The idea of arming Kentucky's public school teachers with guns was largely rejected this week by lawmakers and experts discussing how to keep students safe in the aftermath of a January shooting at Marshall County High School that killed two teens and injured about two dozens others.
An estimated 294 threats of school violence statewide followed the shooting, leading to student arrests, canceled classes, and demands for action.
Lawmakers are about six months away from making recommendations, but some themes emerged at a first round of legislative meetings on school safety.
"I don't want teachers packing," said state Rep. John "Bam" Carney, an educator who co-chairs both the General Assembly's Interim Joint Committee on Education and a School Safety Working Group that will meet for the next several months and make recommendations. "I'm not going to send my child to a school where a teacher is packing because that's not what they are trained for . But we can find trained law enforcement people" to work in school buildings.
State Rep. Linda Belcher, D- Shepherdsville, a member of the interim joint education committee, said parents have told her that they want teachers to have guns.
"I'm starting to hear parents tell me they really think our teachers need to be armed," said Belcher.
School boards have the authority to allow teachers and other staff to carry guns in schools. This past spring at a town hall meeting, Pike County school board members discussed allowing teachers to carry concealed guns inside schools. The school board approved a motion that authorized the school board’s attorney to work with the Pike County Sheriff’s Office, which would oversee the program, to finalize a formal policy for the school board to consider.
School officials said the program, like others in the United States, would require candidates to go through firearm training conducted by the Pike County Sheriff’s Office and a mental evaluation, background check and drug test.
Jon Akers, director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety, told lawmakers on Monday that he had talked to Pike Assistant Superintendent Freddie Bowling and that no Pike teacher had yet been armed. "It's still under discussion at this point, " Bowling told the Herald-Leader Thursday. "The board has taken no action thus far."
Akers was among those who spoke against giving teachers guns, saying it would take 200 or 300 hours of training before they would have the equivalent of what law enforcement or military officers have. Officials seemed more open to allowing current or former law enforcement and military officers who were also teachers to carry concealed weapons in the classroom under certain conditions.
Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisville, said while she was not in favor of arming teachers, she wondered if laws could address "common sense gun safety issues" at homes that would secure weapons but not encroach on the right to bear arms. Studies show that many teens accused of shooting their classmates or teachers got the weapons at home.
Mark Filburn, former Kentucky Commissioner for the Kentucky Department of Criminal Justice Training, said three best practices for keeping schools safe are locking and securing the main entrance and exterior doors, training staff and students in what to do in case a shooter threatens then and having an armed school resource officer in every school building. Citizens in many communities have been willing to donate the money to make school entrances more secure, officials said.
Officials said that only 118 of Kentucky's 173 school district have armed officers in schools. The goal is to have an armed officers in every school building in the state.
Akers said that many schools are also installing metal detectors and searching student book bags. He said that raises the question of whether the staffs are adequately trained to conduct the searches, and whether staff are prepared to have gender specific lines and staff are searching students of the same gender.
Lawmakers discussed getting tougher on students who are involved with making threats of school violence by doubling fines or increasing penalties.
"We've got to send a message that it won't be tolerated in Kentucky," said Carney, R- Campbellsville.
"I think its very reasonable to have the kid stand before the judge and tell the judge why he decided to do that," Akers said.