The Tamaqua Area School District intends to scrap its policy allowing for the arming of teachers, citing a new state law that some argue throws the legality of the policy into question.But the school board intends to craft a new security policy with the wording of the law in mind, board president Larry Wittig said Thursday. He said people on all sides of the debate will be invited to have a say in what a revamped policy looks like in Tamaqua, but he still believes anonymously arming staff is the surest way to prevent a school shooting.The security committee’s recommendation to rescind Policy 705, the first of its kind in Pennsylvania, will be brought to the full board on Tuesday. Wittig expects it to pass without much debate.Gov.Tom Wolf signed Senate Bill 621 into law July 2, amending the Pennsylvania School Code to provide more rigid training requirements and clarify who may serve as an armed school security officer or school resource officer. The law does not reference teachers directly, but states the positions can be filled with law enforcement officers or independent contractors.“The students, parents, and educators in this Commonwealth can now be secure in the knowledge that teachers can dedicate themselves to teaching our children, and that the security of school facilities rests in the hands of trained, professional security personnel,” the governor’s office said in a statement last week.Critics came from both sides of the issue. CeaseFirePA and the Education Law Center jointly called on Gov. Wolf to veto the bill, and Tamaqua Area School Board member Nick Boyle, a vocal champion of the policy, also disapproved of the legislation, saying it did not provide more clarity and could lead to more lawsuits. The Tamaqua Education Association, meanwhile, said last week the law clearly makes the district’s policy allowing armed teachers in classrooms, passed unanimously last September, illegal.Language that existed in a previous draft of the bill would have provided more clarity, CeasefirePA’s executive director Shira Goodman has argued. The clause explained that those hired to be security personnel could not be “engaged in programs with students at the school.”As it stands, critics say, the law is too ambiguous. However, Gov. Wolf’s office has made clear the intent of the law was specifically to prevent it from authorizing teachers to carry firearms to class.Wittig said legal counsel advised the security committee to drop the policy based on the fact that it could not live up to the law’s requirement on training.
There are still two lawsuits pending against Policy 705 in Schuylkill County Court: one filed by the teachers’ union in November 2018 and one filed by a group of parents in January.Chris Lilienthal, assistant director of communications for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said if the board follows through with the vote to rescind the policy, the Tamaqua Education Association will withdraw the lawsuits.Wittig said this presents an opportunity to start anew.“If we do away with it now, it clears the slate and we start over and have an honest conversation about what kind of solution we want in our district,” Wittig said.Goodman warned that any new board policy that attempts to arm teachers would prompt another lawsuit.“If they still think they can turn their teachers into armed security officers, they’re going to find themselves back in court,” Goodman said.Wittig said he’s still personally in favor of a plan that would allow for highly trained, armed staff members who would otherwise remain anonymous. He believes this would create what he called an “unassailable risk” for a would-be shooter.He noted that many other states in school districts across the country have such policies in place and said the catastrophic accidents critics warn of have yet to materialize. All that being said, the school board president made clear that he wants the new effort to craft a policy to be transparent and include a variety of voices on the subject.“I’m not married to our philosophy because I have some predisposition to arming teachers,” Wittig said. “I’m just looking at the best way to protect our schools in a way that is within our budget.”Cheryl Hume, a parent who is running for school board, agrees with those intentions. But she contends there are better alternatives to arming teachers in order to create a safe school environment, including the use of school resource officers, armed police officers, increased guidance counseling and behavioral health training for teachers.She said she commends the school board’s intent to rescind the policy not simply because she disagrees with its merits, but because this means the process of rewriting a policy will be a very public one, thanks to increased scrutiny.Last year the school board unanimously passed Policy 705 at a public meeting, but before the public took note of its existence.For similar major policy changes in Tamaqua, such as the implementation of uniforms, the public was invited to partake in special meetings about the policy. Critics were upset that there was no such forum for a policy about arming staff prior to the board’s vote.This time, Hume said she hopes the debate will draw a more diverse array of viewpoints to the table.“Everyone knows my position at this point,” she said. “I’m hoping that some of these people speaking out on social media will come to the meetings.”Wittig said there likely will be discussion during Tuesday’s board meeting about how and when to move forward with discussions over a new policy. There’s a “sense of urgency” to get it done, he said, and he had no intention of pushing it off until after November’s crowded school board election.Morning Call reporter Kayla Dwyer can be reached at 610-820-6554 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.