Teachers unions oppose armed school staff bill

(Richard Alan Hannon/The Advocate via AP)

Honestly, I’m a little surprised that West Virginia doesn’t already have a program in place to allow volunteer, vetted, and trained school employees to carry a firearm as a first line of protection for students and staff in case of a targeted attack on school grounds. The state is one of the most 2A-friendly places in the country, with Constitutional Carry the law of the land and lawmakers actively trying to attract the firearms industry to the state.

And yet, despite those good laws at the moment it’s a criminal offense for a teacher or staff member to carry a firearm on school grounds, even if the superintendent or school board allowed it. Thankfully, a bill that would change that by allowing some staff members to be designated as School Protection Officers appears to be making real progress this year, after stalling out last session.

HB 2364 is a substantially revised version of a bill that passed out of House Education last year but died in Judiciary. The [House Education] committee spent 90 minutes on it Thursday morning and another 3 1/2 hours on it in the afternoon.

Under the new version, a county board would hold public hearings on its desire to use SPOs.

Any teacher or administrator seeking an SPO designation would apply in writing. The candidate must be licensed to carry a concealed weapon and undergo a 24-hour training program with eight hours of that in-person. The candidate would also undergo active shooter training conducted by the county sheriff and qualify with the gun they plan to carry. They must be re-certified on the gun annually.

An elementary school could have up to two SPOs, a secondary school up to three. The county board would select the SPOs from those who apply.

The school principal would know the identities of the SPOs, but not fellow teachers. Lead sponsor Doug Smith, R-Mercer, said this is so a shooter couldn’t know and target an SPO.

The bill passed out of committee by a 16-7 vote this week, despite the objections from the two biggest teachers unions in the state. In fact, one representative appeared willing to buck his national union by calling for armed police in every school instead of giving districts the option of having armed school staff.

The two teacher union presidents, Fred Albert with American Federation of Teachers West Virginia, and Dale Lee with West Virginia Education Association, stood together to answer questions.

Albert said, “Our stand is let’s let teachers teach, let’s let SROs take care of safety in the schools.”

Lee said there have been less than 650 deaths in all school shootings. That’s not good, but there are far more deaths by suicide each year. “We should be focused on the mental well-being and mental aspect of our kids.”

Albert said he’d be willing to put an SRO in every school rather than having armed teachers in them. Teachers don’t want the job.

The national AFT has called for “separating police forces from schools and ending the militarism and zero tolerance policies that have criminalized so many of our students of color,” so it remains to be seen how well Albert’s offer is going to go over with union head Randi Weingarten. As for his comment about teachers not wanting the job, I’d disagree. In states that allow for armed school staff, there has been no shortage of educators who have volunteered to serve as a first responder in the case of a targeted attack on the school and its students.

As supporters of the bill noted during debate, it can take police quite a while to respond to a shooting, even in the best of circumstances, and many rural schools may not be quickly accessible to local law enforcement. Giving local school boards the option to add School Protection Officers as another safety measure seems like the sensible thing to do here, and I’m rooting for this bill to make it to Gov. Jim Justice’s desk and see it signed into law.