VOL. 133 | NO. 45 | Friday, March 2, 2018
Lawmakers Consider Armed Off-Duty Officers for Schools
By Sam Stockard
Saying “this is Tennessee, not Florida” and school officers here will face trouble head-on, state Rep. Antonio Parkinson is co-sponsoring legislation to arm off-duty police to patrol public schools.
“That means we expect our people to run in, not out,” Parkinson said, referring to reports a school resource officer in Parkland, Florida, stayed outside a school during the recent mass shooting there.
Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, joined fellow U.S. Marine Rep. Micah Van Huss, a Republican, in introducing a bill allowing local school systems to hire off-duty law enforcement officers certified by the Peace Officer Standards Training Commission to work security at the state’s public schools. They would be required to carry handguns to be prepared for an active shooting situation and would be allowed to store rifles on campus.
“More than ever, our kids are vulnerable to evil people with evil intentions. Now is the time for us to come together to protect our babies,” said Van Huss, of Jonesborough in East Tennessee.
Explaining “semper fi” means “always faithful,” Parkinson said, “That’s the way we should be with our citizens and protecting our babies.”
Democrats have talked about doing something meaningful in response to the Feb. 14 Florida high school shooting that claimed 17 lives, and Republicans and Democrats have bickered about what type of gun legislation is needed, as well as whether teachers should be armed.
“This is an example, an example for the country, and I hope the country takes heed to what we’re doing here in Tennessee with this bipartisan approach to … ensuring the safety and security of our children and our teachers and all of those who work in our educational institutions to make sure that their lives are protected,” Parkinson said. “And this also displays for us … that we value the lives of our babies, above everything.”
Under the legislation, school systems would receive a list of interested officers from law enforcement agencies within 50 miles of their school. They would be able to call those officers, much like they do substitute teachers, and pay them $54 per school day and $54 for working after-school events.
Officers wouldn’t be allowed to work extracurricular practices, and only two officers would be allowed per school, but they could be used to supplement school resources officers, such as the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office deputies who work in Shelby County schools.
Officers with POST certification from all law enforcement agencies, including constables, would be allowed to sign up. School systems would not be allowed to “disincentivize officers from participating.”
To pay for the program, the legislation calls for using civil asset forfeiture funds, and once those expire the state would use money from the rainy day fund, according to Van Huss.
Civil asset forfeiture, the seizing of money believed to be used for illegal purposes such as drug deals, is a controversial topic in and of itself, but the legislators did not address it. The group of lawmakers expected opposition from other groups that receive money from the civil asset forfeiture fund.
Likewise, using money from the state’s rainy day fund could be a tough task because Gov. Bill Haslam is trying to push it to $850 million in the fiscal 2019 budget.
Nevertheless, the legislators said they are undeterred in backing the measure, which is sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Mark Green, an Army medical doctor who graduated from the West Point.
“There are a lot of issues that surround this, a lot of things that have to be fixed that this bill doesn’t necessarily address,” said Green, a Clarksville Republican. “But this is a quick, emergency response that we can make that will bring resources to protect these children.”
The program would take effect upon becoming law and end in mid-2022, and Green said the Legislature hopes to find a permanent solution in the meantime, noting the Legislature would be under a “timeline.”
Even House Minority Leader Mike Stewart, who rarely agrees with any Republican initiative, is backing the legislation, asking what legislator could disagree with such a move. Stewart called it a “classic example” of people working together to get a job done.
“When you have a military platoon, you don’t have Republicans and Democrats, you have patriots working together on a mission for their country,” said Stewart, an Army veteran who called it a “common-sense approach” to quell school shootings.
Another Memphis Democrat, Rep. G.A. Hardaway, also backed the bill, saying, “There is a real behavioral health crisis in America.”
Hardaway called the legislature an “emergency measure” to deal with school shootings.
Local school systems would regulate whether officers wear uniforms and how officers would keep their weapons. Most school resources officers wear some sort of uniform while working at schools to make sure students, staff and visitors can identify them.
Green, a congressional candidate, contended SRO programs work well and can stop people from bringing weapons onto campus. But as Parkinson pointed out, school resources officers have to be trained to go into action and not avoid it in case of a live shooting, Green said.
The group of legislators believe POST-certified officers will be best suited to patrol school campuses because they have the experience to handle shooting situations.
Arming more teachers
Rep. David Byrd, a Waynesboro Republican, is sponsoring legislation enabling school systems to arm more teachers by allowing private, certified instructors to give them the training they need.
Tennessee has a limited law allowing teachers to be armed and to store their weapons in a locked safe in the classroom. But they have to go through POST training or a local law enforcement agency to be certified, a proposition that requires too much time away from the classroom, 40 hours, as well as expense, Byrd said.
The bill will be considered March 6 by the House Civil Justice Committee after being recommended for passage by the Civil Justice Subcommittee Wednesday, Feb. 28.
“I’m having a problem getting anybody to train our teachers,” Byrd said, noting local agencies do not want to provide the training required.
The Tennessee Sheriffs Association is worried about liability issues, putting a damper on the program, he said.
After the Florida shooting, Byrd said he has been asked by several legislators and law enforcement officials to make the bill “permissive” for any school system.
Numerous counties have several schools in their district but only two or three SROs covering them. Armed teachers would be able to supplement them, he said.
“This bill is not going to stop anything. I think it might help in reducing casualties if there was a shooting, or if kids know we have teachers that are armed on campus, then, hopefully, it will keep them from doing that,” Byrd said.
His legislation would allow concealed carry for those teachers who volunteer to get involved, and it would be limited to one teacher per 75 students. First responders would have a list of those teachers who would be carrying weapons.
Byrd, a former teacher, coach and principal, believes the breakdown of the family is behind the school shootings that seem to be sweeping the nation over the last two-plus decades.
More grandparents are raising children, and “violent” video games, movies and drug use, in addition to mental health problems, are affecting students as well, he said.
“There’s a whole list of things we need to address, but I think right now we need to make sure our kids have some protection,” he said, noting Wayne County hasn’t had SROs in 15 years. He pointed out he was asked to sponsor the measure by the Wayne County School Board and principals.
Democrats have said repeatedly over the last two weeks they oppose arming more teachers in Tennessee schools.
Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.