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Does new Pa. law ban arming teachers? Depends on whom you ask.

Gov. Tom Wolf signed a law this week that he said clarifies who can carry guns in schools. But some advocates say it's dangerously vague.

Frank Wenzel, a sixth-grade math teacher at Tamaqua Area Middle School and head of the teacher's  union, spoke out against Tamaqua Area School District's policy allowing the arming of teachers and school employees passed last fall.
Frank Wenzel, a sixth-grade math teacher at Tamaqua Area Middle School and head of the teacher's union, spoke out against Tamaqua Area School District's policy allowing the arming of teachers and school employees passed last fall.Read moreJUSTINE MCDANIEL

The Pennsylvania legislature has spoken in the debate about arming teachers and school employees. The only problem: People can’t seem to agree on what it said.

Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday signed a bill into law governing who can become a school safety officer and elaborating on training requirements for officers to carry firearms in schools. The law seeks to clarify Pennsylvania’s stance on arming teachers and other employees after a year and a half of heightened debate on the topic nationwide.

Wolf said the law firmly established that teachers cannot be school security personnel, removing any question of whether teachers can carry arms in Pennsylvania schools.

“The students, parents, and educators in this commonwealth can now be secure in the knowledge that teachers can dedicate themselves to teaching our children, and that the security of school facilities rests in the hands of trained, professional security personnel,” Wolf said in a statement Tuesday.

But education and gun control advocates said they feared the law’s ambiguous wording could have the opposite effect. One school district seeking to arm employees has already disagreed with Wolf’s interpretation.

Schools in Pennsylvania can hire law enforcement officers as school police or school resource officers. The law also creates a new category called school security guards, allowing third-party vendors or independent contractors — who are not law enforcement officers — to be hired for school security.

A clause stipulating that school security guards cannot be involved in any other school programs was stripped from the bill before its passage, leaving opponents concerned that the law could be used to label teachers as security guards and arm them.

“The possibility that the language gets manipulated into creating a category of teachers and other personnel who can be armed is … deeply disturbing,” said Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center, which opposed the bill.

The law also authorizes security personnel to assist with “disruptive students,” which Klehr said has advocates concerned that it could unfairly affect students of color and those with disabilities. “Because of implicit bias and minimal training, an increase in armed security could have a disproportionate negative impact” on those students, Klehr said.

The law comes after school shootings in 2018 and 2019 sparked a nationwide debate about arming teachers. In Pennsylvania, the question of whether teachers could be armed under state law arose after the Tamaqua Area School District in Schuylkill County passed a policy allowing the arming of school employees.

Wolf said his office had worked to secure amendments to the bill specifically to prevent it from authorizing teachers to carry firearms to class. He also said it made training requirements for security personnel stricter.

In Tamaqua, school board member Nick Boyle told the Allentown Morning Call Wednesday that he does not read the law as banning teachers from being security guards.

“The governor is acting like they took all ambiguity out of it and I have no idea where he’s getting that,” Boyle said.

The Tamaqua teachers’ union sued over its district’s security policy, claiming it violated state law. After an uproar, the policy was put on hold. The school board said in April it was back in effect, but court challenges are ongoing.

In a statement Friday, the Tamaqua Education Association urged the district to rescind its policy. “Teachers are highly trained education professionals. They are not highly trained law enforcement officers,” said spokesperson Chris Lilienthal. “Now with the signing of [this bill], it’s clearer than ever that the [Tamaqua] district’s policy violates the law.”

Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFirePA, said the organization would continue fighting the Tamaqua schools in court.

“Various lawmakers, the governor were very clear as this bill was moving that they did not intend it to arm teachers,” she said, adding that she hoped the governor’s office or Department of Education would intervene in any lawsuits relating to arming teachers. “That should be addressed in the statute.”

Pennsylvania Education Secretary Pedro A. Rivera said in a letter to school districts on Tuesday that the law was meant to clarify who can be armed. The Department of Education will provide guidance related to the law by the start of the next school year, he said.

“The legislation was intended to clarify past decisions by the General Assembly related to school safety, specifically identifying who may be armed on school property,” Rivera wrote. “This legislation does not allow any other school personnel or staff to be armed on school property.”