Many Considerations in the Discussion About Arming Teachers

Since the Newtown tragedy, the prospect of arming teachers has been a hot topic. While everybody agrees that the welfare and safety of kids and employees is paramount, there are strongly held divergent opinions on how to accomplish that. Many school districts are being confronted with this issue, or choosing to confront it, and in so doing so must address these different viewpoints.

This fall, we have spoken on this subject first to a national group of school human resource administrators, then to an audience of Ohio school board members and administrators. We have learned at least as much from our audiences as they have from us. Here are some key issues we have identified that school districts confronted with this issue must consider:

  • Your community. Westfall Local Schools in Pickaway County, Ohio, began the dialogue about arming teachers earlier this year. We had a community summit meeting involving every stakeholder we could think of. This included elected officials, law enforcement, the county health department, EMS, and the fire department, as well as school district leadership. It was extremely valuable to have this conversation, and some participants changed their own viewpoints as they heard the viewpoints of others. But as we have heard from people in many districts around the country, we have continually seen how each community is different. They have different values, different geographies, and different economic circumstances. Law enforcement is farther away in more rural districts, for example, so people living in rural districts have tended to be more in favor of arming teachers. Another key differentiator is money – the special duty officer who may be viewed as the solution in some districts may be beyond the economic means of others.
  • Law enforcement. Obviously, one critical set of opinions are those of our first responders. At one of our programs, we shared the podium with a deputy sheriff who expressed concern about the level of training of educators who may be armed. He reviewed in detail the stringent requirements he must continually meet in order to maintain his firearms licensure as a police officer and compared that to the relatively modest training requirements for those with a concealed carry license under Ohio law. He was concerned about the ability of educators to have the skills necessary to wield a firearm in high-pressure, fast-moving situations with many people present. The deputy also was concerned about the possibility of entering a crime scene and not knowing who may be shooting at him. If he walks into a school building and both a bad guy and an educator are shooting, it is difficult if not impossible for the officer to identify who is the criminal. On the other hand, some have pointed out that it is a very short period of time after the shooter enters the school building that critical decisions are made. By the time law enforcement arrives, it may be too late.
  • Applicable law. In our state of Ohio, a school district can authorize an educator to carry a weapon. Other states' laws do not permit that, so proposals to permit the arming of educators have been considered in a number of state legislatures during 2013. There are other legal considerations in addition to state statute. A school district's collective bargaining agreement and/or the frequent requirement to bargain with a union over the terms and conditions of employment may be implicated. If teachers are armed, is the identity of those teachers a public record? Under Ohio law, school safety plans are not public records, and that exemption likely can be utilized to avoid disclosure. Earlier this year, though, the Arkansas Attorney General took the position that, were teachers there to be armed, that state's public records laws would require the armed teachers to be named. (Arkansas has had particularly contentious debates on this topic.) It has also been suggested that some school insurers may make the underwriting decision not to cover school districts that arm educators. In short, any school district considering arming teachers needs to be in close contact with its counsel to ensure that all of the potential legal issues are covered.

Available Solutions Will Expand
We are continually learning about different technological solutions available to school districts – both districts that do have armed teachers and districts that do not. One rural Ohio district shared with us their high-tech system of securing weapons that can be accessed only by specially trained teachers in the event of an emergency. (One question that another attendee asked them: If the first few seconds are critical, does the time it takes to retrieve the weapons render them useless?)

Districts are using video technology that an officer can monitor on a smart phone as the officer approaches, and even while the officer is in the building. We also had some dialogue about what some educators feel is a conflict between fire regulations and the need to secure a building in a shooting situation, and whether there are solutions that balance those considerations.

In short, this conversation is just beginning. We all hope and pray there are no more Newtowns or even incidents with a fraction of that devastation, but unfortunately there will likely be more shooters in schools. We encourage districts to embrace this dialogue and all of its many pieces to determine the path that is right for them and their communities and, if they do decide to arm educators, to be sure to work through all of these and other issues with their communities, their first responders, and their legal counsel.

Cara Riddel is superintendent of Westfall Local Schools in Ohio. William A. Nolan is the Office Managing Partner of the Columbus, Ohio, office of Barnes & Thornburg LLP.

Posted by Cara Riddel, William A. Nolan on Dec 16, 2013