HARRISBURG – The state House education committee plans to explore the issue of school safety at a March 15 hearing that will include whether the General Assembly should give schools the power to arm teachers and other staff.
The issue of arming teachers got a new push this week after President Donald Trump endorsed the idea as a means of boosting security in schools after the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., that claimed 17 lives.
The Pennsylvania state Senate passed an arming teachers measure by a 28-22 vote last June. The author of that bill, state Sen. Donald White, has championed the idea as a means of helping schools be prepared for school shooters, since many rural schools don’t have access to local police protection. White’s plan wouldn’t require schools to roll out a plan for arming teachers, but it would allow local school boards to develop programs to allow staff to carry firearms.
It faces stiff resistance from gun control groups and the teachers union.
The state Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera joined representatives of CeaseFire PA, the state’s largest gun-control advocacy organization, to express his opposition to the legislation last fall.
Friday, J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for Gov. Tom Wolf said the governor thinks it’s a bad idea too.
“Governor Wolf opposes arming teachers and doesn’t believe bringing more guns into the classroom will help resolve gun violence in schools,” Abbott said. “One way Harrisburg can help schools be safer is helping them hire trained security guards and school counselors.”
The Pennsylvania School Board Association has stopped short of opposing White’s legislation, a spokesman for that group, said Friday.
The school board group’s main interest is in seeing the decisions about school safety be made locally, said Steve Robinson, a PSBA spokesman. Still, while the PSBA has not officially opposed the idea, Robinson made it clear that the group’s leadership is uncomfortable with White’s legislation.
“We believe that a far more effective and less dangerous approach to enhancing school security will be for school boards to consider what other options already exist that permit an armed security presence in school, such as school police officers, school resource officers and juvenile probation officers,” Robinson said.
The PSBA would also favor other efforts like limiting access to schools, beefing up security barriers “and available non-lethal means that can provide sufficient security without introducing additional firearms and firearms carriers into the learning environment,” Robinson said.
The resistance is well-founded, said Dr. Peter Langman, a psychologist who’s studied the psychology of school shooters and wrote the book “Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters.”
Langman said that moves to arm school personnel fail to appreciate how unrealistic it would be to expect educators to be able to effectively fire a weapon in response to a school shooter.
He pointed to data showing that in real-world shootings police officers miss their targets about 4-in-5 shots. Langman said, "What is that statistic going to be for a teacher” who doesn’t have nearly as much training as a police officer would get?"
Joe Eaton, program director for FASTER Saves Lives, an Ohio program that trains school staff in how to safely and effectively carry firearms, said that doesn’t mean teachers shouldn’t be given the opportunity to return fire if needed.
“Nobody knows how anybody will respond,” Eaton said. “That doesn’t mean a killer should be unopposed.”
Ohio has allowed school districts to arm educators for five years. Eaton's program has trained teachers and other school staff from 12 states.
Langman and Eaton both expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of having guns locked up at schools with the expectation that they could be retrieved if needed.
Neither believe that it’s realistic to expect that an educator would have the time and focus to be able to quickly get a firearm out of a safe to return fire at a school shooter.
They disagreed over the merits of allowing educators to carry guns on their persons.
Langman said that if an educator is walking the schools with a firearm in a holster, it creates the potential that a student could disarm the educator and then have a gun.
Eaton said that almost half of the educators who take his training have concealed carry permits, meaning they often walk around with their firearms in their possession all day long, except when they get to school.
He said that people who demonstrate in their daily life that they can safely and responsibly carry a firearm can be trusted to do the same thing at work in a school.
News that a sheriff’s deputy at the Parkland school failed to charge into the building to confront the killer didn’t entirely surprise Eaton, he said.
“Law enforcement is just like any other job, half the people are going to be above average and half are going to be below average and you never know who’s going to show up,” Eaton said.
He added that the argument could be made that educators who have a personal relationship with students might have extra motivation to courageously engage with a shooter.
Langman said that schools and society ought to put more effort into more effectively recognizing the warning signs that a troubled individual is planning a shooting.
"For some reason, the focus is on Run, Hide, Fight," he said. "That's fine, but none of it's prevention."
The warning signs can be surprisingly clear, he said.
School shooters will sometimes give friends hints that they are preparing an attack.
“Kids will brag, ‘I’m going to be on TV,’” Langman said. In other cases, they've given friends a warning to stay away from school on the day of a planned attack, he said. Other school shooters have turned in schoolwork or said things in class that indicated what they were planning, he said.
Sometimes the shooters will ask friends if they want to participate, he said.
That’s what happened in 2007 when a teen in suburban Philadelphia was planning a school shooting that was thwarted after he asked a friend if he wanted to participate in the attack, Langman said. Instead, the friend alerted authorities who went to the home of the would-be school shooter and discovered a rifle, other weapons, a bomb-making book and videos about the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado.