A measure that could open the door for teachers to be armed in Tennessee is starting to make its way through the state legislature, after a panel voted along party lines Wednesday to let some educators carry, if their districts will give them permission.
But the proposal may be a strategy to get more professional police in the schools, rather than actually giving teachers guns.
The state House of Representative's Civil Justice Subcommittee voted 5-2 to advance House Bill 2208. The measure began as a proposal to expand the training opportunities for teachers in the only two Tennessee counties where they were allowed to be armed.
But in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, shooting on Feb. 14, it's been expanded — opening the possibility of teachers in schools across the state being allowed to carry weapons.
The proposal is so controversial that not even the measure’s sponsor is certain arming teachers is the best solution. State Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, would prefer to assign police officers known as school resource officers, who'd be better prepared to handle an emergency in a school.
"I'm going to continue fighting for SROs," he says, "and hopefully, if we get funding for SROs, then we won't need this bill."
The debate over arming officers in Tennessee goes back several years, and Byrd, a former principal, teacher and coach, has long been at the center of it.
Fundamentally, he says his goal is to get the state to pay for police in rural schools, like those that he represents, which can't afford officers on their own.
Frustrated by the lack of progress, he got a law passed a few years ago that was designed to let a few teachers in two counties he represents carry guns, if they could get the same training as police officers. But Tennessee's Police Officer Standards Training Commission says it's not authorized to give that training to civilians, so none have actually qualified to carry, says Byrd. That's left schools in his area still without any protection against shooters.
And there may be many others. Across Tennessee, just over 900 police have been assigned to schools. That’s enough for one officer in every two schools.
Some lawmakers believe the prospect of arming teachers statewide will convince Governor Bill Haslam’s administration to pay for more officers. And if schools can't be protected by professional police, teachers with guns are better than nothing, they say.
Off-Duty Police Proposed
But arming teachers isn't the only proposal before the state legislature.
Separately Wednesday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers unveiled a plan to pay armed police to patrol schools when they're off duty. The program would be voluntary — both for the officers and school districts — and could result in as many as two officers assigned to each school, each day.
Supporters say the proposal is intended as an emergency measure that could get through the legislature swiftly. They say they want to keep it separate from the debate over arming teachers.
"That's actually for a later discussion," says state Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis. "Right now, we're focusing on the need as of right now and putting an emergency stopgap in place right now."
The program would end in 2022, unless the legislature extends it. If fully implemented, paying off-duty officers to patrol schools would cost the state about $40 million a year. The proposal calls for using assets seized from suspected criminals through forfeiture proceedings, as well as money in Tennessee's rainy day fund.