Mon, Feb. 24

State plan would allow principals, teachers to carry guns

PHOENIX -- Attorney General Tom Horne and a Sierra Vista Republican lawmaker are pushing a plan to let principals, teachers and janitors at public schools carry guns.

Rep. David Stevens said his goal is to make public schools safer. He said that having more people with guns -- with certain training -- should do that.

But Stevens stressed that nothing in HB 2656 actually requires any school district to go along. Instead, he said it simply provides an option, with locally elected boards having the final decision.

He also said it is less expensive than alternate plans to provide an armed police officer in every one of the approximately 2,000 public school buildings across the state. And the lack of a price tag also means the legislation does not have the additional hurdle of becoming part of the overall budget negotiations.

But Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association, said it's a mistake to believe that school employees with just 24 hours of training can replace a properly trained officer.

"What I hear is passing the buck on training until we get it down to an affordable model,' he said.

"The school resource officer training takes a fully active licensed police officer who is already qualified to be a police officer, then trains them additionally to know how to be a police officer on the unique beat of a campus full of children, adolescents, pre-teens and teens,' Morrill said. This measure, he said, "waters down some aspect of safety and a comprehensive approach.'

Horne said that if it were up to him, he would prefer to have police officers to armed teachers. But he said the political and fiscal reality is that isn't going to happen.

"I've been fighting for school resource officers for all my eight years as (state school) superintendent,' Horne said.

"I think we had it in less than 5 percent of our schools,' he continued. "And then they cut back even on that.'

Horne insisted this is better than nothing, which is what he fears the Legislature might fund. He said this ensures that "if a bad guy gets in and starts shooting there's somebody there to stop them.'

Stevens said the way the measure is crafted should blunt criticism from local school boards and their staffers.

"All it is a voluntary program,' he said. "If they don't want to do it, they don't have to do it.'

Horne acknowledged that Arizona, which now bans guns from public school campuses, has not had problems similar to what have occurred elsewhere, including the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But he said that should provide little comfort.

"It's like saying you're immune from cancer because you've never had it,' he said.

"It strikes people at random,' Horne continued. "And it strikes schools at random.'

He also said that parents would feel safer knowing there is someone on site who can respond.

"You'd like to think there would be no guns in the school under any circumstances,' Horne said. "But if a bad guy gets in there with a gun, you want to have a good guy there to at least minimize the damage.'

Horne and Stevens are seeking to blunt AEA criticism, promising to have teachers at a press conference today Tuesday to support the legislation.

Under the plan, the staffer would not be walking around the school armed. Instead, he or she would lock the weapon up in a place where it would be accessible if needed.

One likely issue for debate is whether the training requirements Horne and Stevens wants is sufficient.

To carry a weapon onto campus, an individual would need only to pass a 24-hour course. Issues to be covered include the legal situations where someone can use deadly force and the care, maintenance and safe handling of weapons.

There also is a mandate for marksmanship training and "scenario-based training.'

Any district that chooses to go along would have to provide the Attorney General's Office with a list of employees who are authorized to use a gun.

Horne said he believes 24 hours of training is enough.

"If you look at police training and you eliminate all the stuff that's irrelevant, like how to give a speeding ticket and so on, I think you might find that the training is similar,' he said. And Horne said the simulation training should ensure that those allowed to be armed would use proper judgment.

"They have a computer and they have a film and you're presented with situations where you shoot or you don't shoot,' he said. "Later on you can talk with someone about whether you showed good judgment or not.'

Horne said he took that course himself.

"I passed,' he said. "But they told me I needed to be more ready to shoot. I was too reluctant to shoot.'

Morrill said the problem with this legislation and similar plans is they are knee-jerk reactions to headlines that are not well thought out.

"These horrifying situations come up like in Connecticut or Colorado and they're unthinkable,' he said.

"And all of a sudden, those are the situations we base our responses on,' Morrill continued. "What we need are comprehensive safety plans for the day-in, day-out safety of students.'

He said these should include not just school safety officers if a district wants them but also ensuring there are sufficient counselors to deal with students, school psychologists to diagnose students that might be struggling with anger issues and "an aggressive anti-bullying campaign.'

Horne sidestepped questions about whether there are ways other than arming school staffers to minimize the risks of an attack to students, like a limit on how many rounds an individual can have in a clip.

"That's not my jurisdiction,' he said. What makes this his jurisdiction, Horne said, is that it would be his investigators, who are sworn peace officers, who would be offering the training, at his agency's expense.

Horne also said it would be wrong to look at the proposal as simply arming just anyone in the school.

"There's probably somebody in the school who would be suitable,' he said.

"I know lots of retired police officers who are teaching now,' Horne explained. And he cited the "troops to teachers' program which is designed to place military veterans in the classroom.

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