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Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam gives his annual State of the State address to a joint convention of the Tennessee General Assembly Monday, Jan. 29, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)
I guess my first thought is, I don't think that's the answer, because it's a very small percentage of teachers that would want to be armed, just to begin with.
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With everyone from Tennessee school administrators to state lawmakers weighing in with ideas to make schools safer in the wake of recent deadly shooting attacks, Gov. Bill Haslam said Thursday he is assembling a task force to recommend quick practical responses.

Haslam said he will name select legislators, mental health professionals, law enforcement and educators to the group, possibly today or Monday.

The group is expected to develop strategies as reverberations continue nationally from the latest incident, the Feb. 14 attack at a Parkland, Fla., school, which left 17 students and teachers dead. Haslam said he wants the group's recommendations before the General Assembly's expected adjournment in April.

But Haslam is already voicing doubts about a top priority of many of his fellow Republicans in the GOP-dominated General Assembly: arming teachers.

"I guess my first thought is, I don't think that's the answer, because it's a very small percentage of teachers that would want to be armed, just to begin with," the governor told reporters when asked about a bill that cleared its first legislative hurdle Wednesday in a House subcommittee.

The bill would allow local school boards and administrators to designate willing, specially-trained educators or staff at schools to carry firearms and help serve as a first response.

That's a move that some, including Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson and Sheriff Jim Hammond, are discussing.

The school safety issue took on new urgency locally Wednesday when a Dalton, Ga., teacher barricaded himself inside a classroom with a gun. No one was hurt.

"It's our obligation to listen to every thought and idea that is out there. We ultimately believe that the answer doesn't necessarily lie in a teacher carrying a gun. We don't believe that the answer lies in any single thing," Johnson said.

"We think it's going to take a community effort. We think it's going to take a commitment from the state, a commitment from this community to appropriate funds to make sure our buildings and our plans are safe."

Johnson also said the schools system has released a short survey to staff seeking feedback about what additional school safety measures they would support.

"We will share the results of that feedback with our broader school community," he said in a statement Thursday.

Also Thursday, Haslam's education commissioner, Candice McQueen, said educators aren't eager to become part of the response by toting firearms.

"Every teacher I've talked to has said that carrying a gun is not something they want to do," McQueen said in a statement Thursday. "I have not heard from any teacher who says this is a responsibility they want to take on, and our teachers generally would prefer to employ other safety measures."

She said that "as a last line of defense, they believe relying on trained professionals and school resource officers are a better solution. Based on our educators' feedback, we are opposed to current state legislation on arming teachers."

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But House Civil Government Subcommittee Republicans on Wednesday moved to do just that by passing the bill that would allow local education systems to designate some staffers and educators to go armed.

The bill was brought by Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, who said his rural schools cannot afford to hire school resource officers who are law enforcement personnel who've undergone regular police training with additional course work to patrol schools.

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, who voted for the bill, said if the state was willing to provide more money to local systems for school resource officers, the measure might not be necessary.

But House Majority Leader Glen Casada, R-Franklin, and GOP Caucus Chairman Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, told Capitol Hill reporters Thursday that they believe arming school personnel is needed regardless of whether money is forthcoming for more SROs.

"I like to look at reality," Casada said. "If I'm a student in Parkland, Fla., High School and I got somebody shooting at me and police officers are outside not coming to help me with their 480 hours of training and the FBI chose not to pick this fellow up with even making threats on the internet, I want somebody with a gun protecting me. Because somebody's trying to kill me."

But House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said, "I think it's a stupid idea, because I don't think teachers, they're not trained to be policemen, they're trained [as teachers] because they want to. And we shouldn't burden them with that, the ability to try to take police action."

With emotions running high, Haslam is looking for solutions fast. The governor noted school safety was a major topic at this year's winter meeting of the National Governors Association in Washington, an event that ended Monday.

"We're going to look at everything," Haslam said, citing school entrances and exits as a major example. "One of the things you want to do is control entryways into school, so we can funnel the folks who come into school. But the down side of that is you got to make certain you got an exit in case you got a fire or anything."

Schools around the state have different policies, he said.

Asked about the state providing more money for SROs, who only cover about 40 percent of public schools in Tennessee, the governor said, "I don't know the answer, we're looking at everything."

But he noted "we also got to figure out what's fiscally possible, both for us and for the local education authorities, and come up with a plan we think can hopefully be a statewide plan that can have us be prepared when somebody tries to do something in one of our schools."

Some lawmakers say it would cost some $40 million to provide SROs for all schools. Earlier this week, a bipartisan group of House members announced legislation they hope would encourage active law enforcement personnel to volunteer to work in schools. It would pay them $50, using proceeds from civil-asset forfeitures.

In a statement, Johnson said, "Ultimately, we'd love to see an SRO in every single building. I believe every superintendent in the state would probably love to see that, as well."

Johnson also said local officials are looking at visitor management systems across the district. He explained they would "require every visitor to be scanned in and if they have some type of heinous act, then you don"t have access to our children. The second are our doors, our front entrances, to all have some type of electronic locking mechanism."

Haslam noted the state's school funding formula "doesn't specifically fund SROs, so there's not a formula for what they get. But obviously, that's covered in part of what the state provides. What we have to do is look at all the alternatives. What can we do that actually will make a difference? What will we do and what will it cost and is it something both the state and [local systems] who've traditionally shared that responsibility, that we can both afford?"

Haslam said some states are using programs modeled after the air marshal program, in which plainclothes U.S. marshals travel on planes with no one knowing who they are. In the case of schools, there are "a couple of people in a school, but nobody knows who they are."

They would be authorized to carry a weapon "and have some sort of identifiable equipment they can put on if there ever is a mass event," Haslam said.

The governor said he also supports banning the sales of "bump stocks," devices that make semi-automatic rifles fully automatic, as well as raising age requirements to purchase semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21.

But many Republican lawmakers are skeptical.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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