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West Virginia house passes bill allowing for armed K-12 teachers

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill Wednesday to allow eligible teachers and staff to carry concealed firearms, but not before a debate broke out over amendments to the bill.

House Bill 4299, permitting teachers in K-12 schools to be authorized to carry concealed firearms as a designated school protection officer, passed the House after lengthy debate Wednesday afternoon in a 89-11 vote. The bill now heads to the state Senate.

HB 4299 would allow teachers, administrators, and school service personnel in elementary and secondary schools to become school protection officers and be allowed to carry concealed firearms or other concealed weapons.

The lead sponsor of the bill, Del. Doug Smith, R-Mercer, said the bill would provide another safety tool to help protect children in schools in the event of a mass shooting event.

“It’s not if, it’s when … because it will happen someday,” Smith said. “This bill does not advocate for arming every teacher. It proposes a carefully planned and voluntary program where willing educators undergo practical training in firearms and crisis management. This ensures that only those who are well prepared and capable would carry a concealed weapon.”

The bill allows a county school system to designate one or more K-12 teachers, administrators, and service personnel as school protection officers (SPO) on a voluntary basis. The bill would allow these SPOs to carry concealed handguns, stun guns, and tasers.

Teachers and staff interested in being designated SPOs would apply in writing to their county superintendents and would be required to show a valid concealed carry permit and a certificate showing they completed an SPO training program through the West Virginia Justice and Community Services division within the state Department of Homeland Security.

County school systems would be allowed to revoke an SPO designation for any reason, though the bill includes an appeals process to the West Virginia Justice and Community Services division. Schools that already have prevention resource officers and school security officers — local law enforcement officers who work in public schools — could also still have SPOs. The bill also lays out the training requirements for SPOs.

The bill directs the Legislature to appropriate $5,000 per county school system that opts into the SPO program to cover the cost of annual training for new and current SPOs. The total cost allocated if all 55 counties participate would be $275,000.

The bill received support from the entire House Republican caucus, with 13 members of the majority party rising to speak in favor of the bill.

“We like to believe we live in a very safe world, but unfortunately there are bad people out there,” said Del. Rick Hillenbrand, R-Hampshire. “This is a bill to protect our children … I don’t know how you can vote against it.”

“The bottom line is they have to have a course, they have to know what they’re doing and when to do it and when not to do it,” said Del. Scott Heckert, R-Wood. “A teacher who is not responsible and doesn’t pass the class won’t be doing it. A teacher has to want to do it.”

All 11 members of the House Democratic caucus opposed the bill, raising concerns about the short amount of training required to receive certification by the Department of Homeland Security, the lack of input from school systems and parents, and lack of notification for students and parents whether teachers and staff in their schools have been certified as an SPO.

“We’ve gone from Campus Carry to Kindergarten carry,” said House Minority Whip Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, referring to a bill passed last year allowing for college students to carry concealed firearms on campus with a valid permit. “Not a single expert came in and said we need this legislation. No principal came in and said they want this for their schools. No one from a school district came in and said we need this legislation. We sat through the committee process and none of this came up.”

“We have never asked the teachers what they want,” said Del. Anitra Hamilton, D-Monongalia. “I believe in protection, but I believe we should protect on all fronts, not just with guns. We should protect our kids in all ways. Teachers already have a hard time controlling their classrooms, but you’re telling me that one training is going to give them the wherewithal to take down an active shooter who more than likely has an assault weapon.”

An amendment offered Del. Geoff Foster, R-Putnam, would make it mandatory for a county school system to designate at least one teacher or staff member to be an SPO if there is an eligible applicant, regardless of whether a county wishes to participate. The amendment was adopted in a 79-21 vote.

“We’re changing it from a ‘may’ to a ‘shall,’ but only in the situation where someone who is a teacher, administrator, or support personnel has applied, met all the requirements, and is otherwise eligible to fulfill this position,” Foster said.

While they expressed support for the bill, some of the House members who also work as teachers opposed Foster’s amendment, believing that it should be up to county school systems to decide to participate.

“These school board members are elected, they’re chosen by their community members, and they should have the right to opt into this program if they determine that it is beneficial for them or to choose not to participate if it is in their judgment that it isn’t,” said Del. Andy Shamblin, R-Kanawha.

“I’m just worried we’re getting ahead of ourselves here,” said Del. Dana Ferrell, R-Kanawha. “I’ve worked with people who are responsible who I think would handle this well. But there’s also others I’d be concerned about.”

An unsuccessful amendment offered by Fluharty would require anyone designated as an SPO be given a one-time bonus of $25,000 within 30 days of completing training. Fluharty said his amendment — which failed in a 13-87 vote — was modeled after a similar program in Georgia.

“My amendment arms teachers with something they actually want: money,” Fluharty said. “The bill is, essentially, forcing teachers to work a second job without any money. I think if they’re going to do this, they should at least be awarded money.”

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