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Guns in schools: the risks of arming teachers to respond to crisis

On December 14, 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza forcibly entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. 

Before entering the school, Lanza armed himself with a variety of weapons, including a “Bushmaster” semi-automatic rifle. He had taken at least some of these weapons, including the “Bushmaster” rifle, from his mother’s firearm collection. Before taking his own life, Lanza shot and killed his mother, six members of the school’s faculty and 20 of its students. All of the students killed by Lanza were six and seven years old.

In the aftermath of this horrific event, a national debate has ensued. Citizens and advocacy groups have called upon national and state officials to enact more restrictive firearms legislation. Others have called upon the same officials to, among other things, enact legislation to put more law enforcement officers in schools as well as allow educators to carry firearms while fulfilling their classroom duties.

Law enforcement officers and school resource officers have been stationed in South Carolina high schools for years. In the aftermath of the Newtown shootings, local governments are now actively taking measures to place law enforcement officers in primary schools as well.

  • In December, the City of North Charleston placed school resource officers in the 21 elementary and middle schools located within its limits at no cost to the school district.
  • Leaders in West Columbia recently assigned two police officers to the elementary schools located within the city limits.
  • The superintendent of Spartanburg School District 6 placed off-duty officers in all 10 of the district’s elementary schools.
  • The Georgetown School Board approved placing uniformed police officers in nine elementary schools and an intermediate school at an estimated cost of $150,000.
  • In late January, the Charleston County school board agreed to ask the law enforcement agencies located within its jurisdiction to place police officers in elementary schools. The board also agreed to assume the costs associated with doing so.
  • Deputies from the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Department are set to begin patrolling elementary schools.

Moreover, H3237, a bill currently pending in the South Carolina House of Representatives would, by the enactment of a new statute designated as S.C. Code Ann. § 59-66-25, require each school district to request the placement of a school resource officer in each school located within the district.

Another option being considered is to allow teachers to arm themselves while performing their teaching duties. However, a difference of opinion among government officials has quickly surfaced concerning whether teachers should be allowed to arm themselves in the classrooms and on school grounds.

In mid-January, South Carolina Superintendent Mick Zais told the Senate Education Committee that he would support any public school district that allowed “a few well-trained and well-screened staff” to carry firearms on school grounds. South Carolina Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel, however, opposed this and told the same committee that he had not spoken to a single law enforcement officer who thought that allowing teachers to carry weapons on school grounds was a good idea.

Several school district superintendents from the Midlands agreed with Chief Keel’s assessment, and an attorney with the South Carolina School Board Association stated that while there is widespread support for staffing every school with a school resource officer, few if any school board members have offered their support for arming public school employees.

H3160, currently pending in the South Carolina House of Representatives would allow a public school employee who possesses a valid CWP to carry a firearm on his  person on campus while performing his teaching duties. Significant questions are associated with the proposed bill. The proposed bill states that only “frangible” bullets should be used in an effort to avoid ricochets. Who would confirm that the teacher has loaded the firearm with only “frangible” bullets? What constitutes sufficient “just cause” to deny a teacher from carrying a firearm on school property? Would the appropriate local school board determine whether sufficient “just cause” exists to so deny a teacher from carrying a firearm on school property?

Just as with placing more law enforcement officers in schools, local governments confront the prospect of significant risk and liability exposure if teachers who possess valid CWPs are permitted to carry their firearms while performing their teaching duties on campus. Despite the best training and the purest of intentions, firearms are inherently dangerous items even among those individuals who make their living, such as soldiers and law enforcement officers, in the profession of arms.

Police officers and military personnel receive regular training. When they arm themselves, they are prepared to kill someone if needed. Teachers may not be as prepared mentally or emotionally for this possibility. Other concerns relate to the potential for accidental discharge, a curious child getting possession of the weapon, or a teacher improperly assessing a situation and mistakenly killing or wounding someone, such as shooting a child who has a toy gun.

Local governments that permit teachers and school staff to carry firearms on campus are in essence deploying those school employees in a public safety capacity. These employees have the expectation that they can and will provide a level of public safety protection services to students and other staff. By tasking those employees with those responsibilities, the local government is accepting responsibility and potential liability for implementing such policies.

Lake Summers is a partner of Malone, Thompson, Summers & Ott LLC, a law firm in Columbia, South Carolina, that limits its practice to representing management and insurance carriers in labor and employment matters.