By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer
MERCER COUNTY —
While the teachers union was quick to denounce a state legislator’s proposal to allow teachers and school administrators to carry firearms in school, many individual teachers are reluctant to speak to the issue, or guarded in what they say about a scenario that would greatly change the environment in schools.
The Herald contacted a dozen Mercer County teachers seeking their thoughts, and most said they did not want to comment or did not return telephone or email messages.
When educators chose their professions, they weren’t thinking about standing guard or returning fire in a live shooter situation, said Pennsylvania Education Association spokesman Marcus D. Schlegel.
Local legislators, who are much more practiced in talking about thorny public issues, called for a more thorough discussion on the subject of school safety, and said they wanted to see legislation in written form before passing judgment on the idea.
Rep. Greg Lucas, an Erie Republican, said he would sponsor legislation allowing teachers and administrators to carry weapons in classrooms.
Lucas said he would require that educators obtain concealed carry certificates and undergo training for 15 hours a week for three months.
Sharon High School teacher Lois Schneider said the majority of teachers she has talked to do not believe such legislation would be wise.
“The potential for disaster multiplies with increased weapons in the school,” Schneider said. “To add an armed policeman in the school building would be wiser, in my opinion.”
Nicole Porter, who teaches at Hickory High School, Hermitage, said she did not want to express a personal opinion. As president of Hermitage teachers’ union, she said the topic “really hasn’t been anything that we’ve had any discussion about.” She said state union officials likely would take the lead on this issue.
Porter agreed that, if such a measure were allowed, “It would definitely have contract implications.”
Schlegel said any questions about how teacher contracts would be affected by the arming of teachers would be “hypothetical,” but he allowed, “We would want a say in anything that affects the terms and conditions of employment.”
While the Pennsylvania State Education Association supports trying to make schools safer and more secure, it does not support Lucas’ proposal, Schlegel said.
“We feel the responsibility should be with people who are highly trained,” he said, meaning a policeman or appropriate security person.
The proposal raises the questions of how schools would fund whatever training is mandated, and the increased liability insurance costs, Schlegel said.
Teachers would support discussions on finding the finances to add police or security personnel to schools, such as by closing corporate tax loopholes or taxing shale gas drilling, he said.
Local state Rep. Mark Longietti said he doesn’t have an opinion on whether teachers and administrators should be armed, and called for “thoughtful consideration” on the issue and any other proposal that could affect school safety.
“I’m not for the headline-grabbing, cut-and-paste solutions,” the 7th-District representative said. “This is a very serious issue. If there’s going to be legislation in Harrisburg, there ought to be public hearings. I don’t know what all the pros and cons are.”
Harrisburg already has a model for increasing school safety and tackling social issues with the now-defunded DARE program, Longietti said.
Under DARE, an anti-drug and alcohol program, schools received grants to have policemen come into classrooms to talk about destructive behaviors.
There were other benefits to DARE as it created relationships between students and police, Longietti said.
“In many cases, the school administration became aware of a problem before it became a problem,” he said.
Several Mercer County schools had DARE officers, who were specially trained, and the program was “popular and recognized,” Longietti said.
The defunding appears to have been strictly a financial decision, he said.
“I did not hear anything related to the effectiveness of the program,” Longietti said. “I think that should be looked at again.”
Some schools have ponied up the money to keep a police presence in schools, such as Hermitage, where patrolman Anthony Moses patrols at Hickory High School.
Across the aisle from Longietti, a Democrat, Republican Richard Stevenson, said teachers already have many responsibilities.
“I would be reluctant to also place them in the position of having to provide security in schools,” said Stevenson, of Grove City.
He noted schools have taken many security measures in recent years, such as limiting public access to a single point of entry and requiring visitors to provide identification, and some schools have security personnel.
“Perhaps, those measures could be increased or enhanced,” said Stevenson, of the 8th District.
School boards are the best bodies to determine what measures should be taken to ensure schools are safe, Stevenson said. School boards better understand community needs and funding, said Stevenson, adding that he is against a “one-size-fits-all approach mandated by the state or federal government.
Fellow Republican Rep. Michele Brooks said legislators should be “very cautious” about putting teachers or administrators into the situations that could result from being armed. She wondered if educators feel comfortable acting in a situation in which they might have to shoot over their students at an assailant.
“I think we need to think about that,” said the 17th-District rep from Jamestown.
She said she also is studying the proposal to put police and armed former military personnel in schools, but the proposals do not get at the root of the problem.
“I think there’s a deeper problem in what’s causing this,” she said of catastrophic school violence.
She questioned how things have changed over the decades in which mass school shootings are becoming more frequent. As a mother, Brooks said the roles violent movies and video games play in desensitizing kids should be part of the discussion.
“Our kids are all precious gifts from God and we need to protect them,” she said.