published Friday, June 27th, 2014

Georgia schools resist arming teachers despite new law



Protestors holds signs during a rally in Atlanta against a gun bill the governor was signing, expanding where people with licenses to carry can bring their guns in Georgia in this, April 23, 2014, photo.
Protestors holds signs during a rally in Atlanta against a gun bill the governor was signing, expanding where people with licenses to carry can bring their guns in Georgia in this, April 23, 2014, photo.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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Chickamauga City Schools Superintendent Melody Day said in April she didn’t expect the school board to move toward allowing armed teachers. She said there was no need for guns in schools and the city’s school resource officers do a fine job protecting schools.

On Friday, Catoosa County Schools spokeswoman Marissa Brower said the district hadn’t made a firm decision, though no action to arm teachers had yet been taken.

In Tennessee, legislators passed a similar bill last year. But in April an official with the Tennessee School Boards Association said no districts had moved to allow guns on campus.

ATLANTA — Georgia school leaders are turning down a new option to arm teachers, arguing that it doesn't make kids any safer and creates more problems than state lawmakers intended to solve.

A string of attacks at schools and colleges in California, Oregon and Washington state hasn't swayed education officials who say bluntly that they don't believe guns belong in schools.

"We could give (teachers) all the training in the world as to how to a shoot a gun, but knowing when to shoot poses a major problem," said Steve Smith, superintendent of the Bibb County School District. "The folks we work with day in and day out don't have that."

The provision was part of a sweeping law expands where Georgians can legally carry guns. It takes effect July 1 and also includes bars and churches. GOP lawmakers pushed the bill through during an election year in the largely pro-gun state, giving each district the option of arming teachers or staff — but requiring them to set training standards. The provisions were similar to a program that drew no interest from South Dakota school districts, and education officials said no districts in Georgia are pursuing it so far either.

The new law pulled Georgia education leaders into a Second Amendment discussion they say they never wanted.

School officials were quick to express their support for people who legally carry guns. But they were wary at the idea of weapons inside school buildings, despite the recent attack by an Oregon teen who killed a student and then himself at a school and the one-man rampage that left seven people dead in a California college town.

At least two Georgia district boards have publicly agreed not to create a program. Nobody asked for the power to arm staff, said Mark Scott, superintendent of the Houston County School District. Board members in the district were more comfortable relying on police officers stationed in its middle and high schools and upgrading building security, he said.

"The risk far outweighed the benefit," Scott said.

Even in conservative Fannin County, proud of its hunting and gun culture, school officials haven't embraced the plan. School Superintendent Mark Henson said officials haven't had any conversations about arming teachers, but will ultimately listen to what the community wants.

"This is one we will wring our hands over," Henson said.

Georgia isn't the first state to respond to school violence by allowing staff to carry guns. After 20 children and 6 adults died during a 2012 elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, at least nine states passed bills in 2013 authorizing armed school personnel, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Other states had similar programs in place before that shooting. In 2014, at least 14 more states including Georgia introduced similar bills.

Rep. Alan Powell, a Hartwell Republican who chairs the Georgia House of Representatives' committee on public safety, said lawmakers intentionally left the decision to school boards. He argued that weapon-free zones are targets.

"You can't control what bad people do," Powell said. "You can only guarantee people their constitutional right to protect themselves."

The concept isn't irrational, but it's only appropriate for schools that are located far away from a responding law enforcement agency, said Mike Dorn, executive director of the school safety center Safe Havens International.

Dorn said far more often schools face smaller threats than a lone shooter intent on killing many— a student with disabilities who gets hold of a screw driver or a desperate parent caught in a custody battle.

"Everyone's so focused on the last event, picturing a 30 or 40-year-old brandishing an AK-47," Dorn said.

Georgia districts don't have to do anything — creating a program is optional under the new law. Rep. Paul Battles, a Cartersville Republican who has backed the concept since 2012, said he's not disappointed that districts aren't using it, but local officials should consider the option if they can't afford police officers in schools.

Gov. Nathan Deal's spokesman Brian Robinson said districts' reluctance to embrace the gun option was "a great example of how the law maintained local control while expanding choices for how best to keep students safe."

Officials involved in district-level conversations said it's unlikely that any board will volunteer as a test case. Phillip Hartley, an attorney who works with the Georgia Schools Boards Association and dozens of local boards, talked a room of board members through the issue at a recent conference and felt a "reluctance to be the first" without a serious push from parents.

"There just hasn't been that kind of groundswell," Hartley said.

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