Immediately following the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in December, Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre held a press conference to assure Knoxville parents their children were safe.
"We want to reassure parents we focus on school safety already every day," he said, and added that the school system would take a look at what it could do to make schools safer in the wake of the Sandy Hook investigation.
Knox County Sheriff J.J. Jones and Knoxville Police Department Chief David Rausch were also at that press conference, and KPD posted an officer at every school in the city for a week.
Since then, state Sen. Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains) announced his plan to file legislation requiring either an armed resource officer or an armed staff/faculty member at every school. But just last week, state Sen. Stacey Campfield also filed a bill that would allow teachers with a concealed carry permit to come to school armed if there is no resource officer at their schools, and if those teachers receive the same training a resource officer would. State law requires school resource officers (SRO's) to complete 40 hours of basic training in school policing within a year of being assigned to a school, and at least 16 hours of training every year after that. Campfield's bill also has a provision that would allow schools to bar all guns from campus, though current state law already prohibits guns on school campuses (with exceptions for people such as police officers and resource officers).
But McIntyre is hesitant about arming teachers as a way to make schools safer.
"My personal perspective on that is that arming teachers, I don't think is the answer," he says. Though teachers play a role in school security, McIntyre says "our teachers have a full-time job, and it's educating children. And our school resource officers and our school security officers spend countless hours in training and development and qualifying with their weapons, and thinking about various scenarios and how they would respond, and it's truly a full-time job to be a school resource officer or a school security officer. And I really believe strongly that that's not a burden we need to charge our teachers."
Niceley says he hasn't read Campfield's bill, but that it's not unusual for two or three people to write bills about the same thing.
"I haven't read his bill. Campfield usually has good legislation. We'll look at it when we get down there and if we like his better, we'll go with his, and if he likes mine better, he'll go with mine," Niceley says.
Niceley's bill has two main points: Every school will be required to have some sort of security personnel—whether a resource officer, teacher, janitor, bus driver, etc.—and they must have a certain level of training, a background check, and psychological evaluation, which will be specified in his legislation (which hasn't been filed yet).
"We're not making teachers be armed, but if a teacher wants to take the proper training, then they could, at that point, carry a weapon to school. We have resource officers in half the schools now. What my bill does is expand a successful program into the other half of the schools, but give the locals the option to save money. And maybe they have a more secure system," he says.
Campfield says he can't take a position on Niceley's legislation, since it hasn't been filed.
Jones says through spokeswoman Martha Dooley that he is against any requirement for teachers to be armed at schools, but says he "has no problem as long as it's not mandatory ... and the schools are in agreement."
The Knox County Sheriff's Department currently has 24 officers in Knox County schools. The high schools and middle schools each have an officer on campus, and some officers go back and forth between elementary schools during their days.
Assistant Chief Deputy Robert Spangler points out that the sheriff's deputies at Knox County schools are patrol officers who could be reassigned tomorrow to work at the courts or any other patrol work. They go through basic law-enforcement academy and receive field-officer training before becoming a patrol officer.
"The situation in schools is no different than a situation out here on a domestic, a fight out on the streets. They're trained to handle those situations. It's not school-specific," Spangler says.
Spangler is also a handgun carry permit instructor and says most of the people in his classes only shoot their weapons the required 48 times, learn how to clean them, and that's it. Meanwhile, the patrol officers the Sheriff's Department sends to schools are constantly practicing for shoot-out situations, which Spangler says begin and end in a matter of seconds.
"Most shoot-outs—the FBI stats will show you this—from a law-enforcement standpoint, they last two to three seconds, with anywhere from four to six rounds fired in those two to three seconds. How many citizens that have a handgun carry are practicing for that? And I'm not knocking that, I'm just saying there's no comparison," he says.
And though schools may have a clear-headed, fully trained professional to deal with emergency situations, Spangler acknowledges a police officer may not stop someone on a rampage.
"Just because an officer's there doesn't mean you're going to stop an individual that woke up this morning and said, I'm going to a school and shoot as many people as I can. Can they be an asset to the situation? Most definitely," he says.
Spangler is hesitant about putting teachers in a position of such responsibility, especially when officers have been training for years to handle emergencies.
"We don't want to start introducing more weapons into schools when we're trying to keep them out," he says.
McIntyre has similar thoughts on arming teachers. "If you introduce a firearm into a school without an intensive level of training, support and ongoing thinking about how that might enhance student safety, then it can be a liability rather than an asset," he says.
The school resource officers employed by the school district participate in the state-mandated training before being assigned to a school, says Steve Griffin, the chief of security at Knox County schools.
"This is 40 hours of just school-type situations, school scenarios, school law, and anything and everything that would have to do with a uniformed officer with a weapon that would be in a school setting," Griffin says. The agreement the school system has with KPD and the sheriff's department, he says, stipulates that everyone working in a security capacity at schools must go through this training.
Freshman state Rep. Gloria Johnson, who worked as a teacher before being elected in November, says it's wiser to have someone trained to protect the school who's not also in the classroom all day.
"If you really feel the need to put someone in an elementary school, let it be an officer. Or we've had a lot of veterans coming back from Afghanistan. They've had a lot of training. You can find the right person there. Utilize someone who's not in a classroom. I think the idea of allowing teachers to carry weapons is ridiculous," she says. "I think it would cause all kinds of problems, not to mention the liability carried by the teacher who's going to do that. It's ludicrous to think about the possibilities that bill could mean and all the things that could go wrong there. It's just ridiculous. If you're going to have a teacher trained, and all of those things, why not train a professional? That's what they do and that's the only reason they're there."
And that's not to mention some people just won't go for armed teachers.
"I've got friends who aren't political who say their kids won't go to a school where teachers will carry weapons. And certainly a lot of teachers say they won't teach at a school where teachers are going armed," Johnson says.
The Professional Educators of Tennessee released an editorial on Jan. 8 written by Bill Gemmill, a retired Nashville principal and the director of media and membership for PET. "[PET] will neither endorse nor reject legislative proposals concerning the arming of teachers in schools," Gemmill wrote. He added that the issue should be addressed at the local level. The organization will, however support "the retention and expansion of the School Resource Officer program" and "posting additional guidance counselors to schools and advanced training for all teachers that will help identify problem students."
The Tennessee Education Association posted a position on its website saying "every school—elementary, middle, and high school—should have a specially trained School Resource Officer," but echoes PET's sentiment that guidance counselors and teachers should be more focused on identifying students whose behavior could potentially become a risk to other students.
Ultimately, legislation like Campfield's and Niceley's is sparking a conversation on how to best protect kids at school, McIntyre says, and it's one in which he intends to continue to participate, despite their differences of opinion.
"I applaud the Legislature and Sen. Campfield for thinking about how we might be able to collectively enhance school safety and security. I look forward to the dialogue about how best to do that and I look forward to working with our security personnel and our law enforcement partners to figure out how best to that in Knox County schools," he says. "I think the question we need to be asking ourselves as a community and as a state is what are the best strategies for us to be putting in place in order to keep our kids safe? And is this bill that's been proposed by Sen. Campfield the best approach or is there a different approach that might yield better results in terms of student safety?"