National News

Lawmakers consider bill that opens door to arming teachers, school staff

Posted March 26, 2018 7:41 p.m. EDT

— As it is for many parents right now, school safety is top of mind for Charlie Smith and Dr. Laura Miller-Smith of Overland Park.

We sat at their kitchen table Sunday as the two leafed through HB 2789, a bill that will go before a House committee in Topeka on Tuesday.

"We try very hard to keep our kids safe with what we know, and here's a highly-dangerous unknown," Smith said of the legislation, which, among other things, would prevent districts from disclosing which staff members have concealed carry permits.

"I'd have no idea if my kindergartner's teacher was armed," Miller-Smith added.

With each turn of the page, the Smiths said they became more concerned with what they were reading and what the bill could mean for their three kids' school district.

The legislation, sponsored by the House Committee on Federal and State Affairs, is called the SAFER Act. It stands for "staff as first emergency responders," and it removes some of the current barriers preventing teachers and other school employees from carrying weapons.

The bill would:

- Require the state board of education to develop statewide standards for making all public schools safe and secure. This would include security technology, secured entrances and communications systems between the school district and law enforcement agencies

- Require the state board of education to develop statewide standards for school safety and security plans. Local districts would need to consult with local law enforcement to review policies and procedures.

- Prevent insurance companies from charging "unfair" premiums or denying coverage to schools that allow concealed carry

- Allow boards of education to provide firearm safety education programs. For students in kindergarten through 8th grade, that training would be based on a program offered by the NRA

- Create a "SAFER schools endorsement" for concealed carry permits. Only applicants who complete specialized training for school employees and who are approved by the school district can receive the endorsement

- Prevent the release of the names of individuals with the "SAFER schools endorsement"

Many people don't know that concealed carry became legal in Kansas schools back in 2013. However, the state left it up to each district to implement the policy. None did so because their insurance rates would skyrocket with the added risk.

The SAFER Act says "no insurance company shall charge unfair discriminatory premiums, policy fees or rates for, or refuse to provide" coverage to a district that allows concealed carry.

According to the bill, districts that choose not to arm employees can be found negligent in a school tragedy.

"They could be sued, they could be held criminally responsible. It opens a big can of worms," State Rep. Brett Parker (D-Overland Park) said of the clause.

Parker isn't just a lawmaker; he's also a teacher. Over the past 48 hours, he has garnered more than 5,000 signatures from parents, teachers and other constituents on a petition against the bill; 150 others submitted written testimony for Tuesday's hearing.

One of those was Alana Gwinner, an Overland Park mom of two elementary students.

"We don't want this. We don't need this. Instead of arming our teachers who are there to teach our children social studies, mathematics, and grammar, we can have trained resource officers at the schools," Gwinner wrote in part.

"I can't keep track of my dry erase marker in my classroom, and you want me to have a gun on my hip? That's not a safe situation as I work with 5 year olds, 12 year olds, 18 year olds," Parker said.

Opposition isn't limited to one side of the aisle. Rep. Tom Cox (R-Shawnee) told us many of his colleagues are concerned about the negligence clause, as well as the bill's implications for insurance regulation.

"It forces insurance companies to have to cover schools that allow this, and they can't adjust their rates to add for the increased potential risk. That's a dangerous precedent to set," he said.

Both the lawmakers and parents 41 Action News spoke with did say there are other things in the bill they can get behind, like school districts being required to work with local law enforcement on security plans.

The Smiths are open to any ideas that take away the fear many parents are feeling right now, yet they said the SAFER Act makes them feel anything but.

"I really don't feel this bill, as written, takes that away. In fact, it makes me more afraid," Miller-Smith said.

41 Action News reached out to all of the local representatives on the Committee on Federal and State Affairs, but at the time of publication, none had responded.

A public hearing on the bill will be held Tuesday at 8 a.m. in the House Standing Committee on Insurance.