Sunday, December 21, 2014

Guns in schools: The push to arm teachers

Kasey Hansen with her pistol at Valley Junior High School in Utah. "I´m going to stand in front of a bullet for any student that is in my protection, and so I want another option to defend us."
Kasey Hansen with her pistol at Valley Junior High School in Utah. "I'm going to stand in front of a bullet for any student that is in my protection, and so I want another option to defend us." Jacob Byk/News21
Kasey Hansen with her pistol at Valley Junior High School in Utah. "I´m going to stand in front of a bullet for any student that is in my protection, and so I want another option to defend us." Gallery: Guns in schools: The push to arm teachers

Seventh in a series

SALT LAKE CITY - Kasey Hansen yelled "Stop! Drop your weapon! Don't shoot!", as she pointed her loaded handgun at a target's chest at a shooting range outside Salt Lake City.

"I want to protect my students," said Hansen, a special-needs teacher in Utah. "I'm going to stand in front of a bullet for any student that is in my protection, and so I want another option to defend us."

Hansen carries her pink handgun, Lucy, with her every day to each of the 14 schools in which she teaches. The 26-year-old works with elementary, middle, and high school students with hearing impairments.

She is one of an unknown number of armed teachers across the country. In 28 states, adults who legally own guns will be allowed to carry them in public schools this fall, from kindergarten to high school. Seven of those states specifically cite teachers and other school staff as being allowed to carry guns in their schools.

A News21 examination of open-records laws in those states found that teachers or staff who choose to carry a firearm into their classrooms are not required to tell principals, other teachers, or parents. Only five of those states have completely open access to concealed-carry permit information through public records requests. Some state's laws completely seal off those records and others are silent on the issue.

In states where it is legal, parents may have no idea that their child's teacher carries a gun into the classroom every day.

School administrations can decide to gather the information, but they don't have to disclose to anyone. From the office of the superintendent to a secretary's desk, there is no file that contains the information.

In Pennsylvania, guns are prohibited in schools except for a lawful supervised school activity, or if possessed for another lawful purpose.

In New Jersey, teachers may carry a firearm with written authorization from the governing officer of the institution.

After the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the threat of an attack by a gunman in schools prompted five states to give administrators the authority to arm teachers. In 2013, legislation was introduced in at least 33 states related to arming teachers or school staff, but of the more than 80 bills introduced, only Alabama, Kansas, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas enacted laws related to public schools, according to a report by the Council of State Governments.

Connecticut law, which previously let school officials allow people other than police to carry in schools, was revised after Newtown, so that only officers can carry guns on school grounds. Georgia passed a guns-in-schools bill this year. Twenty-two of the 28 other states allowing guns in schools already had versions of such laws in place.

In some cases, school districts and local school boards can designate school faculty to get specific training to carry. A few states don't set policy in state law. In Utah and Rhode Island, anyone with a concealed-carry weapons permit can take a firearm onto public school grounds.

Schools in some states, including Colorado and Arkansas, are getting around the law by employing teachers, administrators, and other staff members as security officers, so that they can be armed in the school. And most states allow guns in schools for approved programs and events sanctioned by the school.

In Utah, guns are commonplace in public, with more than a half-million people holding a concealed-firearm carry permit. Residents with a permit can legally carry almost anywhere in public, from schools to bars to municipal parks.

The Utah law that allows anyone with a concealed-carry permit to carry on school property has been in place for more than a decade.

Hansen got her concealed-carry permit a week or two after Sandy Hook and participated in a free training course offered to teachers. She then bought her pink-plated Cobra 380 handgun, and started carrying it in her classrooms about seven months ago.

"I never really thought about it before Sandy Hook," Hansen said.

In the years since teachers have been allowed to carry guns in Utah, no fatal K-12 school shootings have occurred. Some cite the additional security measures. Others think guns in classrooms present more risk than potential for reward.

"I don't deny the fact that a gun could be used to protect students," Steven H. Gunn said, "but a gun in school is far more likely to lead to the harm of an innocent individual than to the protection of innocent people."

Gunn, a member of the board of directors of the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah, is also a Holladay city councilman whose wife teaches at a junior high school.

"A teacher could begin returning fire to a person who is attacking the school and in the process kill children," Gunn said. "It's just a very unhealthy, unsafe situation and teachers, unless they receive special training, simply wouldn't know how to handle a crisis situation."

He also believes students are being given an unnecessary sense that they are in danger.

"It creates the impression on the part of the student that he is in an unsafe environment and that it is necessary for people to protect him with firearms in his school," Gunn said.

Schools are making other efforts to strengthen security, including adding trained law enforcement officers, strict hall-access rules with automatic locks on closed doors throughout the day, and more emergency drills.

The National Parent Teacher Association has been active in the conversation about guns in schools and violence prevention. Although it supports citizens' rights to bear arms, it believes certain restrictions should be made to reduce violence and incidents that involve firearms. In a position statement adopted in 1999, the National PTA said the most effective day-to-day school climate is one that is gun-free.

In 2013, after the tragedy in Newtown and the introduction of legislation across the country, national education organizations responded.

"As a result of the tragedy and proposals, National PTA amended its position statement to add that the association defers to local collaborative decision making to allow for the presence of armed law enforcement only," Heidi May, the National PTA media relations manager, said in an e-mail. "The preference of the association, however, is for schools to be gun-free."

Groups of teachers from around the country have weighed in. A poll of the National Education Association in January 2013 found that only 22 percent of union members favored firearms training for teachers and other school employees and letting them carry firearms in schools; 61 percent strongly opposed the proposal.

Members of the Association of American Educators, the country's largest national, nonunion professional teacher association, expressed a different view: 61 percent of those responding in a February poll supported an Arkansas proposal that would allow educators access to a locked, concealed firearm after a training course.

"While we have not endorsed the policy in Arkansas, I think it's particularly telling to see that teachers are willing to consider these policies," said Alexandra Freeze, senior director of communications and advocacy at the AAE, in an e-mail. "While this might not be appropriate for a school in inner-city Detroit, a school miles away from first responders might find it a fit."

Only 26 percent would consider bringing a firearm to school if permitted to do so, the poll found.

"Policies that work in different states and things that work in different districts don't necessarily work in another," Freeze said.

 


Contributions from Jackie DelPilar, the John and Patty Williams Fellow, Amy Slanchik, an Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation Fellow and Justine McDaniel.

TOMORROW: Firearms and suicide.

Kate Murphy NEWS21 PROJECT
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