Parent lawsuit over armed teachers sparks heated exchange in Tamaqua

Holly Koscak, a parent and plaintiff in the lawsuit against the Tamaqua Area School District, speaks out against a policy to arm school staff. “I
 don’t believe a teacher should have to pack and carry, their sole responsibility should be to teach a student,” she said. (Jen Kinney/Keystone Crossroads)

Holly Koscak, a parent and plaintiff in the lawsuit against the Tamaqua Area School District, speaks out against a policy to arm school staff. “I don’t believe a teacher should have to pack and carry, their sole responsibility should be to teach a student,” she said. (Jen Kinney/Keystone Crossroads)

A press conference in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, Friday concluded with a heated exchange between a school board member and a resident about the wisdom of arming school staff to protect against a mass shooting.

“You’re missing the point, because you are so focused on guns,” said resident Tracy Perry to school board director Nicholas Boyle, who has spearheaded the new policy. Perry advocated better securing buildings and adding a buzzer to the front door. “The point is, make our schools secure and safe, period. And that’s a simple thing. But you’re unwilling to do the most minor thing and jump directly to this promotion of armed staff.”

The press conference was called to announce a lawsuit against a policy that will allow some school staff to anonymously carry firearms on school grounds. Four plaintiffs with children or grandchildren in the Tamaqua Area School District are suing.

The policy unanimously approved by the school board in September and already facing a legal challenge from teachers — requires that staff go through a firearm-training program before they can carry guns on campus. The board has also said that staff would be screened for their fitness to carry firearms.

But the lawsuit filed Thursday in the Schuylkill County Court of Common Pleas alleges that the screening process is vague and that the training requirement does not go far enough, putting it in violation of Pennsylvania’s school code. The lawsuit also argues that the school district has overstepped its powers as granted by the state Constitution.

The power to regulate the “lawful ownership, possession, transfer, or transportation of firearms” is explicitly reserved for the General Assembly. The lawsuit argues that this precludes school districts from actions that would “authorize or restrict the use of firearms on school property.”

Plaintiffs and members of Tamaqua Citizens for Safe Schools, a group opposing the policy, gathered in front of Tamaqua’s railroad station Friday afternoon for a press conference organized by Ceasefire PA, a gun violence prevention advocacy group that has partnered with the parent plaintiffs.

“I’m against it, I’m 110 percent against,” said Holly Koscak, who has a sophomore in the Tamaqua Area High School and is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

“I don’t believe a teacher should have to pack and carry, their sole responsibility should be to teach a student,” she said.

The school board has cited cost as factor for why it is looking into arming teachers rather than hiring an armed guard. Koscak said she hopes the school board will look for alternative sources of funding.

“I think if this policy is rescinded, and they take more time at grant writing and looking at outside sources and hire an officer, it would be better for the entire district.”

Tamaqua Citizens for Safe Schools accused the board of considering only the most extreme option to secure schools. The group proposed alternatives to arming teachers at a public meeting in November.

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 the police academy or completed training under the Municipal Police Education and Training Law — programs which require hundreds of hours of experience.

The Tamaqua School District has said it would send staff who volunteer to carry guns to lethal weapons training (also known as Act 235 training), which is 40 hours long. Boyle has also said teachers would have ongoing training. Defending the policy, school board president Larry Wittig has said “the training that is administered to any volunteer, they will be better equipped than the average police academy grad.”

Both Boyle and Wittig were present at Friday’s press conference. Wittig said it was “ironic” that the lawsuit was introduced a day after an investigative panel released its report on last year’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. That report recommended arming teachers to slow or prevent future attacks.

“This is a whole political fervor … for theater and to feed publicity, which I find appalling, given the severity and the seriousness of this situation,” said Wittig of the lawsuit and press conference.

“We addressed the most egregious scenario possible, that’s true, we did,” said Wittig. “But none — none — of their suggestions addressed an active shooter in the building. It was all preventive, which is absolutely good. We explored all of those, and we are moving forward on that, but the fact of the matter is nobody has addressed what happens when an active shooter gets in the building, except what we did.”

School board president Larry Wittig (left) and member Nicholas Boyle listened at Friday’s press conference. Afterward, both reiterated their support for the policy and their belief that it is legal. “There’s no law that says you can’t do it, and no law that says you can,” said Boyle. (Jen Kinney/Keystone Crossroads)

The Pennsylvania Senate passed a bill in 2017 that would have allowed school districts to implement policies arming their staff, but it never reached the House. The Tamaqua School Board has argued therefore no policy explicitly allows armed teachers — but no policy prohibits them. Boyle reiterated that argument at Friday’s press conference.

“There’s no law that says you can’t do it, and there’s no law that says you can do it,” he said. “So absolutely, I think it’s perfectly legal.”

Shira Goodman, executive director of Ceasefire PA, disagreed. Ceasefire has been a partner in the parent’s lawsuit, and filed an amicus brief in the teacher’s lawsuit. She learned about the policy the way many Tamaqua area parents and teachers did — in the newspaper.

“We were frankly surprised,” she said. “What they’re doing is in violation of the law.”

“There is a process for getting armed police officers or armed school resource officers. This is not that policy. This is not that process that they’re following. And so we thought if we pointed this out, the school district might be willing to talk.”

Instead, the school board has repeatedly doubled down. On Friday, Boyle said, “The policy is in effect and we’re moving down the road to arm staff.”

He would not answer questions about whether any staff are already armed.

That riled resident Perry.

“Parents should know, teachers should know, students should know, we should all know … if we are sending our students and our teachers into an unsafe environment,” she said. “What part of community do you not understand?”

Boyle responded, “The idea of the policy to secure the school is anonymous, so I’m not going to tell you how many people, what teachers they are, where they’re at.”

In November, the Tamaqua Education Association, which represents the district’s teachers, also filed a lawsuit to try to stop the policy, arguing that it puts teachers at risk.

Frank Wenzel, Tamaqua’s district union representative, said most teachers he represents do not support the policy, nor does the larger Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

“Most teachers are not for other teachers carrying firearms,” he said in November. “Being that these people are not trained for this, this is not what we signed up for, brings a lot of concern.”

In response to that lawsuit, the Tamaqua School District filed preliminary objections arguing that the union’s members do not face “immediate or threatened injury” as a result of the policy, and thus that the union has no legal standing to sue.

The lawsuits could have a statewide impact on other school districts that may be considering policies to arm teachers and staff. Tamaqua is the first district in Pennsylvania to pass such a policy.

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