Recovery

Handguns in Schools? Bulletproof Vests for Students? Louisiana Legislators Gear up for Safety Debate

Other bills would allow students to wear bulletproof backpacks, let teachers toss students viewed as threats and provide benefits of $250,000 to the spouses of teachers and other school employees killed on the job.

by Will Sentell, The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. / March 12, 2018

(TNS) — Last month's school shootings in Parkland, Fla., have triggered an outpouring of safety measures in the Louisiana Legislature, including controversial proposals to let teachers arm themselves.

Other bills would allow students to wear bulletproof backpacks, let teachers toss students viewed as threats and provide benefits of $250,000 to the spouses of teachers and other school employees killed on the job.

Those and other measures are on the education agenda for the 2018 regular session, which begins at noon on Monday. Gov. John Bel Edwards is set to address a joint session of the Legislature at 1 p.m.

Efforts are also underway to overhaul the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, subject state Superintendent of Education John White to more scrutiny and lighten teacher tenure and job evaluation rules.

However, the gun debate is sure to spark heated arguments after 17 students and others were killed on Valentine's Day at a high school in south Florida.

Rep. J. Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs, is sponsoring a bill that would allow teachers and other school employees who have a concealed handgun permit to carry it at school or on school buses.

"Around here there are not many days that go by that there is not some kind of threat in our schools," said Pope, who was superintendent of the Livingston Parish school system for 14 years.

The legislation would allow local school boards to authorize the guns on campus.

Teachers would have to finish an eight-hour tactical training course yearly, and principals would have to notify parents on which teachers were authorized to carry a gun.

Pope said he hopes his bill will spark a conversation.

"We put a lot of safeguards in there," he said. "It is really a local option."

Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, criticized the concept. "Not a wise decision to arm educators," she said in an email response to questions.

"Politicians should not be using educators as the first line solution to the harder decisions they need to be making in regards to gun control, keeping schools safe and tackling the larger social issues," Meaux said.

Pope's measure, House Bill 332, is one of at least three on the topic.

Rep. Ray Garafalo, R-Meraux, is sponsoring a similar measure, House Bill 271.

Sen. John Milkovich, D-Shreveport, wants to let school boards designate employees who can carry handguns on school campuses. In addition, Milkovich's bill would let teachers remove students if they conclude the student "poses a significant threat to the safety of another person on school grounds."

It is Senate Bill 298.

Cynthia Posey, legislative and political director for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said the gun bills will spark a needed conversation on what makes schools safe. "But when you look at giving teachers guns, or requiring them to have guns, it opens up a lot of questions about safety," she said.

Michael Ranatza, executive director of the Louisiana Sheriffs' Association, did not respond to messages.

Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said his group will discuss the bills on March 21.

The backpack proposal, Senate Bill 178, would negate the current ban on students wearing body armor.

The death benefits plan, including $25,000 for each dependent child, is Senate Bill 423 by Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia.

Another proposal, House Bill 498 by Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, would require parental notification in cases of school shootings or other violent events.

Meanwhile, TOPS bills are expected to spark arguments after a House-Senate task force studied the issue for months.

Among the most high-profile measures is Senate Bill 450 by Senate Education Committee Chairman Blade Morrish, R-Jennings.

It would convert TOPS to a $4,000 year stipend, which would be a drop of $3,400 for some students.

Another measure — House Bill 399 — would protect the awards for top-scoring TOPS recipients and those with the most financial needs if the program is not fully funded, with major reductions for others.

Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, sponsor of the bill, failed to get a similar plan out of its first committee in 2017.

Under current rules, aid for all TOPS recipients is trimmed by the same amount if the program is not fully funded.

James Caillier, executive director of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, which is named for the co-founder of TOPS, criticized both bills.

"We don't think we need to be making changes in terms of requirements or the amount of monies given to students," Caillier said.

Two other bills, both backed by Edwards, will renew arguments between self-styled school reformers and teacher unions and other traditional education groups.

One would make it easier for teachers to earn tenure, which is a form of job protection — House Bill 587.

The other — House Bill 651 — would reduce the impact of student test scores in annual teacher evaluations.

Rep. Frank Hoffmann, R-West Monroe, said his tenure change would allow about 50 percent of new teachers to qualify for tenure, up from 20 percent now.

Hoffmann said less reliance on the annual growth of student achievement in rating teachers makes sense because "I don't think it is a fair way to compare teachers."

Other controversial proposals include Senate Bill 302, which would require White to undergo a second state Senate confirmation; legislation that would spell out guidelines for free speech on campuses and whether basic state aid for public schools remains stagnant or rises by 1 percent, $40 million.

Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, R-Metairie, is sponsor of a proposed 34-member task force aimed at coordinating early childhood education, and putting a new emphasis on children from zero to age 4 through pilot projects and other steps.

"We have to invest in these kids on the front end of their lives," Hilferty said.

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