A program to train and arm school employees in Tamaqua, Schuylkill County, is on hold — at least until two lawsuits against the school district are resolved.

The school board voted Tuesday night to suspend implementation of a controversial policy that would have made the district the first in the state with armed teachers, after an uproar from some in the community, and lawsuits from the teachers’ union and parents.

School board president Larry Wittig indicated that he stood by the policy but did not want the board to spend money putting it into motion before a court had ruled.

“We need to suspend the implementation — not the substance — of [Policy] 705,” Wittig said at the meeting. “We could invest a lot of money into training, a lot of time and effort ... and I think it’s a prudent thing from a fiscal perspective to not implement it or to suspend the implementation at this time.”

The board members behind the policy had previously vowed to move forward and had said they would not rescind the plan. Early this month, parents alleged that the board had not responded to questions about whether any teachers had yet been armed.

Parents opposed to the policy were glad about the suspension but said they would like to see it rescinded in favor of a new plan.

“Last night, the school board took an important step toward doing the right thing by suspending Policy 705 pending the outcome of the lawsuits filed against them by teachers and parents,” a Facebook post by the group Tamaqua Citizens for Safe Schools read Wednesday morning. “However, once again we need to ask, is Policy 705 really about the safety of our children and schools?”

Posted by Tamaqua Citizens for Safe Schools on Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The policy, which aims to allow willing school employees (including teachers) at the district’s four schools to carry concealed weapons during the school day, was quietly passed in September. After a local newspaper reported on it, the plan quickly drew concern and outrage from parents, teachers, and community members.

Wittig and board member Nicholas Boyle said the policy would give schools an immediate way to respond to an active shooter. They said it was the most affordable proposal, saying the district didn’t have enough money to hire armed school resource officers.

Parents have questioned whether the board thoroughly researched safety options, pointed to “vague” provisions for employee training, and expressed concern about having guns in classrooms and around children. Many said they would prefer that the district hire trained officers.

Because state law generally prohibits weapons on school grounds, the teachers’ union argued in its court filing that the school board was illegally authorizing employees to carry firearms, something it said the legislature would have to approve. The school board has maintained that it operated within state law.

“There is no statute that specifically grants school districts of the second class the authority to arm teachers and other school employees,” said a lawsuit filed Jan. 3 by three parents and a grandparent.

At Tuesday’s meeting, and at a committee meeting the week before, Boyle sought to tie opposition to the policy to what he called the “anti-gun, anti-Second Amendment” lobby, referencing a statewide gun-control group, CeaseFire PA, that has worked with opponents of the policy. Before voting against the suspension, Boyle said the group “would run down to Borough Hall and demand firearm bans” if a tragedy were to occur at a Tamaqua school.

In fact, the opposition formed within the community, chiefly among a large group of parents, many of whom are gun owners.

“We are not and have never been anti gun,” a Facebook post by Tamaqua Citizens for Safe Schools read Wednesday morning. “We want trained professional officers to protect our students and staff.”

“I really believed at that time that the board, the administration, had truly believed that this was the best way to protect our students,” resident Lisa Behr said at the meeting. “It has gone from that to a Second Amendment push, and I am very disturbed by it. ... What we need is policy that’s based on the best for our students. That statement proved and showed the true intent of this policy, and it’s completely disturbing.”

Another resident asked whether the board now could look into hiring an armed officer for the rest of this school year while the lawsuits are pending. Wittig said he would love that but did not say the board would explore it.

“We will also continually look at measures, as in reconfiguring entryways to schools that are vulnerable, counseling, all of those other things, including apps, including early warning detection systems. All those things we’re looking at," he said, referring to some alternative measures proposed by parents at a November meeting.