Three months after a program to train and arm school employees was put on hold, an upstate Pennsylvania school district has reinstated a policy that allows teachers and other staffers to carry firearms.
The disclosure came Tuesday night in response to a resident’s question at a Tamaqua School District board meeting, thrusting the issue back into the spotlight and prompting some residents to complain that the board kept them in the dark about the policy.
Larry Wittig, president of the Schuylkill County board, indicated in an interview with a local reporter that staffers weren’t carrying weapons yet, but he said at the meeting that he wouldn’t give specifics about when the policy would be implemented or who would be armed. He said the decision to reinstate the policy — suspended while two lawsuits against the school district worked their way through the court system — did not require a public vote.
Wittig said at the meeting that the lawsuits against the school district had been “thrown out” and the “criteria [had] been fulfilled” for the suspension of the policy to be lifted. According to court records, both lawsuits remain in progress.
The parents who sued the district plan to file an amended complaint in the coming weeks, said CeaseFirePA, the gun-control advocacy group that worked with the parents, and court records show that on Thursday, a judge granted them until May 17 to do so. Also, the Tamaqua teachers’ union is awaiting a date for oral arguments on the district’s preliminary objections to the union’s lawsuit, a representative said.
“The Tamaqua Education Association is disappointed by the school district’s decision to prematurely reinstate this policy while a court challenge remains underway," Christopher Lilienthal, a Pennsylvania State Education Association representative, said Thursday.
Cheryl Tennant Humes, a school board candidate who asked Wittig about the policy at Tuesday night’s meeting, said the board “obviously had no intention of informing the public" that the policy had been revived. “Tamaquans don’t deserve to be talked down to or to have our views dismissed as ‘political’ simply because the board finds it easier to sneak through a policy without opposition,” she said.
Neither Wittig nor school board member Nick Boyle responded to requests for comment from The Inquirer on Thursday. In an interview with a reporter in Tamaqua, Wittig said that people opposed to the policy were creating “hysteria” for political motives and that the board had never discussed the lifting of the suspension.
“The re-implementation of the [policy] was not a discussion point at a board meeting or with [school] administration. I was responding to a gotcha question [that was] politically motivated,” Wittig told Ben Stemrich, a reporter for BRC13 television in Lehighton who posted the 11-minute interview on Facebook. Even if no one had sued the district, Wittig said, “there would not be anybody walking around with a gun up there. Because these training methods take time. It takes time to identify the correct way to do it.”
The debate in the approximately 2,500-student district has been underscored by national concern about school shootings. Some Tamaqua parents want dedicated security officers to protect the schools, or other safety measures. The school board has said its method is cheaper than hiring full-time officers and means that a potential attacker would not know who in the school was armed.
Wittig said in the BRC13 interview that the board has been researching firearm training programs and can “look to … ways to improve" the policy now that it is no longer suspended.
Jenna Turner, who has a son in first grade and a daughter in preschool in the district, said she’d prefer “less restrictive” methods — including checking IDs, using metal detectors, and implementing anti-bullying programs — before guns are placed in teachers’ hands.
“They’re there to teach. If there’s mass chaos, what are they going to shoot?” Turner said. “What if they shoot my kid? What if a kid gets their hands on a gun in school, or what if a teacher snaps? There’s just so many scenarios.”