Sen. Mark Christensen's pitch for arming teachers: safer rural schools - Omaha.com
Published Sunday, January 5, 2014 at 12:30 am / Updated at 12:50 am
Sen. Mark Christensen's pitch for arming teachers: safer rural schools

LINCOLN — One of the Nebraska Legislature's strongest firearms proponents will make one last attempt at allowing teachers to carry concealed handguns in schools.

Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial argues the approach can provide a measure of protection for rural schools where law enforcement response times could be significantly longer than in cities.

“Most people don't want to go where they know people are going to shoot back at them,” said Christensen, one of 17 incumbent lawmakers who will embark on their final year in office Wednesday, when the 2014 session begins.

He tried unsuccessfully to pass a similar bill three years ago. But that was before a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.

Last year, in response to the massacre, lawmakers in more than 30 states floated bills that involved arming school personnel or volunteers. Among the six states to pass related laws were South Dakota and Kansas.

Such a trend doesn't sway opponents of the concept, who argue that more guns can't protect schools from the plague of gun violence. Such a law also could trigger unintended consequences, which could include higher insurance costs.

“Speaking for myself, personally, I think it would be a horrible idea,” said Mike Pate, school board president in the Millard Public Schools. “I think you're opening yourself up to so many possibilities of problems.”

At Millard South High School, the issue isn't conceptual. On Jan. 5, 2011, a 17-year-old student shot and killed the school's assistant principal and wounded the principal before fleeing and taking his own life. Nonetheless, Pate stressed he was speaking on his own and not for the entire board, which has not discussed the forthcoming proposal.

Gov. Dave Heineman, a supporter of gun rights, said he's always willing to listen to discussions about arming teachers. He's also sympathetic to the needs of rural schools. But the concern he has heard most often is that a student would find an unsecured gun.

“It's just an accident waiting to happen,” he said. “The best people regarding public safety are law enforcement personnel.”

The Omaha school district does not support the concept of teachers carrying concealed weapons, said Todd Andrews, the Omaha Public Schools' communications director.

Nor does the Lincoln district. “I've yet to talk to a superintendent nationally who thinks this is a good idea,” said Steve Joel, Lincoln Public Schools superintendent.

Another organization that doesn't have to see Christensen's bill to oppose it is the Nebraska State Education Association, the union that represents the state's 28,000 teachers.

“I would say there has been absolutely zero interest in arming teachers,” said Nancy Fulton, the association's president. “We are very opposed to having any type of gun in school.”

Current law prohibits anyone other than law enforcement officers from carrying guns in schools. Christensen said his bill, which also would apply to colleges and universities, wouldn't apply to just any teacher or professor.

It would require a teacher who wants to carry a gun to obtain 24 hours of training from an instructor certified by the Nebraska State Patrol. The training would be in addition to the roughly eight hours required for a concealed gun permit.

Only teachers permitted by a vote of their governing boards could bring concealed guns into classrooms. The senator also would seek to conceal the identities of the armed instructors, so they wouldn't become targets.

Christensen said he expects his bill to draw fire from the state's largest school districts. The proposal is geared to smal­ler schools, like some in his southwest Nebraska legislative district, where law enforcement response can exceed 15 minutes.

While the larger districts may have the ability to hire police as resource officers, many smaller schools can't afford it, he said.

In addition to the six states that passed laws related to arming teachers last year, nearly 20 more, including Iowa, have laws that allow guns on school campuses with certain restrictions.

In Kansas and South Dakota, two of the states with the newest laws, there has yet to be a rush of districts seeking to arm their teachers, officials said. Also, in Kansas there were potential problems with liability insurance. Such problems could also come into play in Nebraska if the state adopted a similar law.

EMC Insurance Cos., which insures most school districts in Kansas, said last summer it would deny coverage to districts that allowed armed teachers. The Des Moines-based company also insures a significant number of districts in Nebraska.

The company's policy hadn't changed as of Friday. In a statement, EMC officials said they have concluded that handguns in schools pose a “heightened liability risk.”

The co-owner of a company that brokers insurance for a pool of 160 districts in Nebraska said the topic of arming teachers has been heavily discussed in the wake of Sandy Hook.

Pat Ryan with Public Risk Management in Omaha said that if lawmakers passed the bill, it would be up to the pool's leadership to decide whether to cover armed teachers. Or they could require firearms training in excess of the legal standard, which could be expensive. Another option: Charge higher fees for schools that allow teachers to bring in weapons.

“Just because you have a concealed carry permit doesn't mean you know how to use a gun under stress,” Ryan said. “You need more than a teacher with a gun.”

Not all school leaders oppose the idea of teachers with guns, even those with police departments close enough to respond to emergencies within minutes. Brad Schoeppey, superintendent of the Chase County Schools in Imperial, was one who offered at least conditional support.

A law allowing anyone with a concealed gun to step inside the school wouldn't be welcome, Schoeppey said, but one that allows officials to carefully decide who should have the responsibility has merit.

“We have a member of our faculty who is a former military member,” he said. “Would I be opposed to him carrying a concealed handgun? No, I wouldn't.”

The Chadron school district in far northwest Nebraska holds a unique position in the discussion about armed teachers. With only 800 students, it represents the sort of small district the bill's sponsor says he wants to help. But Chadron also became the first Nebraska school to experience a shooting, in 1995, when a seventh-grader shot a geography teacher at the middle school. The teacher recovered.

Superintendent Caroline Winchester, who was not in Chadron at the time of the shooting, said the potential risks of a gun ending up in the wrong hands outweigh the benefits. She, like others, argued for more emphasis on mental health treatment and bullying prevention.

The debate has a familiar ring to Andy Allen of Omaha, a gun-rights advocate and lobbyist for the Nebraska Firearms Owners Association. He argued that schools should have the choice to use whatever reasonable methods they see fit to protect their students.

“It's the same argument they used against the general concealed carry law,” he said. “We're going to have blood running in the streets. Well, it hasn't happened.”

Bill Bond is another official who has had personal experience with a school shooting. He was principal of Heath High in West Paducah, Ky., in 1997 when a disturbed ninth-grader opened fire and shocked the nation.

Bond now is the safety specialist for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and he opposes arming teachers. Among the reasons: He remains unconvinced that it would do more good than harm.

“I've been in a school shooting, and I don't think people have any concept of how fast it happens,” he said. “I had three girls killed and five other kids shot, and it took 12 seconds.”

World-Herald staff writer Paul Hammel contributed to this report.

Contact the writer: Joe Duggan

joe.duggan@owh.com    |  

Joe works in the Lincoln bureau, where he helps cover state government, the Legislature, state Supreme Court and southeast Nebraska.

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