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general assembly

Opt-out inserted in school-gun law

Decision up to districts; Zoeller fears bill losing focus

– The House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday watered down a bill to place armed personnel in schools, though the change did little to cool emotions.

“You’re making serious, serious mistakes,” said Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, a former police officer. “Don’t stick a civilian in a building with a gun. It’s wrong. Stop this now.”

Instead, members of the panel inserted a waiver process in which schools can annually opt out of the mandate, and a local school safety board must approve the waiver.

All details about a waiver would be confidential, meaning no one would know for sure which schools have armed guards and which ones don’t.

The committee voted 16-7 to approve the amended bill, which now goes to the full House.

The legislation has drawn heated reactions from both sides, as Indiana could be the first state to require armed guards of some kind in each school building.

Also Tuesday, Attorney General Greg Zoeller, who was pushing the original bill aimed at school resource officers, said he is concerned lawmakers are losing the correct focus.

No one testified in support of the bill except Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, who authored the controversial provisions in the first place.

“We have to get past the stigma that guns are bad,” he said.

During his remarks, he focused on background checks and gun clip limitations, and began comparing gun deaths with other causes of deaths, including abortion.

At that point, House Ways and Means Chairman Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, said, “You’re excused.”

According to Senate Bill 1, a school protection officer could be a teacher or other school employee who has volunteered and undergone 40 hours of firearms training. Or the district might have to hire someone, though there is no money in the bill to train employees or hire outside guards.

There are more than 1,900 public schools in the state, including charter schools.

“We have no plans to arm staff members,” said Krista Stockman, spokeswoman for Fort Wayne Community Schools. “We work very closely with the police department and are happy to continue that. We believe law enforcement is best trained to handle weapons. Teachers need to be focused on education.”

She said FWCS supports the use of school resource officers, which the district has in several buildings already. It has 51 buildings in all.

It is these school resource officers – a career law enforcement officer with additional school training – that Zoeller proposed focusing on in the first place.

He had worked on legislation making school resource officers more available to schools since before the Newtown shooting. Now, though, the bill has morphed into including school protection officers, who are civilians with less training.

“A years’ worth of work and suddenly this is becoming something else,” Zoeller said.

The budget also has $10 million in it for a matching grant program for school resource officers.

“We are losing the focus on the value of school resource officers and developing that relationship between students and police,” Zoeller said. “The bill was about law enforcement inside a classroom.”

School resource officers are voluntary for schools, and it’s estimated only one-quarter to one-third of Indiana school corporations have these officers.

At times Tuesday it was clear the committee was confusing school resource officers with school protection officers, and misstating the training required for the latter.

Stockman said the school resource officer program has worked wonderfully for Fort Wayne Community Schools, and if money were no object, the district would likely hire more.

But she said school safety experts don’t support arming staff members.

“We have some people in our buildings who have been in the military and might be the ideal choice. But in a school setting do you want that person to suddenly feel the need to go into that military role? It creates a lot of concern and anxiety,” Stockman said.

nkelly@jg.net

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