Educators seethe at N.C. lawmakers’ plan to arm, deputize teachers

By: - March 7, 2019 2:57 pm
Teachers press lawmakers for more resources, not firearms in a March 2018 rally in downtown Raleigh. (Photo by Clayton Henkel)

Two new bills filed by state lawmakers take the heated debate over gun rights and safety to one of its most controversial battlegrounds: the classroom.

House Bill 216 – The School Self-Defense Act – would make it legal for teachers and staff members to carry concealed handguns on school grounds “to respond to acts of violence or imminent threats of violence.”

Senate Bill 192 – The School Security Act of 2019 – would incentivize teachers to carry concealed weapons, provide training and pay raises for teachers who undergo law enforcement training, and make them sworn law enforcement officers too.

The House bill’s primary sponsors are Reps. Larry Pittman (R-Cabarrus) and Michael Speciale (R-Craven). The Senate bill’s primary sponsors are Senators Jerry Tillman (R-Guilford and Randolph), Ralph Hise and Warren Daniel. Hise and Daniel are Republicans from western North Carolina.

The sponsors of the bill did not return requests for comment from Policy Watch. But Tillman, the majority whip, did speak to Raleigh’s News & Observer after filing the bill last Friday.

“This is an idea whose time has come,” Tillman told the paper. “With the heightened awareness of the legislature, I believe this bill will see success.”

Both bills have appeared – sometimes in slightly different form – in previous sessions, only to die in committee.

Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, is on record opposing any further loosening of the state’s gun laws. Democrats made gains in the General Assembly in November’s election, breaking a GOP supermajority that allowed the Republicans to easily overturn the governor’s vetoes.

The response from the state’s education community to the proposals has been swift and negative.

“We are adamantly opposed to any plan that would put firearms in staff hands in our schools,” said Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE). “It’s just a disaster waiting to happen.”

Tying the proposal to teacher raises — after Gov. Roy Cooper this week proposed a 9.1 percent pay raise for teachers over the next two years — was also shocking, Jewell said.

“It was just unbelievable to see something like that come out,” Jewell said. “If you want a raise, become a part-time school resource officer? That is not a solution.”

NCAE President Mark Jewell

Jewell said resources should instead go to addressing the root cause of violence in our schools – including incidents like the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida one year ago.

“We see our kids coming to school with greater needs,” Jewell said. “Greater emotional needs, greater health needs, more trauma. And we’re currently ranked 50th in the country in addressing the psychological needs of our students. We don’t need guns. We need more nurses, more counselors, more school psychologists.”

James Martin, chairman of the Wake County Board of Education, agrees.

“Arm teachers with books, arm them with professional development” Martin said. “Don’t arm them with guns.”

Martin, a chemistry professor at N.C. State, has been teaching for 25 years.

“If you are doing any kind of effective job teaching, there is no way you can also be responding to threats in this way and doing the job of law enforcement,” Martin said.

Both bills propose to provide training to teachers that would go beyond the current requirements for obtaining a concealed carry permit.

Under the School Self-Defense Act, teachers could complete 16 hours of active shooter training under the auspices of a new initiative, to be called the “School Faculty Guardian program.” The program would be developed and administered by the state’s Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission, a Department of Justice panel overseeing criminal justice officers. Teachers who carry concealed weapons would also have to undergo annual drug testing.

The School Security Act of 2019 proposes that teachers undergo all applicable in-service training required for law enforcement officers, as well as training established by DOJ law enforcement commissions in how to respond to an active shooter situation.

Wake County Board of Education Chairman Jim Martin

Even trained and seasoned law enforcement professionals tested under the kinds of stress found in live shooter scenarios don’t have stellar accuracy with their firearms, Martin said. To ask teachers with the minimal training and students all around them to respond in those same situations doesn’t seem wise, he added.

Indeed, the school resource officer at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland resigned after failing to enter the building during last year’s mass shooting, in which 17 people were killed. Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said the deputy should have entered the building, killed the shooter and prevented the massacre. (Israel, himself, was later suspended by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over his department’s  handling of the shooting.)

“In that case, even the person who signed up for the job, who was trained for it, who had that job couldn’t do it,” said Katy Wittner, a first-grade teacher at Colfax Elementary in Guilford County.

Talking about training teachers to carry concealed weapons and paying them to do the job of law enforcement makes little sense, Wittner said, when other basic security needs at so many schools aren’t being met.

“We could definitely have more security at the entrances, bullet-proof glass, those little gadgets that barricade doors,” Wittner said. “We don’t have that.”

Many teachers can’t even get lock boxes required to properly store student medication, Wittner said. In the absence of those kinds of basic necessities, she said, discussions of spending money on armed combat training seem almost surreal.

It’s also a perversion of the teaching profession, said Linda Gale Veneris, a theater teacher at Western Guilford High School. Veneris said teachers aim for an almost familial bond with students.

“As a teacher you get close to your students,” Veneris said. “You’re almost a second parent to some of them. And you’re supposed to create a space where they can learn and they feel safe. Historically, most of these school shooters have been students. To put a teacher in a position where they have to think about being asked to shoot one of their students…it’s unthinkable.”

The Senate bill would also make confidential the identities of teachers who are serving as law enforcement officers. Students and other teachers would not know who among them would be charged and empowered to arrest or even shoot people on their campuses.

“I don’t know how you can establish trust and calm and a relationship with your students that way, if anybody could be carrying a concealed gun” said Veneris.

The vast majority of the state’s teachers, as well as state Superintendent Mark Johnson, a Republican, appear to agree.

An Elon University Poll taken this time last year, just after the mass shooting in Parkland, found 78 percent of the North Carolina teachers surveyed thought allowing teachers to carry a gun to school was a bad idea.

Seventy-four percent of teachers surveyed said they would not carry a gun to school if it were made legal.

Even under limited circumstances in which only certain teachers were allowed to carry guns and had to undergo training, the survey found 69 percent of respondents would consider it “mostly a bad idea.”

“This is not why we went to our schools to learn about teaching,” said Jewell. “It’s not why we became teachers. And it’s not a solution.”

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.