Meadville Tribune

January 8, 2013

Local state Rep. pushes to allow teachers to carry guns

By Konstantine Fekos and Mary Spicer
Meadville Tribune

MEADVILLE — State Rep. Greg Lucas’  public support of proposed legislation to allow faculty and school administrators to carry concealed firearms statewide has won him a mixed response from state educators and opinionated citizens.

While not a mandate or requirement if passed, Lucas emphasized, the legislation he plans to introduce would merely present the option of concealed carry to school staff members interested in additional security and willing to undergo proper training and background checks.

“Right now, Pennsylvania schools are gun-free zones,” said Lucas, a Republican whose Fifth District includes parts of western Crawford County and southern Erie County. “This will give teachers and principals the option to protect themselves and their students.”

In a prepared statement issued Monday, Lucas explained that “Before bringing a firearm to school, a teacher would have to pass three different security checks. First, they would have to pass the background check requirement in the state school code. Second, they would have to pass the background check — including the investigation of character and reputation by their local sheriff — necessary to obtain a license to carry a firearm. And finally, they would have to acquire the same certification in the safe and proper use of firearms currently used by armed law enforcement officials.”

E-mail response alone has opened Lucas’ office to public praise, scrutiny and questioning. Lucas reported an overall split between interest and concern.

Lucas drew attention to a similar legislative proposal calling for armed security guards to enhance school security, a move he believes is ideal and less controversial, but more expensive for school districts.

“Police or professional security personnel would be a better idea, but may not be a school district’s top priority in a time of budget cuts,” Lucas said.

Given the amount of area armed guards would need to cover, factoring in the average district’s number of buildings as well as entry points, Lucas figured several guards would be assigned to a building, estimating costs of $30,000 to $40,000 per guard.

“School districts could end up paying about half a million dollars a year just for the additional personnel,” said Lucas. “I’m 100 percent behind this legislation, but where is the money going to come from?”

Even if these proposals should make it to a legislative committee, there’s no telling when a final decision may be reached, according to Lucas.

“Sometimes the process is slow, sometimes it’s fast, and sometimes proposals get buried,” he said. “I feel this is the right thing to do, as controversial as it may be.”

Not so fast

“I absolutely share and support the intent of what Lucas is trying to achieve, which is to protect our children and make our schools as safe and secure as possible,” Pennsylvania State Education Association Northwestern Region Representative Marcus Schlegel said Monday afternoon.

“Protecting their students, their children, is absolutely instinctual and reflexive for every teacher who stands in front of kids every day and who has dedicated their lives to their well-being,” he continued.

“That being said, when you’re talking about having people armed in an active shooter situation, those people have to have training that is far beyond what’s instinctual and reflexive.”

For Schlegel, the operative phrase is “active shooter situation.”

“We have to remember to divorce ourselves from the romantic ‘point and shoot — bad guy’s dead’ ideal that we see portrayed in the movies,” Schlegel said. “School shootings are the most serious, life-threatening situations, and when those occur, we want the most highly trained people there to defend us, whether it’s our nation, our neighborhood or our schools.”

As Schlegel sees it, that’s where the conversation needs to begin — what happens in the most intense situation. “Should those people be more focused on getting their students extricated from harm rather than pursuing an attacker?” he asked. “The conversation begins there and then you begin to step back through all the other complexities — the first of which would be how would first responders in that scenario be able to immediately identify who the shooter is and who the school staff person is.”

From there, he added, things get even more complicated.

Local officials weigh in

George Joseph, attorney for Conneaut School District, which includes part of Lucas’ Fifth Legislative District, agrees.

“There’s been a lively policy debate about whether having teachers carry weapons makes the school safer — or creates a situation where a crazed gunman starts a shoot-out situation,” Joseph said Monday. “It’s a discussion. I’m not sure if there are any easy or quick solutions, but it’s a good debate to have.”

For Charlie Heller, superintendent of Crawford Central School District, arming teachers and staff members simply isn’t an option.

“The people in our building are trained to educate children,” he said Monday. “They’ve never had any training at all with regard to any kind of law enforcement. At the current time, we have nobody in our district that’s trained or credentialed to carry any kind of weapon on school property. It’s against the law for anyone who is not already a law enforcement officer to bring a weapon onto school property — any weapon or anything that’s intended to serve the purpose of a weapon.”

But that, Heller hastened to add, isn’t all. “Liability issues would be huge,” he said.

According to Schlegel, parents he’s spoken with have been very much opposed to the idea of teachers and school staff being armed.

“They have been supportive of highly-trained law enforcement and security personnel being employed by schools, which brings us to the issue of funding,” Schlegel said.