Ohio may exclude teachers from gun accident liability

In wake of recent school shootings, states are defining who can have guns in schools, training and other issues for teachers and staff.

A bill making its way through the Ohio legislature would expand who can carry a firearm on school grounds, the training required, exempt school districts from civil liability should an injury or death occur from someone designated to carry a gun and keep parents in the dark about who is in possession of a gun.

One of the bill’s sponsors said it clarifies current Ohio laws and makes it tougher to carry a weapon on school property even for those designated to do so.

House Bill 8 passed the Ohio House last week by a vote of 63 to 29 and awaits action by the Senate.

Rep. Kristina Roegner, R-Hudson, a co-sponsor of the bill, said Ohio law already allows school districts to grant permission for anyone to carry a firearm on school property, but doesn’t specify training requirements. Following shootings at Chardon High School near Cleveland on Feb. 27, 2012 and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. on Dec. 14, 2012, some school districts began arming personnel.

House Bill 8 aims to develop clear guidelines for firearms on school grounds while allowing local districts to maintain control.

“What we’re saying is let’s be safe about it if you decide to arm an employee. Let’s do it thoughtfully and be safe about it,’’ Roegner said.

House Bill 8 would:

* Allow off-duty police officers to possess guns at schools;

* Allow school boards to designate employees who could carry weapons and exclude from collective bargaining how these employees are designated;

* Require the Ohio Attorney General to develop a firearms training curriculum for these employees;

* Provide immunity from civil liability to school districts and those they have designated to carry weapons should injury or death occur and protect the identity of the employee designated to carry the weapon.

Roegner said the identity of school personnel carrying guns would be known only to the school board, local police, and the school’s insurance companies. Parents would not be told, Roegner said.

“I understand that there’s some concern about that and I get that,” Roegner said, adding that if parents know who is carrying a gun at school, it would eventually get out to others, including a potential gunman.

School districts would be required to work with local law enforcement to develop safety standards for employees carrying guns. No employee would be required to carry a firearm, said Roegner.

Attorney General Mike DeWine agrees that decisions about who to arm at schools should be made by the local boards. Having a school resource officer, which is a trained police officer, is the best practice, DeWine said.

“I’m not saying they shouldn’t do it (designate staff to carry), but it’s a serious thing when a school does it,” DeWine said.

DeWine said he started looking into firearms training recommendations after a local school district superintendent asked for advice.

DeWine said he asked the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy (OPOTA), which trains police officers, to develop recommendations for what training would be appropriate for school personnel.

“I think it’s clear that they should have more than just 12 hours of carrying a concealed”, DeWine said.

The preliminary recommendation is for about 200 hours of training before the AG’s office would recommend someone be allowed to carry a concealed weapon on school property, DeWine said. He said the recommendations, which still must be approved by the Ohio Peace Officer Training Commission, could be enforced only if the H.B. 8 becomes law.

The OPOTA recommendations will be made public even if the bill fails, DeWine said.

The biggest concern is whether the person has enough training to react correctly in an active shooter situation, DeWine said.

“It’s not just about can I shoot a gun. That’s just a small part of it. It’s: Do I have enough training to be able to react so that my training goes into effect and I don’t end up shooting someone who’s innocent,” DeWine said.

Rep. Ross McGregor of Springfield voted against the bill. McGregor said he was not opposed to the overall concept of having armed personnel in school buildings, but did not favor granting immunity without a strong training requirement attached.

“I felt there needed to be a stronger training component that would be a part of qualifying to be authorized to carry a gun in the schools,” McGregor said. He said the bill does not require school districts to implement the AG’s training program.

Rep. Roland Winburn of Dayton cited potential danger to students in his opposition to the bill. He said harm could be caused by the student gaining access or by the person designated to carry the gun.

“Sometimes people don’t have that ability to really think things through and they act on emotions or act for the moment. So I think there are some things we should look into before we allow people to carry guns in schools,” Winburn said.

“I think there are other different kind of strategies and other kinds of tools that schools have available to them rather than having a gun inside the school,” Winburn said.

Rep. Fred Strahorn of Dayton said he initially supported the bill but voted against it because parents would not be told who’s carrying a gun.

“Parents have a right to know who’s carrying a weapon, particularly who’s not specifically trained to carry a weapon in the midst of their children,” Strahorn said.

Rep. Wes Retherford of Hamilton supports the bill and said it will allow school districts to take advantage of more resources in their communities by allowing off-duty police officers to carry guns on school property.

“As long as we’re continuing this debate of how to better protect our children, we have to be open to every single idea,” Retherford said. “We have to give our local districts the freedom to better dictate what works for their school districts.”

The Ohio Education Association lobbied against the bill. OEA said prohibiting collective bargaining denied teacher input into the school safety plan.

“It’s our position that safety plans, including allowing certain employees to carry handguns must be developed in consultation with local employee representation,’’ said Michele Prater, a spokesperson for the OEA.

“Whether teachers or support personnel, they have the deepest understanding of the daily school routines. And these perspectives and daily experiences should be part of the process shaping the appropriate school safety plans,” Prater said.

The Ohio School Boards Association lobbied for the bill and favored exempting the decision from collective bargaining. “We felt that the discussion should be between the person designated to carry the weapon and the board,” Damon Asbury, director of legislative services for OSBA said. “Who’s carrying the weapon or who’s authorize, we thought that would be too open.”

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