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This Pa. school district is set to be first where teachers carry guns

Many locals didn't learn of the policy's approval until reading about it in the local paper. The school board agreed to hear "alternatives" at a meeting next month.

Frank Wenzel, a sixth-grade math teacher at Tamaqua Area Middle School and head of the teacher's union, opposes arming teachers and school employees. Tamaqua Area School District in Schuylkill County has become the first in the state to pass a policy providing for teachers and other school employees to carry firearms.
Frank Wenzel, a sixth-grade math teacher at Tamaqua Area Middle School and head of the teacher's union, opposes arming teachers and school employees. Tamaqua Area School District in Schuylkill County has become the first in the state to pass a policy providing for teachers and other school employees to carry firearms.Read moreJUSTINE MCDANIEL

TAMAQUA, Pa. — The school board president said he imagines a sign posted outside each building, something like: "Staff members at this school are armed. If you wish to do harm, enter at your own risk."

Others in the Schuylkill County town imagine very different scenes when they think of the Tamaqua Area School District's new policy to arm employees: A student stealing a teacher's gun. An employee accidentally firing a loaded weapon. A chaotic hallway, a stampede of students, a teacher not sure exactly who to aim at.

The main drag in this once-thriving coal town alternates between empty storefronts and local businesses. A memorial stands to long-gone anthracite railroad workers. Hills rise around the borough; a train lumbers through carrying a few loads of the still-mined coal.

After Columbine, the school district got metal detectors, which are no longer used. Now, students carry transparent backpacks.

In the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, the Tamaqua board decided that wasn't enough. Last month, it unanimously passed a policy allowing teachers and other employees in their four schools to carry firearms, becoming the first in the state to do so.

The measure reflects national anxiety about school shootings — as well as the sharp disagreements about how to prevent them.

"We're not trained law enforcement officers," said Frank Wenzel, head of the teachers' union. Teachers "might target shoot, but that's not the same as someone who's dealt with situations like a police officer would've. We're trained to educate and to teach, not react with a firearm in a dangerous situation."

Nicholas Boyle, the 29-year-old school board member who spearheaded the new policy, says it is the best way to stop an active shooter. With enough staffers participating, a shooter wouldn't know who was armed — and might be deterred from targeting the campus at all.

"This is the end-game policy for, what if the apocalypse happens," Boyle said. "They say 'Our job's to teach,' and I agree with that, but as soon as the gunshots start happening, nobody's going to be teaching anymore."

Guns have long been a way of life in this part of the state. Under the policy, administrators, teachers, or other employees of the district could volunteer to carry firearms during the school day. Boyle and school board president Larry Wittig hope to sign up about 20 to 30 staffers for training, then assign them to rotations so about 12 people — three per school building — are armed at a time.

Public worry about school shootings heightened after 17 were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Valentine's Day. In that tragedy's wake, gun-control advocates pushed universal background checks and other steps. Gun-rights proponents proposed arming teachers and fortifying schools, ideas supported by the National Rifle Association.

At least 15 states already allow school employees to be armed, and 16 others allow school districts to approve armed-staffer policies, according to an early 2018 Vice News analysis. After the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, legislation to arm teachers or other school employees was introduced in 33 states, including Pennsylvania.

But no law passed in the Keystone State; a proposal this session died in the House without a vote.

Current state law does not specifically permit a school board to pass an armed-employee policy, nor does it explicitly prohibit it. Possessing weapons on school grounds is approved for a "lawful purpose," but that purpose is undefined.

Tamaqua schools, which have about 2,500 students, have never had a mass shooting.

Under the policy, the district's armed school staffers would be required to carry their handguns in holsters on their bodies. They would regularly complete firearms training courses, including instructions on when the use of deadly force is justified, along with lethal weapons training by the state police.

Though the policy contains rules for "district-issued weapons," Wittig said they'd like teachers to use their personal firearms.

The board also passed a separate policy providing a $2,000 yearly stipend and $250,000 in insurance for each employee who signs up.

Boyle, heading the board's security committee, drafted the policy after reading about recent school shooters and examining area school districts that use resource officers, he said. Those designated armed guards would be too expensive for his district, Boyle said, based on a salary estimate of $120,000 per guard with five to 12 guards for the four schools.

Some critics of the policy questioned the board's research and cost analysis.

Liz Pinkey, a 45-year-old mother of three, said she thought the board should start the conversation over and involve local law enforcement, teaching staff, parents, and other community members. She is among a group of mothers who would prefer school resource officers and mental health services.

"I don't think they honestly can say they've explored every other option," Pinkey said. "We do need to have a conversation about how is best to keep our kids safe… but the best way to do that isn't two or three people in a room making deals."

Boyle said employees would cover more ground than a school resource officer could; he and Wittig said the teachers would be better trained than police officers because their training will be specific to the local school buildings, an assertion critics questioned. Boyle said about 11 people had told him they were interested in carrying.

"We will have, in essence, a Tamaqua School District police force," said Wittig, who stepped down last year as chairman of the state Board of Education after Inquirer reports about his past sexual relationships with teens, but remains the local school board president.

The policy was passed at a sparsely attended school board meeting in September. After locals found out about it from an article this month in a newspaper, several showed up to a board meeting to protest.

"The majority of teachers are against this policy. We do not want it; we do not feel that it is our responsibility to hold a gun and take this under our additional duties as teachers," Wenzel said at the meeting.

The board has set a special meeting for Nov. 7 to hear alternative proposals.

"I want to have this public discussion," Boyle said. "The policy could be rewritten, it could be changed, it could be thrown out. If somebody has a solution, I want to hear it."

Meanwhile, Boyle said, district officials are moving forward, surveying staffers about their interest in participating and setting up training. The board will also work with police to prepare an emergency plan for a mass casualty situation.

Blue Mountain School District, about 25 minutes southwest of Tamaqua, passed a confidential policy allowing for armed staffers in 2013, but it does not encourage the training and arming of teachers. The district has four armed custodial employees.

"Our philosophy is that teachers' primary responsibility is to secure the safety of the students, not to engage in armed intruders. We do not have any teachers [armed] nor do we have plans to arm any teachers," said superintendent David Helsel.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, like the National Education Association, opposes arming teachers, and is conducting a legal review of the Tamaqua policy, a spokesman said. Three-quarters of American educators oppose the idea, according to a poll of NEA members.

"I don't feel that it's the teachers' responsibility to have to carry guns to protect students," said Karen Tharp, 49, a former teacher and mother of Tamaqua graduates, who currently has one child and three grandchildren enrolled in district schools.  "There are just hundreds of things that can go wrong in this scenario if this is not what you're trained to do."

Tharp and other critics of the policy said they don't view it as a political or gun control issue.

"This isn't pro-gun or anti-gun. This has nothing to do with whether I like guns," said Pinkey, who describes her family as gun-loving. "This is just not good, safe gun handling. It has to be loaded and immediately accessible, and that is just not what you want to have in a room full of 5-year-olds."

This story has been updated to include information about Blue Mountain School District.