Tuesday, June 18, 2024

More guns on campus?

Staff Writer | January 30, 2024 1:09 AM

COEUR d'ALENE — A bill that would allow school staff to carry concealed weapons without guidance from local school boards is now making its way through the legislative process in Boise.

House Bill 415 was reported Thursday out of the Idaho House State Affairs Committee with a recommendation that it should pass.

As it is now written, this legislation would not have unanimous support from local education leaders. Post Falls Police Detective Sgt. Neil Uhrig, who serves as the chair of the Post Falls School Board, said his initial impression is that this bill is not ready.

"There are a number of issues with it," Uhrig said Monday. "It gets rid of local control. Presently, school districts can choose if they want to arm teachers or not. They can require certain training. This bill takes that away. It basically says this is going to be allowed and school districts don’t get to have any regulation on that."

Sponsored by first-term Rep. Ted Hill, R-Eagle, HB415 states that school employees with enhanced licenses to carry concealed weapons may do so on school grounds with or without school board permission, and they will not be compelled to disclose they are carrying a firearm, nor will they be subject to disciplinary actions for having guns on campus unless they fail to comply with the bill's provisions or other Idaho or federal firearms laws.

This legislation would also require a confidential list be kept of personnel who wish to carry a concealed weapon. The list would be exempt from public records requests. Under this legislation, all K-12 public schools would have to remove “Gun Free Zone” signs or be fined $300. It also states how school employees would not be held civilly or criminally liable for engaging in armed confrontations during a lethal threat to safety inside a school or on school property.

“These select school employees will provide an armed force to protect children in the first minutes of an attack,” Hill was quoted in a Jan. 24 Idaho Capital Sun article. “We don’t want to have a stack of 20 kids dead in a classroom because we didn’t do anything.”

Uhrig said a bill of this magnitude needs more research and collaboration, especially by school safety officials, law enforcement and other stakeholders.

"It seems like it was rushed," he said. "If they would have given it more time, it could have been a lot better. Where we are right now, I don't think this bill has been thoroughly vetted."

He said the bill is reactionary.

"It sounds great for conservative Idaho. We want to protect our students," he said, "but we need to do it in a thorough way, and they just didn't do it with this bill."

Uhrig said a big part of why he can't get behind HB415 is because every school district is different.

"In the Post Falls School District, we have a very close relationship with our police department," he said. "We’re able to have responding officers at any location in the district within three minutes or less than that."

Post Falls' needs are fundamentally different from more rural school districts, such as in Harrison, where it might take emergency services longer to arrive, Uhrig said.

"We need to talk about what’s best for each individual school district," he said. "We don’t need Ada County telling us how to run our schools."

Despite all this, he said he predicts it will gain approval from Idaho's legislators.

"I think that’s more because of the fact that it’s a political thing," he said. "It's a political hot potato and it's being painted as a gun rights issue."

This isn’t about rights, he said.

"It’s about school safety," Uhrig said, adding that it should be talked about at the local level.

"If the community thinks it needs guns with teachers, we need to talk about that," he said. "But I don't want Boise telling me how to do it."

Aaron Hayes, a music teacher at Dalton Elementary and president of the Coeur d'Alene Education Association, said the association strongly opposes this bill.

He said the tactical challenge of keeping schools safe requires skill and training well beyond those needed for concealed carry permits.

"We have highly trained school resource officers in Coeur d’Alene, and they have a robust plan for responding to threats, which does not include vigilantes who are going to just get in the way," he said. "The school board has the responsibility for keeping schools safe, so they should be given the tools and authority to do so."

Coeur d'Alene School District director of community relations Stefany Bales gave several points of consideration regarding this legislation: it is the inverse of local control; its definitions are too broad; it would significantly increase school district liability and, therefore, district expenses; it is potentially harmful and, overall, is unnecessary.

"The bill raises serious concerns regarding public safety and undermines the principle of local control in educational environments," Bales said in an email to The Press. "We are not aware of any school district or charter school official who is asking for this bill."

She said, if this bill passes, virtually any employee, volunteer or contractor could bring a firearm onto school grounds, which would undermine safety planning efforts and cause additional chaos in emergencies.

"The bill doesn’t define when people carrying weapons may use force, nor does it create storage requirements for an employee carrying a weapon who may travel between districts or whose job may prevent them from maintaining 'immediate control' of their firearm," Bales said.

She said, with the way the bill is written, there would be no civil recourse for accidents or other issues, which would lead to more liability for school districts.

"It is possible the insurance industry will raise premiums due to our increased exposure," Bales said. "HB415 would allow multiple armed employees at each school location. Insurance carriers will want to capture premium dollars to account for the increased risk of loss. They will also add exclusionary language to the policy to minimize their exposure to losses and limit the responsibility they have for acts carried out by school district employees."

Coeur d'Alene School District wants its teachers to focus on teaching, not policing, Bales said. More weapons on school grounds increases the likelihood of gun-related accidents or possible threats.

"Monitoring the security of weapons on campus would be a huge concern if they're allowed to bypass the systems we have in place," she said. "Of major concern is the inability to control/manage who has a weapon on campus, how they are trained and how they secure their weapon. We are also very concerned about the possibility of an armed employee engaging a suspect only to be injured, or worse. Law enforcement can’t always immediately distinguish between employees and perpetrators in an urgent and chaotic situation."

Many of Coeur d'Alene's schools have armed, professional law enforcement officers on site to ensure student and staff safety, Bales said.

"Additionally, local school boards have the authority now to allow staff to possess weapons, if desired," she said.

The Idaho Association of School Resource Officers issued a statement Monday about this bill missing the mark and encouraging elected representatives to vote against it.

"Rep. Hill and those who support this legislation have demonstrated their resolve to protect our students and educators. I thank you for that commitment," Idaho Association of School Resource Officers President Morgan Ballis said in the announcement.

"However, these efforts are focused in the wrong areas," Ballis said in the release. "Equip schools with the resources to identify and support at-risk students. Empower stakeholders to be prepared by having multiple response options. Invest in school resource officers who have dedicated themselves to protecting our educational facilities."