HARRISBURG – As schools grapple with the challenge of ensuring that their students are as safe as possible, the push to clarify whether schools can allow educators to carry firearms will likely carry over into 2018.
The state Senate approved Senate Bill 383, a measure that would allow schools to give the OK for staff to carry firearms, in a 28-22 vote in June. The bill is currently under consideration by the House Education Committee.
As the debate rages, one school district — Blue Mountain in Schuylkill County — has taken initial steps forward while another — Indiana Area School District — is considering allowing staff members to be armed.
Joe Eaton, the program director for Faculty/Administrator Safety Training and Emergency Response (FASTER) program, run by the Buckeye Firearms Foundation in Ohio, said Pennsylvania is one of the dozen states from which educators have taken his classes.
Earlier this year, state Sen. Donald White, a Republican from Indiana County who authored the teacher arming bill, released a letter indicating that the Indiana County District Attorney Patrick Dougherty had told a local school it could allow teachers to carry firearms.
White also released a letter from the state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera which indicated that the question of whether schools can legally allow teachers to carry firearms is “unsettled.”
Mark Zilinskas is a math teacher at Indiana Area High School, who has twice taken the FASTER training in Ohio.
Zilinskas said he’d like the Legislature to pass the bill to allow educators to be armed.
“We’re defenseless,” he said
He took the training in the first place to become familiar with it, so that he could knowledgeably testify about the subject at legislative hearings at the Capitol, Zilinskas said.
His school district asked Indiana County District Attorney Patrick Dougherty whether they could legally allow teachers and other educators, to carry firearms, he said.
Dougherty reached the conclusion that the school district could.
But the district’s school board solicitor wasn’t sure, so the district has deferred a decision until at least after White’s legislation becomes law, Zlinskas said.
Another school district hasn’t waited. In Schuylkill County, the Blue Mountain School District adopted a policy that allows a principal and the director of maintenance to carry firearms, he said.
In his district, Zilinskas said he’s been contacted by about another 10 teachers who’d be interested in carrying firearms, he said.
He has also taken two school board members to Ohio to see the FASTER training.
Zilinskas said that if the district does adopt a policy that allows teachers to carry firearms, he’s not sure they will let him do so, because he’s been so vocal about the subject.
It might make more sense to approve other teachers so that any would-be shooter wouldn’t know which teachers are armed, he said.
Whether White’s legislation will move in the state House is unclear. State Rep. David Hickernell, a Dauphin County Republican who chairs the House Education Committee, was non-committal about whether he would bring the arming teachers bill up for a vote.
“At this point, I am reviewing a number of bills that have been referred to the House Education Committee to determine which bills may be brought before the Committee for consideration in 2018,” Hickernell said. “Senate Bill 383 is among those bills. As always, I rely heavily on input from Committee Members to help determine what legislation to move forward.”
The debate ahead of the Senate vote showed the fervent views on both sides.
White described how six months after he first introduced legislation to arm teachers in 2013, he’d joined then-Gov. Tom Corbett in a visit to Westmoreland County’s Franklin Regional High School, site of an April 2014 mass stabbing. In that attack, a student stabbed 20 classmates as well as an unarmed security before being subdued. All the victims survived.
But White said the crime scene was nightmarish.
“The terrible acts of that violence that occurred 3 years ago are forever ingrained in my mind,” he said. “I thought I was visiting a slaughterhouse.”
White said he doesn’t view the measure as a gun-rights bill.
“I want to make it clear, this bill is not about the Second Amendment, this is about our kids,” he said in his comments on the Senate floor. “If it becomes law, I think I will sleep better, and teachers I know who have come to me about this issue will sleep better having these tools at their disposal to fight the unspeakable evil that causes a few in our society to seek to harm our children. Opponents of the measure have equal passion.”
After White spoke, state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery County, read from a letter submitted to lawmakers by 15 teachers from Sandy Hook Elementary School, where a lone gunman killed 20 students and six adults on Dec. 14, 2012.
“You must understand how fast shootings happen and how chaotic and confusing it is,” they wrote. “There is no way to determine who and where the gunfire is coming from. This is not the movies. We would not have been able to save those murdered at Sandy Hook School with our own guns.”
Eaton points to the ghosts of Sandy Hook, as well. Though, he does so in reaching a different conclusion.
Eaton’s FASTER program was launched in 2013, after the Ohio attorney general released an opinion that schools in that state could legally allow teachers to carry firearms.
Eaton said that at Sandy Hook, the first police officers arrived just over three minutes after the 911 calls were made.
It wasn’t fast enough.
“We still lost 20 babies and six adults,” he said.
Eaton said that in almost every school shooting or similar acts of violence, there are members of the school staff who run toward the attacker to try to save children’s lives.
“Sometimes, a person in authority telling them to stop is enough,” Eaton said. “There are times when it’s not enough.”
School officials who are allowing staff to carry firearms are trying to give those heroic school staff members the tools they need to survive the attack.
“So, if this happens, they can go home at the end of the day,” he said.
The FASTER training s a three-and-half day course that includes firearms training, as well as first aid and crisis decision-making.
The program has trained 1,100 school staff members from 225 school districts in 12 states, he said.
That includes some school staff from Pennsylvania, he said. Eaton declined to identify the school district, but said school officials were acting based on the recommendation from their local DA that they could legally allow staff to carry firearms.
Eaton said he knows of one case where a school employee who went through the training program drew his weapon but that incident resolved without any shots fired. He knows of no cases in which a person went through his program and had any kind of accidental discharge of the weapon or similar problem.
He added that there have been two incidents in which graduates of his program used their first aid training to respond to accidental injuries at their schools.
But opponents of the move to arm teachers and school employees said that allowing weapons in the school buildings only creates the potential for escalating potential violence.
Everytown, the anti-gun group founded by the mother a Sandy Hook victim, has tracked more than 100 school shootings since 2013. Of those, 1-in-10 were accidental shootings. More than 1-in-6 were situations that began as arguments but erupted into violence because someone had a firearm.
Closer to home, opponents of White’s bill have pointed to an August 2016 incident in which a private school teacher in Chambersburg left a handgun on a toilet in a bathroom used by students.
Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFirePA, said that if the House takes action on the arming teachers bill, she’s confident that there will be “a lot of opposition” to it.
“People get that it’s not going to make schools safer,” she said.
Gov. Tom Wolf has already indicated he would veto the bill if it reaches his desk. Goodman noted that the Senate vote didn’t pass with enough support to overcome a veto. The Pennsylvania School Board Association has taken no position on the legislation, said Steve Robinson, a spokesman for the group.
The Pennsylvania State Education Association opposes the bill.
Goodman said that the concerns about how quickly police can respond to school shootings tap into real fears. She said that providing schools with funding to place police officers or armed security guards in the halls would be a better solution.
John Finnerty reports from the CNHI Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.