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Pennsylvania Senate advances bill to let teachers bring guns to school

Natasha Lindstrom
| Wednesday, June 28, 2017, 5:27 p.m.
The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg. (Trib Photo)
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg. (Trib Photo)
State Sen. Don White, R-Indiana
State Sen. Don White, R-Indiana

Despite assurances from Gov. Tom Wolf that he would use his veto power and opposition from school safety experts and Pennsylvania's largest teachers union, the state Senate green-lighted Wednesday a proposal to let teachers bring their guns to school.

In a 28-22 vote, the GOP-controlled Senate approved Senate Bill 383 , which would allow school boards to authorize teachers and other non-police school employees to carry firearms on school property.

The proposal drew fierce opposition from education advocacy groups and Democratic lawmakers who contend that expanding the number of guns in schools threatens to do more harm than good.

The bill's primary sponsor, Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, championed the measure as a way to provide an extra tool for cash-strapped schools that can't afford to hire more school police or resource officers. He stressed it was a “may” bill — meaning districts won't be forced to do it — and characterized the proposed legislation as an example of “local control at its best.”

“Certainly, we can pass the bill and none of the school districts in the commonwealth will implement it, and to me, that's OK,” White told fellow lawmakers before Wednesday's vote on the Senate floor.

“However, my suspicion is that some school districts will exercise this option,” continued White, “particularly those in rural Pennsylvania that rely on state police for protection.”

SB 383 now advances to the state House for consideration. It faces a very uncertain future.

Wolf, a Democrat, already has voiced strong opposition to the bill and vowed to veto it.

“School personnel shouldn't be told that the only help they will get from Harrisburg to make schools safer is the option to carry a loaded gun around their students,” Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott said in an April 19 statement

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents more than 150,000 educators and school employees, dismissed SB 383 as a bill that “endangers students” under the guise of safety.

PSEA President Jerry Oleksiak, a special education teacher in Montgomery County, reiterated Wednesday that the primary duty of teachers and support staff “should continue to be educating students, not policing school buildings and grounds with firearms.”

The concept of arming teachers goes against recommendations made by two state-commissioned bodies charged with studying school safety since 2013.

“Teachers, parents, students and two joint state government task forces have studied the issue and reached the same conclusion,” continued Oleksiak. “This measure is dangerous and could create delays for first responders, which will cost lives.”

The Education Law Center, a legal advocacy group with offices in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, argued the measure would “dramatically raise the odds that students will be injured or killed because of a fatal mistake.”

State Sen. Art Haywood, D-Montgomery County, who voted down the measure, said he doubts the bill would “solve any problems that we currently have with gun violence in schools.” He pointed to the dilemma of figuring out how to prevent intruders or students from getting a teacher's gun.

“The more we do to protect the guns from accidents,” said Haywood, “the longer it's going to take for school personnel to get the gun” during an emergency.

Opponents to the bill say more effective ways to improve school safety would be to increase funding to hire more counselors and school resource and police officers.

Haywood said he finds it “extremely frustrating” that the Senate is spending time on the issue of expanding guns in schools when they have yet to agree on a state budget plan just two days shy of the deadline to pass it.

SB 383 co-sponsor Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Shaler, told parents at a meeting in Fox Chapel Area School District in April that he's a “big believer that school districts can make this decision on their own.”

The measure was amended twice before passage — once to strengthen training and mental health evaluation requirements for educators who want to carry guns, and once to ensure that information about school employees authorized to carry guns would be exempt from public records requests via the state's Right-to-Know Law.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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