Bill to Arm Teachers Dies in Tennessee

Critics are welcoming the demise of a controversial measure that would have allowed Tennessee school systems to arm some willing, trained staff and teachers after the bill was voted down Tuesday in a House panel.
by | April 5, 2018 AT 9:10 AM

By Andy Sher and Meghan Mangrum

Critics are welcoming the demise of a controversial measure that would have allowed Tennessee school systems to arm some willing, trained staff and teachers after the bill was voted down Tuesday in a House panel.

Calling the proposal "dangerous," Carol Frazier, a Tennessee volunteer with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said members who flocked to the state Capitol in opposition are "thankful that lawmakers in Nashville listened to their constituents, educators and law enforcement and defeated this reckless proposal."

Graham Shults, a sophomore at Chattanooga Center for Creative Arts, said that after he and other students "worked so hard on it" the vote "made us feel as a group like our voices were heard. We're not stopping here. That's just one small victory, one piece of this puzzle."

House Education Administration and Planning Committee members voted down the measure, sponsored by Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, on a voice vote.

Byrd pushed the legislation to help poor school systems in counties like his that he says can't afford to pay school resource officers.

"This is only for counties that do not have an SRO," Byrd told the panel during a sometimes-testy debate.

Rep. Eddie Smith, R-Knoxville, sharply criticized the measure, bluntly telling Byrd, "To be honest with you, it feels like the bill's been put together on the back of a napkin and held together with bubble gum and duct tape."

As critics cheered, committee Chairman Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, admonished the room, saying, "This is not a cheerleading session. Any more comments, I'm going to have you removed from this room. Is that clear?"

Smith's remarks also drew protests from Byrd, a former school principal, who said he had labored three years on efforts to protect students in poorer systems.

Before killing Byrd's bill, the committee approved another bill allowing armed, off-duty law enforcement officers to provide security in schools. It had bipartisan support.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, and Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, seeks to let sheriff's deputies and police officers and other officers with state Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission (POST) certification to fill in as volunteers with modest stipends.

There has been discussion of arming educators in Hamilton County schools, as well, with Sheriff Jim Hammond noting there aren't adequate funds to provide school resource officers at all schools, especially elementary schools.

But the Tennessee Education Association argues that the main problem is at middle and high schools.

Hamilton County Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson said in a statement that "as a school system, we are focused first and foremost on safety in our schools and using the avenues made available to us to provide the safest possible learning environment for our children."

He added that the concerns voiced by lawmakers "seem to reflect those we have heard from teachers, students and the community in recent weeks."

And Johnson noted that as a father with two children in the system his first expectation "is that my children come home safe to me each day."

"Hamilton County Schools will continue to work with local public safety officials, educators, students, parents, and the community to maximize our efforts to improve safety in our schools," he added.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam was never a fan of Byrd's legislation. After the Parkland, Fla., massacre that killed 17 people, the governor assembled a working group of educators, law enforcement and mental health professionals to make recommendation.

The governor is also recommending in his proposed 2018-2019 budget $25 million in one-time grants for safety enhancements such as electronically locking doors, cameras and other equipment, and another $5.2 million in recurring money.

The recurring money can be combined with an existing $5.2 million for a total of $10.4 million that can be used in areas like paying salaries of more school resource officers. Following defeat of Byrd's bill, there's talk among lawmakers of scouring the governor's proposed budget for additional funds.

Meanwhile, Byrd said later that he thinks his legislation did prompt action.

"The bill was really to shed a light on the schools without SROs, and 60 percent of our students are without SROs. ... I think we are going to see a lot more money that has been re-appropriated to school safety," Byrd said. "So I'm very optimistic that our schools without SROs will be getting funds."

(c)2018 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.)