmakers that the threat of a violent intruder breaking into his school keeps him awake at night.
“Our current laws, policies and plans are not good enough,” he wrote in his testimony. “In fact they are dangerous. They encourage killers to come to our schools because they know we cannot stop them. We have to wait until the police get there which is always going to be too late.”
Zilinskas insisted that teachers — not police — are the true first responders in any active shooter incident and could benefit from proper firearms training, such as the programs already offered in nearby states with a similar law already on the books.
Zilinskas even attended a three-day course at the Tactical Defense Institute in West Union, Ohio, to prepare for the armed intruder scenario.
“I believe there are over 30 districts in the state of Ohio who have teachers and administrators who have went through this training and who are now carrying the equipment (a firearm) necessary to stop a murderer from killing their students,” he said. “Time is our enemy. We must prepare, we must train, we must make sure that the true first responders — those who are there — are able to stop a madman before it becomes a slaughter.”
Dr. Robert L. Urzillo, superintendent for Blue Mountain School District in Schuylkill County, said the shortage of local police coverage — just one full time officer for the entire 126 square mile district — compounded by the Sandy Hook massacre, pushed the school board to train and arm two staff members to serve as security personnel.
“There were two guiding precepts that served as the foundation for this decision. First, we hoped, and continue to hope, that this will serve as a deterrent,” Urzillo wrote in his testimony. “Second, if an armed intruder enters a building or our grounds, armed personnel may be able to eliminate a threat or reduce the extent of harm. With a district our size … we know that the two security people (who also hold other duties) could not be everywhere, but the fact that a potential intruder does not know where they may be could deter a potential shooter. Therefore, we went forward with the training.”
Critics of the legislation argue that adding firearms into schools would only increase the chance of injury, or even death, with Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, citing the number of trained police officers who shoot innocent bystanders through imperfect aim or mistaken identity every year.
Williams also questioned Zilinskas about whether the teacher who fired the errant shot should accept liability for the mistake. Zilinskas said he didn’t “have an answer for that.”
“I was an educator and school administrator in Pennsylvania for 31 years and I can tell you arming teachers is not the answer, especially when trained, professional school police officers are already authorized to carry guns and protect children in Pennsylvania,” said Deb Marteslo, a former Pennsylvania teacher and assistant principal, and current volunteer with Moms Demand Action’s Pennsylvania Chapter, in a press release Tuesday. “Instead of working to prevent gun violence before a shooter is inside our schools’ doors by strengthening background checks in our state, our legislators want to turn teachers into armed security guards.”
“There is no evidence that arming school personnel increases school safety and there are many reasons to believe that such an option will put more of the school population – students, teachers, and other school personnel – at risk,” wrote Deborah Gordon Klehr, senior staff attorney at the Education Law Center, in testimony submitted to the committee Tuesday. “Nationally, arming school personnel is not a recommended practice.”
“The answer to keeping schools safe is fewer guns, not more,” said Wythe Keever, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union. “Properly trained law enforcement and school resource officers should be the only individuals permitted to carry firearms on school property. Recent incidents in Utah and Idaho, in which teachers carrying firearms in schools wounded themselves when their weapons accidentally discharged, are examples of the unintended consequences of this type of legislation. Recent announcements by major school liability insurance carriers that they will no longer insure schools which allow teachers to carry firearms, should dissuade serious consideration of this measure.”
In a December report released by the Joint State Government Commission, an Advisory Committee on Violence Prevention recommended against arming trained school personnel, writing “concerns have been expressed about the safety of a teacher in a classroom wearing a handgun on his hip, ranging from the possibility of the teacher being disarmed by disruptive students to creating an environment of fear that is not conducive to learning. Questions also arise as to when the school employee should use his weapon. Police officers undergo extensive training in the use of their weapons and teachers do not. Therefore, it is unreasonable to expect a teacher to have the same firearms competency as a law enforcement officer, and not sound policy to assign such responsibility to a teacher.”
–Christen Smith, Capitolwire