Politics & Government

‘We make our kids soft targets,’ Republican says in effort to arm Kansas teachers

A Kansas sheriff released a statement Friday about his plan to arm school staff in an attempt to deter school shootings in his county.
A Kansas sheriff released a statement Friday about his plan to arm school staff in an attempt to deter school shootings in his county.

The school shooting in Parkland, Fla., and last weekend’s mass rallies for gun control echoed in a Kansas House hearing room early Tuesday.

The fear of more kids dying was one everyone in the room shared. But there was no agreement on the issue of the day: teachers’ access to firearms in schools.

Some conservative Republicans feared what would happen to students if teachers weren’t allowed to have guns in their classrooms. Others worried what might happen if teachers were.

After the deaths at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February, two prominent conservatives have pushed for a bill that would help Kansas teachers carry concealed guns in school.

This conversation needs to happen now, before another tragedy, Rep. Blake Carpenter, a Derby Republican, told the packed hearing of the House insurance committee.

"It is not if our kids will be killed," he said. "It is when will they be killed, and what are we doing to prevent it."

School districts, current and former educators, and parents spoke out against the bill, which was supported by conservative Republicans, a Wichita teacher who is a military veteran, and the Kansas State Rifle Association.

"We don't want to be paid to carry guns," said Mark Desetti, legislative director for the Kansas National Education Association, the state's largest teachers union. “We want to be paid to teach.”

As part of a concealed carry law in 2013, certain teachers and staff would have been allowed to be armed in school buildings. But at the time, the main insurance carrier for the state's school districts said it wouldn't renew policies for districts that allowed concealed guns.

The new proposal says insurance companies can't penalize school districts if teachers choose to carry guns in their classrooms.

"We make our kids soft targets," said Sen. Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican.

Under the proposal, if a school district does not authorize teachers to carry concealed handguns, and a shooting occurred, the district could be presumed negligent in protecting children. Supporters of the bill said they’d be willing to do away with that provision.

Students and parents also wouldn’t know which of their school districts' employees were carrying concealed firearms.

The bill has moved relatively quickly through the process as the end of the 2018 session approaches, raising concerns from some.

Emily Boedeker, a parent, school secretary and former teacher in Lawrence, urged lawmakers to talk to educators.

"I think it was very sneaky how this bill was just kind of slid in," she said. "I think that there's no surprise to me that there are very few teachers behind me, because where are they at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday morning? They're teaching. They're doing their jobs."

School officials from the Shawnee Mission and Kansas City, Kan., districts testified against the bill.

"Here in Kansas City, Kan., we do not want teachers having guns. That will not work," said David Smith, spokesman for the Kansas City, Kan., Public Schools. "That will not keep our kids safe."

But not all those with ties to education panned the bill.

Joseph Clay, a military veteran and Wichita school teacher, testified in support.

"It is because of the love that I carry for each and every one of the children under my care that I seek to dispose this notion that concealed carry is not an answer," he said, "when in fact I believe it to be the best option to prevent a horrific situation."

It wasn’t clear after the hearing whether the committee would vote on the gun bill and pass it along for a full vote on the House floor.

The bill’s chances of moving forward are low, said Rep. Tom Cox, a Shawnee Republican on the House insurance committee who planned to vote against the bill.

"I think that it got a hearing shocked everyone," Cox said.

Later Tuesday on the House floor, the Legislature advanced a different school safety measure.

Earlier this month, Republican House leaders proposed the Kansas Safe and Secure Schools Act. GOP leaders have billed the measure as helping the state Board of Education and other state agencies to create security and safety standards while also creating a grant program to improve school safety.

That bill passed an initial voice vote and is expected to get a final action vote Wednesday.

The Star’s Judy Thomas and Laura Bauer contributed to this report.