Teachers, cafeteria workers and anyone else employed by a Pennsylvania school could carry firearms under a bill a Senate panel approved Wednesday.
Senate Bill 383, sponsored by Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, would allow locally elected or appointed school boards to establish policies permitting staff to carry firearms under the guise of protecting students and others from harm. The bill would require staff to volunteer for the armed position, hold a concealed carry permit and go through police-related firearms training determined by the board.
The bill passed 9-3 during a hearing of the Senate Education Committee. It quickly drew the ire of Gov. Tom Wolf who vowed to veto it. an education advocate also criticized senators for voting on the bill without a prior public hearing in which the pros and cons could be discussed.
In an interview after the meeting, White said he was willing to have a hearing on the bill and debate its merits when it comes up for a vote of the full Senate. The bill, he said, gives local school boards the authority to pass their own policies related to staff carrying open or concealed firearms to protect students and staff.
"I'm just trying to put another tool in the tool box," White said. "If they don't want it, fine."
White said he has been trying to get the bill passed since a student armed with two kitchen knives stabbed about two dozen people at Franklin Regional High School in 2014.
"It looked like a butcher house; there was blood everywhere," White said, recalling his police escort through the crime scene at the school in his district. During the tour, White said, all he could think about was how much blood he'd see if the student was armed with a gun during his 4.5-minute slashing spree or in another district without local police and state police 40 minutes away.
"What do you think cold happen in 40 minutes," White asked. "I shudder to think."
But Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters of PA, an advocacy based in Cumberland County, said she is worried about unintended -- or deadly consequences -- the bill could cause.
Spicka pointed to an August 2016 incident in which a teacher at a private elementary school in Chambersburg left her loaded hand gun on the back of a toilet in a restroom shared with students.
"At least four children ages 6 to 8 used that bathroom stall while her loaded gun was left there, unattended, for three hours," Spicka said. "We believe public schools must be safe places for students and want to protect them from danger. We most strongly oppose allowing school personnel to carry firearms."
The bill seeks to rectify a loophole in state law. The crimes code prohibits firearms on school grounds under penalty of being charged with a low-grade felony. but the law also says firearms are permitted on school grounds for "lawful purposes."
"Lawful purposes" is not defined in the law or court decision and the state Department of Education lacks the authority to rule on criminal laws, according to a June 2016 letter state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera sent White.
Indiana County District Attorney Patrick Dougherty interpreted "lawful purposes" as already permitting school boards to set their own policies allowing school staff to carry firearms, according to a letter Dougherty sent in June 2016 to an Indiana County school board member.
White posted both letters in a memo to lawmakers accompanying his bill.
Local school boards can already form their own internal police department or pay the salary of a local department's police officer to patrol school grounds. Schools also are required by law to have written agreements with local or state police about the chain of command when an armed incident occurs on school grounds.
Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott pointed to existing laws on police agreements as a reason why Wolf would veto the bill should it reach his desk.
"School personnel shouldn't be told that the only help they will get from Harrisburg to make schools safer is the option to carry a loaded gun around their students," Abbott said in a statement. "Harrisburg can help schools be safer by giving them adequate funding so schools can hire trained security professionals like school resource or police officers should school professionals feel they need it, and counselors and support staff for students."
In his February budget proposal, Wolf, a Democrat, recommended flat-funding at about $8.5 million for the "safe schools" grant, which provides money to help districts hire police and other safety measures.