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A bill to arm teachers and administrators could become law, sparking new gun debate

A bill to arm teachers and administrators could become law, sparking new gun debate</h2>

An angry parent slips past school security and rushes toward a classroom as administrators try to stop him, insisting he can’t intrude on school grounds.

But the parent bursts into a classroom, coming across as “highly agitated and extremely confrontational,” raising his voice at a teacher an arm’s length away.

As a staffer calls 911, the teacher, standing in front of a room full of students, has to make a split-second decision — do this parent’s actions warrant the use of a firearm?

It’s a question employees at some Arizona schools could soon face if the Legislature approves a bill to arm teachers and school officials in rural parts of the state.  The measure, sponsored by Sen. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, has been approved by the Senate. Now, lawmakers are tweaking the bill in the House.

The question was given a real-life example late last month when Sen. Don Shooter was accused in a Yuma police report of slipping past the front desk at the EOC Charter High School in Yuma, where his grandson is a student, and confronting a teacher in a classroom full of students.

The teacher, Danielle Munoz, and two other staffers at the school were able to defuse the situation without violence and convince the senator to leave the classroom, the report said. The incident left Munoz “afraid for her safety and the safety of her students,” according to the report.

But what could’ve happened if Munoz had a concealed firearm during the confrontation with Shooter?

“He would’ve gotten shot,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix.

Creating a safety net

If approved, SB1325 would allow designated teachers and other school employees to carry concealed firearms, but only in schools with fewer than 600 students enrolled. The schools must also be more than 30 minutes and 20 miles from the nearest law enforcement agency.

Crandall, who modeled the bill after a 6-year-old Texas law, said firearms carried by school staff would rarely, if ever, need to be used.  Guns would provide a safety net for the absolutely worst-case scenario, when a gunman enters a school and starts shooting, he said.

“It’s for that occasion when, you can never predict it,” Crandall said. “Nobody would have ever predicted Sandy Hook (Elementary School), in a calm, nice neighborhood, that something horrible would happen.”

School employees deemed able to carry a concealed firearm on campus would be trained to determine the difference between life threatening and non-life threatening situations, Crandall said. The bill itself, however, does not define a life-threatening situation. Nor does it say whether a teacher or administrator should wait for an armed intruder to begin firing first before using a weapon.

Crandall said the alleged incident involving Shooter would not have led to the use of a weapon by a teacher.

“Shooter had no weapons on him. He was belligerent, but he had no weapons on him,” Crandall said. “Everybody is taught that you cannot use deadly force when there is no deadly force being used against you.”

Shooter, a Republican from Yuma, referred all questions to his spokesman, attorney Ed Novak, who could not be reached.  Previously, Shooter issued a statement saying he went to the school to discuss issues of alleged bullying of his grandson by a teacher.

In Shooter’s case, the school handled the situation appropriately by all accounts, said Crandall, who suggested the school implement better security measures to prevent someone from slipping past the front desk and walking unauthorized into the school.

School officials are considering hiring an armed security firm to patrol the school and other buildings on its small campus in Yuma, said John Morales, executive director of the Yuma Private Industry Council, which sponsors the school.

Protection for rural schools

In any case, Crandall’s legislation wouldn’t have applied to the EOC Charter School — it’s too close to the nearest police station, Crandall said.

“This bill is intended, just like Texas, for very, very remote schools, where if that charter school had called police and police said, ‘Hey, we can probably be there in an hour.’ That’s the kind of situation we’re talking about,” Crandall said.

In the House Appropriations Committee, the last legislative body to vote on the measure, Rep. John Kavanaugh, R-Fountain Hills, said it was a useful alternative for the small, rural school that can’t afford a school resource officer.

“It’s certainly better than nothing when you have a crazed shooter going around the campus,” Kavanaugh said in committee on March 28.

It’s unclear how many schools would be affected by Crandall’s bill.  About 13 high school districts and 90 elementary and unified school districts have fewer than 600 students, according to the Department of Education.

“No small district with 12 kids is going to hire a $90,000 a year police officer,” Crandall said. “Everyone looks at things through the eyes of Camelback High School or Mountain View Elementary. That’s not what we’re talking about here.”

Rob Katzaroff, vice president of the Arizona School Resource Officers Association, said he believes the best option for any school is to hire an officer, but he’s sympathetic to the rural schools with few options that Crandall’s bill targets.

“Some situations are going to be unique,” Katzaroff said. “Is that a better situation if you have a threat at a school, if there’s no police officer there and no police officer who can respond in an immediate time frame? Then I would say it’s a good thing.”

Only handguns allowed

Crandall’s bill outlines a host of requirements for a teacher or school employee who wants to carry a concealed firearm on campus.  Training must cover legal issues and mental conditioning relating to the use of deadly force, scenario-based shooting and familiarity with police active-shooter response measures.

School employees could only carry a handgun, pistol or revolver, and must be authorized by local school officials.

Retired peace officers who serve as school employees could also be authorized to carry a concealed firearm.

As currently written, training would be certified by the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, which provides minimum standards for peace officer selection, recruitment and training.  It also provides curriculum for all law enforcement training facilities.

But after a meeting with lawmakers and other state officials on April 3, it was decided that AZPOST will be removed from the bill.

Attorney General Tom Horne said his office would take over the training required by the bill. Andy Swann, the attorney general’s police liaison, said the training would be 24 to 40 hours and participants would be responsible for maintaining skills between annual recertification.

