Pennsylvania teachers, don’t forget to pack your Glock when returning to school this year.
A new law meant to close the door on arming teachers may have cracked it open.
Despite warnings from gun safety activists, the bill, SB 621, was approved by the legislature and signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf this summer.
The legislation explicitly allows security guards – independent contractors who are not members of law enforcement – to carry guns in schools if they go through special training.
And that’s bad enough.
Why you’d want glorified rent-a-cops with guns strapped to their hips running around schools full of children is beyond me.
That’s not going to make anyone safer. It’s going to do just the opposite.
But that’s not even the worst of it.
Commonwealth law already allowed for armed police and school resource officers in school buildings.
The new bill just adds security guards to the accepted list – so long as they go through special training.
So some observers are asking what happens if teachers and administrators go through the same training? Wouldn’t they then qualify as “security personnel” and thus be eligible to be armed as part of their jobs?
Some say yes.
The bill only says who may be armed in schools. It doesn’t say anything about who may not be armed.
So if a district were to arm teachers – even without that special security guard training – it wouldn’t be specifically breaking the law. It would be operating in a huge loophole left open by the legislature and Gov. Wolf.
In fact, the original version of the bill would have covered just such an ambiguity. It included language saying that ONLY the people specifically mentioned in the law (police, resource officers and security guards) were allowed to be armed. However, Wolf could not get legislators to agree on it, so this language was stripped from the bill that was eventually passed.
This isn’t just theoretical.
Several school administrators have already taken advantage of it.
A handful of superintendents in rural parts of the state have already gotten permission from country law enforcement officials and are now carrying guns to school, according to a lawyer representing 50 Commonwealth districts.
Attorney Ronald Repak, of Altoona-based Beard Legal Group, gave a presentation at a school safety conference saying that his firm had secured permission from local district attorneys for administrators to carry firearms as part of their jobs. They cited ambiguity in the law that allowed for different interpretations.
Repak said that fewer than six superintendents had been approved, but he would not say which ones or which districts employed them.
Meanwhile, a district in the eastern part of the state between Hershey and Allentown has already passed a policy to arm teachers and staff.
Tamaqua Area School District in Schuylkill County, approved the policy last year but suspended it following litigation from the teachers association and a parent group.
Since Harrisburg passed this new measure, school board members and administration have been going back and forth about how it pertains to their policy and whether they can legally reinstate it even with pending litigation.
SB 621 was supposed to fix the ambiguity of previous statutes on the matter.
Title 18, Section 912 of the Pa. Crimes Code says that no one except recognized security personnel may bring a weapon onto school grounds, unless it is for a supervised school activity or “other lawful purpose.”
But again that leaves a huge loophole.
Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera wrote in 2016 that the Pennsylvania Department of Education considers “the scope of ‘lawful purpose’…unclear and unsettled.”
That’s what originally prompted Tamaqua school directors to pass their policy to arm teachers – the first of its kind in the state.
The Republican majority in the legislature has been trying to pass a law explicitly allowing teachers to be armed for years.
In June of 2017, the state Senate even passed just such a bill but it got nowhere in the House. Moreover, Gov. Wolf threatened to veto it.
And that has been the pattern in Harrisburg on most matters – a gerrymandered GOP-controlled legislature narrowly passing far right legislation checked by a popularly elected Democratic governor.
However, Republicans may have gotten one passed the goal with SB 621.
Wolf had hoped the bill would end the matter once and for all. When he signed it into law, he released a statement saying:
“The students, parents, and educators in this commonwealth can now be secure in the knowledge that teachers can dedicate themselves to teaching our children, and that the security of school facilities rests in the hands of trained, professional security personnel.”
Ceasefire Pennsylvania, a statewide gun safety organization, saw the danger and warned against it. The organization urged the legislature not to pass the bill and the governor not to sign it.
In a letter sent to lawmakers, the group wrote:
“…adding security personnel who do not have the same law enforcement background, training and experience of those personnel already authorized to serve as school security in the School Code is misguided.
[In addition] …although we understand that the legislation initially was intended only to address security personnel, we believe SB 621 could be manipulated by school districts intent on arming teachers as a ‘security’ measure… We hope you will Vote No on SB 621.”
