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April 8, 2013

School safety bill weighted down by gun mandate

INDIANAPOLIS — Late last year, when freshman state Sen. Pete Miller was asked to carry Senate Bill 1 in the Indiana General Assembly, he never envisioned the legislation would become the gun bill of the 2013 session.

The bill, as it started out, offered what the father of three school-aged children viewed as a thoughtful approach to school safety in the wake of the tragic Connecticut school shooting: Free up some state dollars to help local schools partner with law enforcement to better guard the safety of their students.

It created a $10 million matching grant fund that school districts could tap to hire law enforcement officers specially trained in school safety and set up a task force of safety experts to study what works best.

But last week, Senate Bill 1 took on a new shape. The House Committee on Education amended the legislation in a way that would make Indiana the first state in the nation to mandate that all public schools have an employee armed with a loaded gun during school hours.

The change propelled the bill into the national headlines and left Miller fielding multiple media inquiries, including one from The New York Times.

It’s also left him feeling a little frustrated, asking for patience as reporters pressed him to weigh in on the change.

“This bill is not about guns,” Miller said. “This bill is about how do we keep kids safe and buildings secure. That was the intent. We have many different opinions and perspectives on how we do that.”

Some of those opinions will likely be voiced when the bill goes to the House Ways and Means Committee Monday.

But Gov. Mike Pence and Senate President David Long have already weighed in. Both said they oppose the state mandating armed employees in schools. Miller, too, thinks the mandate will likely be gone by the time the bill reaches its final form.

Likely left intact will be the $10 million matching grant fund for local schools and the task force of safety experts charged with finding the “best practices” in school security.  

Pence likes that approach and said so, during a Statehouse news conference Thursday.

“I have a strong bias for local control,” he said. He also cited what he called a model program for school safety developed in Vigo County that could be replicated in other communities.

In January, the Vigo County Sheriff’s Department, the Terre Haute city police, and the Vigo County School Corporation joined forces to create a Safe Schools Task Force.

They pulled in support from government, community and business leaders. Using a combination of school funds, local government dollars, and private contributions, they were able to put 10 special county deputies into rural schools, adding to the existing law enforcement officers in the city schools.  

The special deputies are retired or off-duty officers trained as school resource officers; they have full law enforcement powers but also have an understanding of the school environment, the needs of children, and the safety concerns that go beyond fears of an armed intruder.  

Vigo County Sheriff Greg Ewing likes the model. He spent nine years as a school resource officer in a high school and is convinced that the presence of trained police officers inside schools can often stave off issues such as bullying or mental health problems, which result in tragedy if ignored.

“They’re not there as armed guards,” Ewing said. “Their job goes far beyond stopping somebody from coming in with a gun and shooting up a school.”

Rep. Jim Lucas, the Seymour Republican who proposed the mandate amendment said he did so because most of Indiana’s 1,900 public schools are defenseless against possible attackers. Less than one-third of the state’s public schools currently employ school resource officers.

And while Indiana law already allows school districts to authorize people other than police officers to have guns on school property, few, if any, school districts have done so.

“I hate the idea of a mandate, but when the mechanism is in place and no one is taking advantage of what I feel is the best way to protect our children and educators, then sometimes things like this have to be initiated,” Lucas told the Associated Press.

The school resource officers in the Vigo County schools are armed. “It does plant a seed in an assailant’s mind when they know somebody in that school is going to be threat to them,” Ewing said.

But he also questions whether a mandate that calls for arming teachers or other school personnel is the best use of resources.

“There’s a lot of responsibility in carrying a gun,” said Ewing. “And I worry if we’re sending mixed signals when we start arming principals and teachers. I think it’s important for them to concentrate on doing they’re trained to do.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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