Tamaqua parents shocked that armed teacher policy has been quietly reinstated

The school board put the idea on hold in January pending the outcome of lawsuits from parents and teachers.

Parents gathered in Tamaqua to discuss the armed teachers policy in November 2018. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

Parents gathered in Tamaqua to discuss the armed teachers policy in November 2018. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

Before Tamaqua School District Sophomore Madelyn Jones went to school on Wednesday, she asked her mom a question.

“Is it really possible that teachers will be carrying guns in school tomorrow?” she said.

When her mom said, ‘Yes,’ Jones hatched a plan.

“I was like, ‘Just so you know, if I find out there is a gun in my classroom with my teacher, I am going to ask to leave that room immediately because I do not feel safe.’”

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Jones was referring to Tamaqua’s school security plan to arm teachers anonymously.

Tamaqua was the first school district in Pennsylvania to pass a policy to let teachers carry guns, but the school board put the idea on hold in January pending the outcome of separate lawsuits from parents and teachers.

But in the course of a school board meeting this week, board president Larry Wittig revealed that the policy is back in effect — and has been for several weeks, without public announcement.

The news came after parent Cheryl Tennant-Humes, who splits her time between Schuylkill County and New Jersey and is running for the Tamaqua School Board, asked the board what she thought was an innocuous question: If contested policy is suspended, what is governing school security now?

Wittig replied, “We suspended it pending the outcome of the litigation. Considering that both lawsuits are thrown out, we don’t consider it suspended anymore.”

But the plaintiffs say the court battle is far from over. In fact, it’s still in the preliminary stages, during which the judge decides whether the plaintiffs have standing to sue. The judge did dismiss both initial complaints, but gave plaintiffs a deadline to file an amended complaint.

The teachers union has already done so, and the parents who sued will file their complaint soon, according to their attorney, Martin Black.

Reached for comment, Wittig said it was his understanding that the cases had worked their way through Schuylkill County courts. A lawyer for the school district declined to comment.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Wittig would not say whether teachers are already carrying firearms in the school.

“We are not going to answer any specifics about the policy or implementation,” Wittig told the meeting.

Later, Wittig said the response to his announcement was overblown.

“We didn’t immediately run out and start training teachers, that’s absurd,” he said.

Supporters of the plan say the element of surprise is a crucial to the idea’s success.

“They don’t know if everybody’s carrying, or nobody’s carrying,” Wittig said of a potential perpetrator. “That’s exactly the question that will never be answered, because it defeats the purpose.”

The lack of details, though, worries some parents and students — leaving them speculating about teachers who may already be armed in the school.

“If a parent doesn’t even know if a child is in a room with a loaded weapon, they cannot then ask that their child not be in a room with a loaded weapon,” resident Tracy Perry said.

On Wednesday morning, some parents were considering keeping kids home from class. Aimee Dotson planned to write a note that said her daughter “was unable to attend school due to the lack of transparency from our school board.” But her daughter didn’t want to miss state testing, so off she went.

Other parents were happy to see the policy move along.

“I’m obviously thrilled,” said Jessica Tirpak, who has three children in the district. “I want to move forward. I want my children who I send out the door every day to be safe. There’s nothing else to keep my children safe but a staff member in the school, armed.”

The policy will be a crucial issue in Tamaqua’s upcoming school board race. Wittig and two other incumbents are up for re-election, and candidates hope to make this issue a referendum.

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