State mulls more armed school teachers, off-duty officers

March 1, 2018

Former Wilson County Sheriff Terry Ashe speaks for the bill that will allow school employees to carry guns that is under consideration before the House Civil Justice Subcommittee Wednesday, Feb. 28 2018 at the Cordell Hull Building in Nashville, Tenn. (George Walker IV/The Tennessean via AP)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Republican lawmakers have advanced a proposal to expand the number of Tennessee teachers who can carry guns in schools, drawing a divide with Democrats just hours after lawmakers found bipartisan common ground on possibly using off-duty officers to fill school security gaps.

The legislation, which passed a House subcommittee Wednesday, would let all school districts decide whether to allow teachers to undergo training by certified private instructors to carry guns in schools, with one armed teacher allowed per 75 students. Tennessee is among several states embarking on school safety-related legislation in response to the Feb. 14 shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 dead.

But several Republican proponents said having more teachers with guns isn’t their top preference. Many wondered why there isn’t more money for school resource officers, including bill sponsor Rep. David Byrd, a Waynesboro Republican.

Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association Executive Director Terry Ashe said there are 910 school resource officers statewide, representing only 40 percent coverage, with most uncovered schools being elementary schools. It would cost roughly $40 million to put a school resource officer in every school, Republican Rep. Mike Carter of Ooltewah estimated.

“I don’t particularly think it’s a good idea asking our teachers to carry guns in the schools,” said Rep. Andrew Farmer, a Sevierville Republican. “But if it’s going to protect the kids, if we can save one life, one child’s life, having a teacher carrying just for now until we can get this funded, then I’m all for it.”

Mike Herman, director of the state’s Office of Healthy, Safe and Supportive Schools, said there are 17 districts across the state with no school resource officers, most in city systems primarily with elementary schools.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration, which is undergoing a statewide school safety review, joined with Democrats, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a teacher and others in opposing the bill.

“Do not turn us into a security force,” Larry Proffitt, a teacher in Dickson County, told lawmakers.

The legislation follows suit with President Donald Trump’s call to arm more trained teachers after the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

It’s not a completely new idea in Tennessee, where a law passed in 2013 lets schools districts decide if they want to allow teachers with a law enforcement background and current police-level training to carry guns. Few qualify for it.

Byrd ushered in another law letting school boards in Pickett and Wayne counties decide whether to let teachers carry guns. But local law enforcement has declined to train teachers over liability concerns, Byrd said.

Earlier Wednesday, Republican Rep. Micah Van Huss of Jonesborough and Democratic Rep. Antonio Parkinson of Memphis announced a bill that would let school districts hire off-duty law enforcement officers to bolster existing school security.

Under it, participating districts would get a list of interested officers. Officers would have to carry a loaded handgun. Districts would choose whether officers would wear uniforms and whether they would carry rifles. Up to two officers would be offered per school.

Republican Senate sponsor Sen. Mark Green of Clarksville called it an emergency measure. It would expire in July 2022 without another vote by lawmakers.

Using civil asset forfeiture money, the state would offer a small payment to officers — $50 per school day and $50 for afterschool events — with another $4 covering administrative costs. Any additional money would come from state reserves.

“I’ve heard of many folks, at least in my area, that want to volunteer to do this,” Van Huss said. “So I hope the answer would be, yes, we don’t need money to attract folks to keep our kids safe.”

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