Proposal to arm school employees advances to PA Senate

A proposal to arm some of Pennsylvania’s school employees passed a Senate panel Wednesday with some bipartisan support.

Senate Bill 383, sponsored by Indiana County Republican Sen. Don White, would allow personnel licensed to carry a concealed weapon the authority to do so on school grounds, given the school board permits it and the employee meets certain additional training requirements.

“As we weigh our options, I believe we need to consider providing school employees with more choices than just locking a door, hiding in a closet or diving in front of bullets to protect students,” White said in a co-sponsorship memo in January. “With the legal authority, licensing and proper training, I believe allowing school administrators, teachers or other staff to carry firearms on the school premises is an option worth exploring.”

The Senate Education Committee advanced the proposal on a vote of 9-3 Wednesday, including an approval from Democratic Sen. Jim Brewster, who represents the Pittsburgh suburb of Monroeville. The other three Philadelphia-area Democrats on the committee dissented.

“Teachers are not trained law enforcement officers – their job is to educate children and act as role models,” Pennsylvania State Education Association President Jerry Oleksiak said in a press release Wednesday. “This legislation would create more problems for first responders arriving at the scene of an armed confrontation, making it more difficult to immediately distinguish a perpetrator from a school employee.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Education, likewise, disagreed with White’s interpretation of existing state law permitting weapons on school grounds when used for “a lawful purpose.” In all other circumstances, carrying a weapon onto school grounds remains a class one misdemeanor.

“To be concise, PDE’s opinion is that the scope of ‘lawful purpose’ is unclear and unsettled, especially as it relates to school employees and parents (or citizens) possessing a weapon on school property,” Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera said in a letter addressed to White dated June 2016. “Unfortunately, we cannot provide further legal clarification as PDE lacks the authority to interpret criminal statutes.”

In his memo, White cited the opinion of Indiana County District Attorney Patrick Dougherty, who argued existing statute gives school boards the authority to allow weapons in district buildings under certain circumstances.

“I believe that protecting our children would clearly qualify as ‘other lawful purpose,’” Dougherty said in a letter sent to the Indiana County School Board last year. “It is time that we recognize the unfortunate choices presented to our teachers, which at this time is little more than locking the door and diving in front of bullets.”

“This is not to force teachers or support staff to carry on school grounds,” he continued. “This is meant to allow those individuals who are ready, willing and able to be properly trained in this area and help provide another level of security to our students.”

The bill moves to the full Senate for consideration.

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