AUGUSTA, Maine — A proposal to allow teachers and other staff to carry concealed weapons in Maine schools put questions about school safety raised by the December 2012 mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., back in front of legislators Friday.
Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, who is a retired homicide detective for the Maine State Police, said he introduced LD 1429 at the request of a constituent.
“About two years ago, a state trooper asked me to consider a bill to allow school teachers to be armed with a gun, so they could intervene should some tragic assault take place on one of our schools,” said Burns. “After the Sandy Hook tragedy, I decided to design and put forth a bill to address the obvious weaknesses in our schools. I still have eight grandchildren.”
Burns’ bill would allow school boards to establish procedures and guidelines to allow a properly trained school employee to carry a concealed handgun on school property. It also requires school districts to carry liability insurance, allows them to pay the staff member a stipend, and requires the Maine Criminal Justice Academy to design a training program for school employees.
Friday’s public hearing on the bill before the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee drew hours of testimony. Among those who spoke were two students from Maranacook Middle School in Readfield who led a months-long research project on the topic at their school. Duncan Rogers and Derek Kelley found that more than half of the 243 students, staff and parents they surveyed did not think school would be safer if educators were allowed to carry guns. About the same number of survey respondents said they thought having armed security guards in schools who are not teachers would make schools safer. Arming teachers with Tasers as opposed to guns was by far the most favored option.
One legislator asked the students why they undertook the project.
“It was mostly because it was regarding school safety and we’re students,” said Rogers. “We’re interested in helping make our school safer.”
Several people testified in favor of the bill. Tim Look, assistant fire chief in the Washington County town of Jonesboro, was one of them. He said someone needs to be made more responsible for student safety in schools.
“Who’s responsible if the teachers are not defending the students?” said Look. “Are the students responsible for defending themselves? Who else is there?”
The state’s education associations were somewhat split on the measure, with the Maine Education Association, a teachers union, and the Maine School Boards Association coming out against it. The Maine School Superintendents Association testified neither for nor against.
Representatives from those organizations faced questions from legislators about why school boards shouldn’t at least have the option.
“It sounds to me that you don’t want the local decision-making process,” said Rep. Jethro Pease, R-Morrill, to Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the MEA. “I don’t understand that. Schools want the local control but here, now they don’t want the local control.”
“It is not appropriate for teachers to carry weapons into classrooms full of students,” said Kilby-Chesley. “This bill has a lot to do with personal decisions and personal agendas. The MEA’s agenda is that we should not have weapons in classrooms.”
Pressed on the issue during follow-up questions from Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, who is co-chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, Kilby-Chesley said that in general the MEA does support local control within school districts.
Becky Fles is a school board member in the Gardiner area, where a student brought a gun to Gardiner Area High School in 1995 and briefly held some staff members hostages. Fles is also a board member for the Maine School Boards Association.
“School is supposed to be a safe haven for students,” she said. “Teachers are role models. A teacher carrying a weapon conjures up a very different message where violence begets violence. If a gun were left in the wrong place, stolen or lost it would be a problem in any circumstance. It could be deadly when children are around.”
One issue that could hold up the bill is its cost, which has not yet been determined by the Legislature’s fiscal office. The bill is scheduled for a work session, and a possible recommendation by the committee, at 1 p.m. Wednesday.