As Kansas lawmakers consider a bill that would make it easier to arm school teachers, southwest Kansas school administrators and teachers weighed in on whether such measures are a good idea.

Kansas legislation from 2013 already gives schools the option to allow teachers to carry handguns on school grounds, as long as the teacher has a license to carry a concealed weapon and meets any policy requirements set down by the school. While the legal option is present, EMC Insurance, which covers most Kansas schools, does not provide coverage to schools that arm their teachers, wary of the liability that comes with the practice.

As a result, school districts have chosen not to let teachers bring weapons on school grounds.

A new bill, House Bill 2789, aims to stop insurance companies from denying coverage or charging “unfair discriminatory premiums, policy fees or rates,” to schools that allow teachers to carry guns on campus. Also under the bill, schools that would choose not to allow teachers to be armed with this new logistical and financial option could be presumed negligent if a shooting occurred on their campuses.

Partially because of restrictions laid down by EMC, many districts in southwest Kansas have chosen not to allow their teachers to carry guns on school grounds. Several school officials said the restrictions made the debate surrounding arming teachers a non-issue in their districts, or that they hadn’t officially discussed a district stance.

If the bill becomes law and lifts those barriers, that may have to change.

 

Thoughts on guns in schools

Several area school officials say they do not agree with the new bill’s attempt to presume schools negligent if they choose not to arm teachers and are later faced with a school shooting.

Jamie Rumford, superintendent of Scott County USD 466, Greeley County Schools teacher Zoe Clark-Peter and State Sen. John Doll (I-Garden City) called the idea of essentially punishing schools for not allowing the practice ridiculous.

Doll said whether a school allows its staff to carry weapons should ultimately be up to the district and the school board.

“It’s got to be a local decision, and it has to not be a reactionary decision, but a decision made on thought and background and community discussion. That’s how you make the best decisions,” Doll said.

Clark-Peter believes arming teachers is a “tremendously dangerous idea.” To her, a standard teacher’s workload and hours are too packed to fit in the training that would be needed to safely carry a gun and effectively use it in a school shooting situation.

“I just think of it like this. If I (only) did lesson plans every month, how effective would they be? So, am I going to get gun training (only) once a month? How am I going to be effective with a gun?” she said.

In the hands of teachers with little experience or training, like herself, Clark-Peter said guns would only make schools more dangerous. She said someone could fire a gun on accident and put people in danger, as a California teacher did last month. An innocent bystander could be hurt while a teacher tries to neutralize a threat in an emergency, she said. If guns came to her daughter’s school, Clark-Peter said she would remove her daughter from that school.

Rumford and Larry Lysell, superintendent of Healy and Palco school districts, don’t mind guns on campus as long as they are in the hands of trained officers. Rumford agreed that there might not be time for adequate gun training for teachers .

“The job of educating itself is extensive. Teachers work 12 hours a day in some cases to provide for students. I don’t know. I just don’t see (training) being something (where) we can say ‘Add this to your list.’” Rumford said.

Clark-Peter said she was worried not just about handling a gun, but about handling one in high-pressure situations.

“What if you don’t know who the shooter is for sure? …” Clark-Peter said. “(With) kids running all over the place, how do you make sure you hit the right target? I think there’d be a lot of accidental deaths in that case. I mean, cops don’t always get it right either, and they’re trained to do it.”

Hugoton USD 210 Superintendent Adrian Howie has similar concerns. He said he was worried about the liability of a teacher aiming at a shooter but injuring a student, a situation that could harm not only students and the district but the psyche of the teacher. He also is concerned the practice would put teachers at risk when first responders arrive to neutralize a shooter.

“Are there benefits (to arming teachers)? Sure,” Howie said. “Anybody who can be there to help immediately (is beneficial). I understand the thought processes and reasoning, but the concerns outweigh the benefits.”

Doll said he personally doesn’t believe more guns in schools is better. He said he is against a school arming all its teachers. Speaking as a former teacher, he said it would not have been right for he or some of his colleagues to carry guns on school grounds.

“If they told me I had to carry a gun in a school, that wouldn’t be a good thing. I don’t know if I could shoot someone to begin with. I don’t feel comfortable enough with a gun in my hands. Even though I grew up on a farm and have been around guns my whole life, I don’t feel I would be qualified, personally,” Doll said.

Along with her safety concerns, Clark-Peter thought those calling for teachers to carry guns may not fully understand the school atmosphere. From her perspective, a gun in the classroom could make students feel threatened or complicate the relationship with their teacher.

“I think having a gun in the classroom would change the whole climate within the classroom … We can’t teach these kids if they don’t feel safe … and having a gun in the classroom would be a constant reminder that something could happen,” Clark-Peter said.

 

Other options

Some school districts, like those in Garden City and Ulysses, currently have school resource officers — trained law enforcement officials who monitor schools, but their inclusion is not a financial possibility for several districts. Regardless of this, districts do tend to work closely with their local law enforcement to improve the safety of their facilities.

Garden City and Hugoton’s districts have worked with their local officers to run crisis drills. Many districts also partner with local police or sheriff's offices for campus safety training.

And local school safety goes past defense strategies. Depending on the district, local schools may keep access points locked or include surveillance measures like security cameras. Even smaller districts have made it harder for potential threats to get inside their buildings.

Ingalls USD 477 Superintendent Randy Rockhold places a lot of emphasis on preventative measures like these, but said they can go beyond security systems. He said his community’s small size allows “open and multidirectional communication.” In the district's continuous honest and collaborative environment, he believes his staff can “take care of a serious condition like an intruder … before they happen.”

Ingalls has had its teachers attend training with law enforcement and has done its part to make the facilities safer, but to Rockhold, prevention and communication is the best course of action. He said lifting insurance barriers would create a lot of discussion, and that the district would land on a policy that met the needs of the district and community.

Garden City Superintendent Steve Karlin said any discussion about arming teachers would include many groups in the school, including law enforcement. The issue is complicated, he said, and needs more perspectives involved to make the best decisions. He said his district already has spoken with local law enforcement since the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida. He also is interested in pursuing preventative measures by partnering with mental health experts and resources.

“We continually look at options to make our schools safer, and we’re talking about some prevention in terms of (security) … and how we respond.” Karlin said. “I think we also need to remember that one of the big issues is dealing with the mental health of the people who may do something like this. I think that’s the area that will give us the closest solution to the problem.”

 

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.