The matter is bound to wind up in the courts where it will ultimately be decided.
Concerned citizens should probably go to their local school board and let directors know they don’t want school personnel – security guards or others – packing heat.
To be clear, the new bill doesn’t require security guards to be armed, but it does allow districts to arm them if they go through the necessary training.
The instruction outlined in the law required before guards can be armed costs less than $500 per person.
It includes lessons on developing relationships with diverse students, understanding special needs students, how to deal with violence, victimization, threat response and the prevention of violence in schools. It also includes Act 235 lethal weapons training on specifically how to carry and use lethal weapons.
Some legislators wanted security guards to have to go through the same training as police officers – a 900-hour municipal course. However, since this would include instruction school security officers would not need such as lessons on traffic laws and the vehicle code – not to mention its hefty cost of $9,000 per person – it was scrapped.
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against security guards. There are several good ones at my district.
However, putting guns in their hands doesn’t make me feel any safer.
A few years ago, a security guard at my school lost his job because he slammed one of my students into a lunch table.
The child in question was certainly difficult and could be defiant. But he was a middle school age child. He didn’t deserve to have his head slammed into a table – nor would I want someone with so little impulse control to have to police his trigger finger during tense confrontations with students.
Arming security guards is just plain dumb. Heck! So is arming teachers and administrators!
This isn’t the wild west. It’s a classroom.
In real-world shootings, police officers miss their targets about 4-in-5 shots, according to Dr. Peter Langman, a psychologist who’s studied school shootings. Do you really expect rent-a-cops and teachers to be more accurate?
Even armed police don’t do much to stop school shootings.
The four high-profile school shootings in 2018 — including the one in Parkland, Florida and Santa Fe, Texas — had armed guards. All failed to stop the gunmen.
But research consistently shows that increasing the number of guns in schools increases the likelihood that students will get hold of them.
What we need are sensible gun regulations to limit the number of people who have access to firearms. We need mandatory background checks and a ban on assault weapons – the murder instrument of choice for mass shooters. We need buy back programs to reduce the ridiculous numbers of guns available.
This new law does none of that. It was a Faustian bargain at best – and like always happens when you try to best the Devil, you end up losing.
Only this time, the losers are our teachers and school children.
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5 thoughts on “Pennsylvania Law Meant to Forbid Arming Teachers May Have Done Just the Opposite”
I don’t see this bill as a gateway to requiring teachers to bear arms. That would be contested in court immediately.
However, teachers have been historically overworked, underpaid, seen their pensions threatened and have been maligned by the media and politicians. Surely they wouldn’t want to put guns in their hands as well. Has the expression “going postal” been forgotten?
What is to prevent even more tragedies from occurring? If it’s common knowledge a teacher has a gun, doesn’t that make him/her an obvious target of shooters who gain entrance to a school? Can they not also imagine scenarios where teachers are overpowered by a class to gain control of that teacher’s gun?
This is not common sense legislation, it’s motivated by greed and self-interest.
Thomas, let me be clear. I don’t think they can force teachers to have guns. But they can invite them to do so, maybe with a monetary incentive. I agree with you that even under this scenario it would go to the courts. I hope the judicial branch has more sense than the legislative and executive.
When I was still teaching (1975 – 2005), I knew a few teachers that were Republicans that would have loved to come to school and teach with military-grade firearms dressed in the field uniforms with armor and all that stuff the Special Forces uses even with the face-covering baklavas.
And none of these GOP teachers (about a third of public school teachers are registered Republicans) who would have voted for President Ronald Ray-Gun and I’m sure if they are still alive, they voted for Trump, never served in the military as I did. While I was anti-war after serving in the Marines and fighting in Vietnam, they were dreaming and praying for war to punish anyone in the world that dared to dislike the United States for any reason.
It’s a wonder that Trump’s followers haven’t come up with this slogan yet: “If you don’t like living on our (they think they own the world) planet, then leave it.”
Many Americans seem to think action movies are documentaries and that they can be root em’ shoot em’ cowboys. It’s disgusting.
Those types of movies that glorify war only program a lot of fools to sign up and become cannon fodder to be blown away or severely damaged and wounded if they survive. I think most if not all violent video games do the same thing.