Pa. school board punts on policy to allow teachers to carry guns

The Tamaqua School Board voted to temporarily suspend a policy that allows some school staff to carry firearms in classrooms anonymously. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

The Tamaqua School Board voted to temporarily suspend a policy that allows some school staff to carry firearms in classrooms anonymously. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

The Tamaqua School Board voted Tuesday night to temporarily suspend implementation of a policy that would allow some school staff in the Schuylkill County district to carry firearms in classrooms anonymously.

The board approved the policy in September, making it the first school district in Pennsylvania to sanction armed teachers. The teachers union quickly sued. In early January, a group of parents and grandparents who fear that the policy endangers students announced a second lawsuit.

Those legal challenges prompted the school board to suspend the policy, said Larry Wittig, the board president. Facing the possibility of a lengthy appeals process, he said he doesn’t want the district to spend money on firearms training or other costs related to the policy.

“I think it’s a prudent thing from a fiscal perspective to suspend implementation at this time,” he said.

At a meeting that featured a greater media presence than resident turnout, the board voted 7-1 to suspend the policy, with one board member absent. Nicholas Boyle, who has been a leading advocate for the policy, was the sole ‘no’ vote.

Before voting, he again took aim at CeaseFirePA, a non-profit advocacy group that supports the lawsuits. Boyle characterized the group as “anti-gun, anti-Second Amendment,” citing their participation in legal cases in multiple states that would restrict the sales of certain guns or amounts of ammunition. CeaseFirePA has spoken in support of gun control measures proposed in Pittsburgh following the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in October.

“This goes against the values of this community, who the majority are freedom-loving Americans,” said Boyle. “My vote will stand as a ‘no.’”

School board member Nicholas Boyle speaks to members of the media following a meeting Jan. 15, 2019. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

CeaseFirePA says Tamaqua’s policy is illegal.

State law currently prohibits guns on school grounds, except for an undefined “lawful purpose.” The Pennsylvania School Code states that schools may employ armed police officers or school resource officers, so long as they have graduated from a police academy or completed training under the Municipal Police Education and Training Law — programs which require hundreds of hours of experience.

Tamaqua’s plan to arm teachers would include sending staff who volunteer to lethal weapons training, which is 40 hours long.

Boyle and Wittig believe the fact that the law does not expressly forbid arming teachers gives the board legal clearance.

Defending the policy, Wittig cited a new report from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which recently recommended that schools allow teachers to be armed after studying last year’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

“I think the majority of the board still feels that the best way to deter an active shooter in the building is to arm staff,” said Wittig.

School board president Larry Wittig speaks during a meeting Jan. 15, 2019. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

No parents testified in support of the policy Tuesday night, but Jessica Tirpak, who has three children in the district, said in an interview she supports both the policy and the suspension.

“I think it’s the right thing to do at the time, with the lawsuits and all that,” she said.

She still hopes the policy is implemented down the line, or if not, that the school hires security guards. “I hope that someone is armed and protecting our schools,” she said, “because that’s the day and age we live in.”

After the vote, Lisa Behr, who also has three children in the district, said she is concerned about the direction the debate about arming teachers has taken in Tamaqua in recent months.

“I really believed at that time that the board and the administration had truly believed that this was the best way to protect our students,” she said. “It has gone from that to a Second Amendment push, and I am very disturbed by it. This is not what we need in this community.”

Lisa Behr, of West Penn Township, speaks during a Tamaqua School Board meeting Jan. 15, 2019. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

The board now plans to wait to enact the policy until the legal challenges are resolved, which Wittig believes “could drag on for months.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.