Politics & Government

People could face jail time for identifying armed teachers if Kansas gun bill passes

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A Kansas bill that would pressure schools to allow teachers to carry guns would make it a crime to reveal who's authorized to be armed in the classroom.

That's a little-noticed provision in House Bill 2789, the Staff As First Emergency Responder (or SAFER) Act, which was debated at a heavily attended House committee hearing at the Capitol this week.

Most of the debate has focused on two sections of the bill, one that would make it harder for schools to defend themselves from lawsuits over shootings if they don't allow teachers to carry weapons, and another that would require insurance companies to cover schools that do arm their staffs.

But the only criminal penalty in the bill would be for those who publicly identify teachers or other staff members who are authorized to carry a concealed weapon on school grounds.

Legal opinions vary on how far the net of prosecution could spread. But two facts are undisputed:

Under the SAFER Act, parents would not, and could not, be informed by their school district if their child's teacher is carrying a weapon in the classroom.

School employees with access to the list of armed teachers would be subject to prosecution if they make it public.

Lawyers who have read the bill have differing views on whether students and parents who learn that a teacher is carrying could be prosecuted if they share that information on social media or elsewhere.

The SAFER Act specifically requires school districts to pass policies to shield the names and other information of armed teachers and staff from the public. And, it says, "Any individual, association, partnership, corporation or other entity that willfully or knowingly discloses, permits or encourages disclosure of such confidential information shall be guilty of a class C misdemeanor."

Class C misdemeanors are punishable by a maximum $500 fine and/or a month in jail.

Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said the level of crime would be comparable to simple assault, and enforcement could be by arrest or summons. Alleged violators would have to be fingerprinted and photographed at the jail if it was the first time they were charged with a crime, he said.

Lawmakers on the House Insurance Committee were told on Monday — inaccurately, as it turns out — that it would be up to school districts to decide whether to release the names of armed staff members.

Rep. Blake Carpenter, R-Derby, co-authored the SAFER Act with Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover.

Carpenter said they saw maintaining anonymity for armed teachers as necessary to prevent any potential attacker from knowing how many guns they might face in a school and who is carrying them.

"We want to keep that list secret so these schools are secured and hardened better," he said.

Most school shootings are planned in advance and armed teachers would have a better chance of defending themselves and the students if they have the element of surprise on their side, he said.

The legal uncertainty over who could be prosecuted is partially because confidentiality is addressed twice in the SAFER Act.

Part of the bill would amend the Kansas Open Records Act to add armed school personnel to a list of records that government doesn't have to disclose. That would give school districts discretion over whether to release their lists of armed employees.

But elsewhere, the SAFER Act specifically prohibits the release of that information and establishes the criminal penalty.

Carpenter said the misinformation that districts could release the names came about because the revisor who drafted the bill was unable to attend Monday's Insurance Committee briefing session and it was explained by another revisor, who wasn't as familiar with it.

The record can and will be corrected for committee members before they vote on whether to send the bill to the full House, he said.

Carpenter said he checked with the revisors on who could and couldn't be prosecuted, and their view is that only a school employee who released a list of armed educators could be charged with violating the SAFER Act.

However, Max Kautsch, attorney for the Kansas Press Association and the Kansas Association of Broadcasters, said the way it's written, the bill appears to try to prohibit disclosure of the information that's on the list, not the list itself.

He said that information could be obtained in other ways, such as students observing their teachers. And prohibiting disclosure raises free-speech issues, he said.

"The provision in the bill that criminalizes speech may well be unconstitutional, because it could penalize the disclosure of presumably lawfully obtained information," he said.

Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita and a lawyer, said he leans toward Carpenter's and the revisor's opinion that only school employees would be at risk of prosecution under the SAFER Act.

But he said the bill could also be interpreted to prevent schools from sharing the information about armed teachers with anyone outside the district, even law enforcement agencies that would have to respond to a shooting.

That, he said, could have disastrous consequences, because police wouldn't have any way of immediately knowing whether an adult with a gun was an attacker or an authorized gun-carrying teacher.

Also, he said, if the purpose is to reassure parents that the children are being protected, "Why would we not want parents to know if their child's teacher is carrying a gun?"

Carmichael said he thinks the bill needs more work.

"This bill is replete with careless and contradictory drafting," he said. "I believe this is hastily drafted legislation to attempt to justify an increase in weapons in schools."

The Insurance Committee has not yet scheduled a vote on sending the bill to the floor.

Dion Lefler; 316-268-6527, @DionKansas