Several state lawmakers, including Representative Terri Lynn Weaver, are proposing measures to help keep Tennessee schools safer in the wake of last month's massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Representative Weaver has filed legislation that would let teachers with handgun carry permits bring their guns to school, with the permission of the local school system. The bill also would require teachers to go through special training, and it would allow them to load their guns only with "frangible bullets," ammunition designed to break apart to minimize the risk of ricocheting.
(PLAY VIDEO BELOW OF TERRI LYNN WEAVER AND MARK PODY ON SCHOOL SECURITY LEGISLATION)
"Its not meant to arm all teachers in this legislation," said Representative Weaver. " There has to be a lot of parameters that take place in order for that teacher, who already has a gun conceal permit. We have to tweak it and work with our local police and sheriff's department but we've got to do something because this problem is not going to diminish. This is going to grow. We have got to have safety for our children," said Weaver.
But during an open meeting Friday morning with Weaver and State Representative Mark Pody, several local officials expressed concerns about teachers carrying guns at school. " I am for carrying permits but there's a lot of persons with carrying permits I don't think ought to be armed," said Director of Schools Mark Willoughby. "No I don't think teachers ought to be armed. If there was some place in the school where there was a gun safe for a revolver and lets say you had two or three people who were trained, who had gone through training and you had an emergency situation, then maybe you could have those two or three other people in the building who could have access (to a gun) that might be a good thing. When I was a Middle School Principal, in the right situation I would have loved to have had access to a revolver. Thank goodness I never needed it. But I would not like to have 70 people with revolvers in the school," said Director Willoughby.
"I don't know how you would pick them (teachers to carry guns)," said County Mayor Mike Foster. " I don't know how much training they would need to have," he added.
Smithville Police Chief Randy Caplinger said he is concerned that teachers with guns might lack sufficient training to handle an emergency situation. "When they talk about eight hours (teacher gun training), a police officer now must have a minimum of ten weeks (training) and he's not ready to go then, he's just getting started," said Chief Caplinger. Eight hours training, 40 hours training is not enough. That would be like me getting an eight hour class to fly a jet airplane. I don't think any of you would want to get in there with me. There's a time when that gun can be drawn and a time when it can't. When that weapon is drawn and shot at the wrong time you've got a liability issue there. I think it needs to be people who are specifically trained for that job," said Chief Caplinger
"There are some teachers who don't want to and should not have a gun," said Representative Weaver. " I totally respect that. But for those who want to, I think its something we need to at least discuss. Basically I look at it as an inner-swat team in the school who would remain concealed and no one knows who they are. But we would have to talk about what those parameters are to make that person qualified to do that," she said.
Director Willoughby said he would prefer more school resource officers. Currently DeKalb County has one SRO at DCHS who is employed by the Sheriff's Department. "Safety is our number one priority. School Resource officers, I think would be a good thing to have in schools. The cost of that is going to be tremendous. Again, I don't have all the details but I think the citizens of Tennessee would much rather see money spent on child safety and security rather than something like vouchers," he said.
Willoughby suggested that state lawmakers, instead of reducing the sales tax on food, use the percentage of the tax they are planning to cut, and earmark that for school security measures. "I hear talk of reducing the sales tax on food and I think that's good but since security and child safety is going to be such a big deal this year, instead of that coming off the sales tax, it could just go toward school safety such as school resource officers," said Willoughby.
But County Mayor Foster said the cost of adding more School Resource Officers would further strain already tight county budgets if local governments were asked to go it alone.
"What's the cost for an SRO here,"? asked Representative Pody
"Its in the sheriff's department's budget but I would say if you talk about salaries, benefits, and a vehicle, probably around $55,000 (per SRO) and we have five schools", said Foster. He also questioned how effective adding more SRO's would be in the event of a major event. "The thing that concerns me about an in-school officer, first thing is a quarter of a million to $300,000. If it works, I'd be for it. But if you read about some of the ones (schools) who had them (officers), they were the first ones killed. I don't know the solution but I'm not sure in-school officers are the solution. If you've got just one officer in the school, and if I go in and want to hurt somebody, that's the first person I'm going to kill," said Foster
Representative Pody said state lawmakers should give local school districts options in addressing security concerns and not mandate a one size fits all approach. "There's a big difference in school safety from Memphis to Mountain City and we've got to cover the whole state so I believe that if we can give the locals their option of what's going to be best for their situation and their school district, that should be what the state should do. We want to give each school district as wide of a range of options so they can pick what's best for them. The less the state gets into it, I think the better it is. We need to let the locals decide how to do it. The last thing we want to do is put in some unfunded mandates. We don't want to tell every school system what they have to do and then they have to find a way to pay for it. We would rather let them have the options and let them figure out what they need to do to best secure their kids and to protect them," said Pody.