Ohio House passes bill that excuses schools, teachers from liability for gun accidents

AKRON, Ohio (MCT) – A month after a local police officer and decorated combat veteran accidentally discharged his firearm in a school, the Ohio House passed legislation Wednesday that would remove liability for schools that make closed-door decisions about arming teachers.
Jan 26, 2014

AKRON, Ohio (MCT) – A month after a local police officer and decorated combat veteran accidentally discharged his firearm in a school, the Ohio House passed legislation Wednesday that would remove liability for schools that make closed-door decisions about arming teachers.

Current Ohio law allows private and public schools to permit teachers to carry guns. It's a local decision. The proposed law would allow them to decide in private who can be armed and protect schools from liability issues if there is an accident.

State education officials currently do not track which schools have armed educators, nor does the Attorney General's Office, although school safety plans filed with the AG's office might include information on who in a school may have a weapon. The bill still makes that a voluntary disclosure, which means a police officer responding to an emergency might not know who in the school is carrying a weapon.

Those safety plans are not public records.

The bill, moved from the House to the Senate on Wednesday, adds a requirement that employees authorized to carry a firearm undergo training provided by the Attorney General's Office, which did not participate in crafting the House bill.

Should an educator fire a weapon, the bill calls for psychological assessments after the event but no psychological screening prior to arming the educator, as some Democrats proposed.

Rep. Kristina Roegner, R-Hudson, is a co-sponsor of the bill.

She said she was unaware that a Brimfield police officer's gun discharged in December while cleaning the weapon in a high school.

"At the end of the day people are human and they're going to make mistakes," Roegner said. "Whenever you have guns and weapons you need to take precautions so mistakes don't happen. I'm not familiar with the incident, so I can't speak directly to that, but you need to take precautions, especially when it's in schools around children."

The Fraternal Order of Police and Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police reportedly voiced opposition to the bill in November, as did the Ohio Federation of Teachers.

Orrville schools in Wayne County armed a teacher a year ago. But they didn't arm just any teacher.

"I don't think this district would ever consider arming an employee who is not a police officer," said Superintendent Jon Ritchie. The district approved arming a science teacher only because he also is a police officer in nearby Lawrence Township.

Orrville also considered public opinion before allowing a gun in a classroom.

"Obviously our community knows it occurred. We talked about it in open session," said Ritchie. "At the time the overwhelming feedback was that it was something that our community supported."

The accidental discharge at Field High School happened in December and came at a time when the district was delinquent in filing with the Attorney General its safety-plan updates for four schools.

Brimfield Police Chief David Oliver said that his department keeps track of the schools' plans and they were never considered deficient, even though they had not been renewed with the state.

Field Superintendent David Heflinger blamed a staffing problem, and the plans were submitted earlier this month.

As for the proposed bill, Heflinger said: "In general this one doesn't concern me a whole lot because I'm not proposing that we arm anyone in the school other than the school resource (police) officer."

Roegner's bill would allow administrators to make closed-door decisions to arm teachers. She said publicizing the names of armed educators, considered a deterrent by some, can actually be dangerous.

"If a gunman knows who is armed, that gives the gunman an advantage. They can go take that person out first . . . ," Roegner explained. "That's why it's done in executive session, so only the schools and local law enforcement and the insurance companies or anyone else by court order would know."

Ritchie said his armed teacher works closely with local police. "They know who he is. We're not that vague. He works hand in hand with the local law enforcement."

The Attorney General has not taken a position on the recent legislation.

As for who would be liable if an armed teacher accidentally shoots an innocent bystander, Roegner's bill absolves the school and educator from civil action, so long as the armed employee acted appropriately.

Roegner said the bill provides safety for the defenseless.

"As a mother of three young girls, I'd like to know that they're not going to be defenseless," she said, adding that she gained the approval of a school police officer in Hudson before introducing the legislation.

"I'm only one person and I can't protect all these schools at once," Roegner said the officer told her. "He can't be everywhere at once," she said.

Manchester Schools Superintendent Sam Reynolds said the bill might force discussion of an issue his district hasn't yet addressed.

Before arming teachers, he would ask "How is that going to impact children? Will they know who is armed and who isn't armed? . . . They would want to know. Wouldn't you as a parent want to know?"

His school system already has armed police officers, but adding armed teachers raises training questions.

"I would be more confident with a police officer who has training and ongoing certification to possess a firearm," he said. "It would be a local discussion for us that we haven't had. I would have to have it with the board because I don't know what their position would be."

He endorses the position of Michelle Francis, deputy director of legislative services for the Ohio School Boards Association, who told lawmakers the issues raised in House Bill 8 should be part of a broader look at school security.

The association also said the issue should be subject to collective bargaining. The House did not include that provision.

State Sen. Frank LaRose, R-Copley Township, has held hearings on school safety. He promised to keep an open mind but promises some tough questions if the bill comes before him.

As a former Army Green Beret serving in Iraq, he is familiar with firefights.

"The heavy responsibility of carrying a firearm or possessing a deadly implement is something no one should take lightly," he said. "Law enforcement undergoes extensive training.

"I can tell you that I've done a lot of shoot-don't-shoot scenarios where you go into a dark building and they oftentimes will try to replicate the stresses of a live-shooter situation by, maybe, depriving you of sleep or piping live music into the room. . . . Even some of the most well-trained people in the world sometimes shoot the wrong target."

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