The course would be pass or fail, he said.

Swann, a retired Department of Public Safety officer, said the participants would use computer simulation and live-action scenarios to teach when to shoot and not shoot.

“We’re going to be teaching people not to overreact,” he said.

Swann said AZPOST is being taken out of the bill because its function and authority is narrow and to add new functions requires the agency to create new rules and regulations. AZPOST also does not have firearms instructors and depends on the police agencies to provide the training, Swann said.

Detectives in Horne’s office, all of whom are certified peace officers, would provide the training.  Sheriffs from Apache, Pinal and Mohave counties have indicated they would help, the attorney general said.

Not enough training

Gallego, a former Marine, said the amount of training prescribed in the bill doesn’t go nearly far enough to help teachers and other school employees know how to properly handle a situation similar to a parent barging into a classroom.

“Forty hours of training does not train you to discern when it’s time to use deadly force,” said Gallego, D-Phoenix. “It’s probably 40 hours of how to shoot the weapon, clean the weapon, how to secure the weapon… If somebody comes in barging through your door, and you don’t know who they are and they look like a raving lunatic, you need to draw your gun right away, because after that it’s too late.”

Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, an Ohio-based firm, said the only armed people at a school should be school resource officers.

Trump, who has testified before Congress as an expert on school security, said arming teachers and principals is not a Second Amendment issue.

“There’s a huge difference between my right to protect myself and my family and tasking me with performing a public safety function to protect the masses — in this case hundreds or thousands of kids in a school,” Trump said.

School resource officers have specialized training to work in schools on top of the tremendous amount of basic police training, Trump said.

“Now people are proposing to do just the opposite with a couple dozen hours of firearms training for people who have no other skill sets in public safety and tell them to perform a public safety function,” Trump said.

Police are given tactical training and training on the use of force, or how to assess which level of force is necessary to control a situation.  They are trained on how to defuse a situation, but most importantly officers have a survival mindset and approach every call as if it could turn deadly, he said.

“The average teacher enters the cafeteria feeling like that may be the worst part of their day, but they certainly expect to live through it,” Trump said.

Split-second decisions

Katzaroff said police use a one-plus-one method to determine, usually in a split-second, how much force is necessary to defuse a situation. The idea is to ensure that an officer uses enough force to subdue a suspect without going overboard and reaching for their firearm.

Based on the details in the police report of Shooter’s actions when he entered the Yuma classroom, Katzaroff suggested an intermediate weapon may have been appropriate given the situation. Shooter was described in the police report as looking upset, and Munoz told police he “seemed confrontational and aggressive… he was an arm’s length from me pointing and shaking his finger.” It took two more school officials help to convince Shooter to leave the classroom.

An intermediate weapon available to a police officer could have been a stun gun, pepper spray or a canine, Katzaroff said.

But under the current bill, those weapons wouldn’t be available to a teacher, who’d only have a firearm to defend themselves and the classroom. Teachers would lack training in other types of defensive maneuvers that officers try to use before resorting to using their firearms.

“The amount of time we go through defensive tactics, they’re missing that,” Katzaroff said. “And at the same time, if you’re not giving them that training, do you expect them to be able to handle those situations?”

Horne said teachers wouldn’t be taught take downs or how to use a stun gun but they would be taught when not to use the firearm.

“The purpose of guns is if a crazy shooter comes in and starts shooting kids,” Horne said.

One of the biggest concerns of school administrators is child custody disputes between separated parents. Trump said it is becoming more common for parents to become verbally and physically abusive and even violent with school officials, especially at the elementary school level.

“From the school end of things, you don’t know who’s coming in with a weapon or what their intent is,” Trump said.

Growing up, feeling safe

Placing a gun in the hands of the teacher who police say was confronted by Shooter is strictly a hypothetical, something Morales said he’s grateful for.

“I’m glad we don’t have to deal with that because we’re not in that situation,” he said. “As a personal thing it’s a pretty sad day when we start arming our teachers in schools. I guess I’m old school, but I remember growing up in school, and feeling safe. The worst thing I had to worry about was someone stealing my lunch or punching my lights out if I got in a scrape.”

Morales said he will meet with the Yuma Private Industry Council board to discuss school safety measures.  Among the possibilities for the board to consider is to hire an armed security firm that would patrol the school and other facilities under the council’s control.

School leaders had hoped to find other more cost-effective means of boosting security since the shooting at Sandy Hook, but the situation involving Shooter has sped up discussions, Morales said.

Guns on campus aren’t the answer to school safety, said Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association. Morrill likened Crandall’s legislation to the National Rifle Association-funded school safety report, which suggested training teachers and school staff to carry firearms.

“[Crandall’s] not a rash guy, but the problem with this bill is it still puts firearms on campus as if that’s the measure that ensures students’ safety,” Morrill said.

Morrill said the bill was a “foot in the door piece of legislation” that could be used in later years to expand the kind of schools that can allow teachers to carry concealed firearms. No 40 hours of training will ever be enough to prepare teachers and school administrators to carry guns into schools, he said.

Morales said he shudders to think about what might have occurred had a teacher at his school been armed when Shooter arrived.

“That whole situation could have gone wrong in so many ways, and it’s just a shame, you would think in these days and times following Newtown, Conn., and Virginia Tech and Columbine, we seem to just brush over them after awhile,” Morales said. “People should be real sensitive about going into schools.”

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