Recovery

Crawford County, Pa., Officials Consider Arming Teachers in Wake of Florida Shooting

A bill that would allow Pennsylvania school districts to permit school employees to carry loaded guns on school grounds passed the state Senate last June and is currently stalled in the House Education Committee.

by Mike Crowley, The Meadville Tribune, Pa. / February 27, 2018

(TNS) — Though Crawford Central School District in Pennsylvania conducted its business Monday evening largely as it has in a dozen similar meetings over the past year, an opening request from board President Jan Feleppa indicated that it was not simply business as usual as the meeting.

“Tonight after the pledge, I would like to have a short moment of silence for the students and families of Parkland, Florida,” Feleppa told the audience, which included eight students from district schools.

Monday was Crawford Central’s first televised meeting since 14 students and three staff members were gunned down by a 19-year-old former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14.

Since then, as student walkouts to protest the lack of congressional action on school shootings have been planned around the country, debate over how best to prevent future incidents has raged more strongly than ever. While some have called for stricter gun control laws, others — including President Donald Trump — have called for qualified school employees to be allowed to carry firearms in schools as a preventive measure.

“Shooters won't walk into a school if 20 percent of people have guns,” Trump said at a White House meeting with law enforcement officials Thursday.

A bill that would allow Pennsylvania school districts to permit school employees to carry loaded guns on school grounds passed the state Senate last June and is currently stalled in the House Education Committee. Republican state Rep. Kathy Rapp, whose 65th District includes parts of Penncrest and Titusville school districts, serves on the committee but said Monday that it’s not yet clear if the bill will come up for a vote this year.

Even if it did, she said, the influential Pennsylvania State Education Association opposes the bill and Gov. Tom Wolf has already declared his intention to veto the bill if it makes it through the legislature.

Still, Rapp would like to see legislation that allows school districts to determine their own policies when it comes to increased security — including the possibility of letting teachers carry firearms.

“I would not support anything that would force educators to arm themselves,” she said. “I would support a bill that would give school districts options for working with law enforcement, parents and students.”

Given the broad diversity among school districts, she said, what’s seen as appropriate in Philadelphia or Harrisburg may differ from what people want in rural parts of northwestern Pennsylvania.

“There are probably more guns in Warren County than there are people,” she said. “We’re used to guns here, we’re hunters.”

Like Rapp, Republican state Sen. Michele Brooks saw the issue of arming teachers as important “especially in rural districts where police response times can be very long.”

Brooks, whose 50th District includes all of Crawford County, was one of 28 senators who voted for Senate Bill 383, which would allow school employees to carry guns.

According to Brooks, the legislation provides what Rapp is looking for: “This legislation gives districts options to make the best decision for their schools,” she said in an email, adding that the legislation would not force any employees to carry weapons.

Republican state Rep. Brad Roae, whose 6th District includes parts of Conneaut, Crawford Central and PENNCREST school districts, is ready to vote for SB 383 if it comes to the floor of the House as it is currently worded, he said Monday.

“I support legislation that would allow local school boards to allow properly qualified employees who are willing to do it to carry concealed at school,” he said in an email. “It would have a deterrent effect because under the current system the bad guys know that nobody can defend themselves at schools and they can shoot at will.”

While the desire to do something in the face of horrific shootings like the one in Parkland can make the idea of arming teachers appealing, Chief Mike Tautin of the Meadville Police Department said the idea is a challenging question that resists easy answers. It’s also a question he’s found himself considering much more frequently in recent days.

“It’s not necessarily that I’m opposed, but there’s a lot more behind it than just, ‘Let’s arm everybody,'" he said. “In the correct situation with the correct person, I don’t know that it’s a bad idea, but you’ve got to have the right situation and the right policies in place before you move ahead with any of that.”

For the time being, Tautin emphasized that the department continues to work with Crawford Central School District and Crawford County Emergency Management Agency to develop emergency plans. In addition, he pointed to the department’s school resource officer, Nick Mogel, who is stationed at the high school-middle school complex during the academic year.

“We’re lucky in our high school we have an armed officer who’s there all the time,” he said.

Following Wednesday’s Crawford Central board meeting, Superintendent Tom Washington’s thoughts on the topic struck a similarly cautious attitude toward the notion of teachers walking the halls of local schools bearing loaded sidearms.

“Do more guns make things more safe?” he asked. “I don’t know.”

Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.

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©2018 The Meadville Tribune (Meadville, Pa.)

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