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School safety worries stir Ind. Statehouse debate

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Sunday, April 14, 2013 - 6:52 pm

INDIANAPOLIS — The debate inside and outside the Indiana Statehouse over the past couple weeks over a lawmaker's proposal that all public schools should have a gun-carrying employee on hand had an undertone magnified by the deadly December attack at a Connecticut elementary school.

Rep. David Niezgodski, D-South Bend, boiled it down during a House committee's discussion of the idea — "We need to do something."

The governor, legislators, educators and others who have weighed in on the issue of school security all say it has become a greater priority since the shooting in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 students and six adults died. But they haven't found any easy answers.

The proposal to arm teachers, principals or other school employees after they've undergone training was shelved Thursday by the Indiana House amid questions about the training, cost of the program and whether having armed civilians would be effective in the event of an attack.

Lawmakers are still considering a bill that aims to establish a statewide school safety board and start a new state grant program to help school districts buy safety equipment and hire police officers trained to deal with students to become school resource officers.

Republican Gov. Mike Pence, Democratic state schools superintendent Glenda Ritz and other state agency officials have also started a new task force to suggest school security improvements.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, says one of the best steps would to have more police officers in school. He had expressed support for the armed employees concept as a cost-effective way to provide a possible deterrent to attackers.

Long said he supported the governor's efforts to come up with security suggestions but made it clear he didn't think the Legislature would wait.

"I think it is important to get something in place — the sooner the better," Long said.

The bill that the House is expected to vote on Monday would put more emphasis on hiring police officers who work full-time in schools and are known as school resource officers. Many larger districts around the state already have such officers.

The plan would set up a two-year matching grant program allowing districts up to $50,000 a year to employ resource officers, conduct school threat assessments or buy safety equipment.

That bill also would have the new school safety board review training and other issues surrounding the possibility of arming school staffers. The board would submit a report to the Legislature by December.

Frank Bush, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association, said he disagreed with the idea of arming teachers or other school staffers and giving them responsibility for defending against an attacker. He also said additional training for police officers was important before having them work in schools full time.

"How you deal with a sixth-grader is a lot different than dealing with some 50-year-old out on the street," Bush said.

Current Indiana law makes it a felony for someone other than a police officer to possess a gun on school property, although school districts can authorize school employees to have guns on school property. Bush and other officials have said they don't know of any Indiana districts that now allow teachers to have guns at school.

Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, introduced the armed-employees proposal in a House committee on April 2 — the same day a National Rifle Association-sponsored report came out recommending all schools across the country arm at least one staff member after a 40- to 60-hour training program.

No NRA representatives testified before the two House committees that considered Lucas' proposal, and an organization spokesman didn't respond to messages from The Associated Press seeking comment.

Lucas said he had talked with the NRA to gather information about the idea.

"I've not been encouraged or prodded by the NRA — this is something I believe in 100 percent because I have kids in school," said Lucas, who was a Seymour City Council member before winning election in November to his first term in the House.

Lucas said many teachers had told him they would volunteer to undergo training and carry a gun while in the classroom and that such a step could "minimize the innocent people being killed."

"This is a last-ditch effort when someone comes through the door," he said.