No. 9 — Watson crafts guns in schools legislation
by BRIAN GRAVES Banner Staff Writer
Dec 29, 2013 | 1165 views | 0 0 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Eric Watson
Eric Watson

On Dec. 14, 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and fatally shot 20 children and six staff members.

Less than a month later, a local state representative co-sponsored a bill designed to assist in ramping up security measures at schools in Tennessee.

The bill, informally named the School Security Act, was introduced by state Rep. Eric Watson and state Sen. Frank Nicely.

The bill, and its passage, was selected as the year’s No. 9 story of 2013 as voted by the news team of the Cleveland Daily Banner.

The law allows previous or current law enforcement officers as well as school staff members with the required training across the state to possess a firearm on school property if the person has a handgun carry permit, is authorized in writing by the school superintendent, who is in compliance with all laws, rules and regulations of the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, and has had at least 40 hours of basic school police training.

The law also maintains the confidentiality of the records concerning those who are given the authorization to carry the weapons on school property, meaning the identities of those who have been given the authorization and might be armed on the school grounds would only be known to school and law enforcement authorities.

It states all of that information “shall be confidential and not open for public inspection.”

School systems would also be able to utilize their share of $34 million in the budget to pay for additional security help from outside of their resident staffs.

What the law means is school systems can authorize staff and faculty members to carry weapons onto the school grounds if they meet the proper certification and training requirements. School systems also have the option of bringing in previous or current law enforcement officer to fill a security role.

The National Rifle Association, Tennessee Education Association, Professional Educators Association, Tennessee Sheriffs Association, Tennessee Police Chiefs Association and many others supported Watson’s bill.

The bill passed the House 82-15 in April 16, passed the Senate two days later with a vote of 27-6 and was signed into law on May 13 by Gov. Bill Haslam.

Jim Wrye, chief lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, said there are about 200 criminal science teachers in Tennessee public schools who are former police officers.

"It opens up a lot of opportunities for retired deputies and police officers to serve as school resource officers," Wrye said.

Estimates reach as high as $90 million to place school resource officers in every Tennessee school and supporters of the bill see this as a way of making it more affordable.

Two local education administrators praised the passage of the bill.

“I thank Gov. Haslam and Rep. Watson for their strong support and good work in providing additional funding for education. This bill is a sensible, practical approach that supports the efforts of educators to keep our schools safe,” remarked Johnny McDaniel, director of Bradley County Schools.

Todd Shoemaker, Bradley Central High School principal, echoed McDaniel’s statement.

“I would like to thank Gov. Haslam and Rep. Eric Watson for their support of this bill. Administrators from all across the country are looking for ways to ensure that students are kept safe each time they enter their schools. Parents put their trust in the schools and administration to ensure that their children are safe every day. I believe this bill is a strong step in helping to provide a safe and secure environment for our students and staff members,” Shoemaker said.

Watson said the bill can save money for school systems because authorized armed personnel can be “paid, current, or volunteer” personnel.

“[The process for the authorization] has a lot more flags you have to go through than a law enforcement officer does. That was something we took into consideration,” Watson said.

He said school systems have had to depend solely on law enforcement for security, but the new law changes that landscape.

“It can be a problem with law enforcement officers because they often have other responsibilities they have to carry out, such as being in court,” Watson said. “When those things happen, it can leave a school unattended. This helps to fill that gap. I think most people, in light of what we’ve seen lately, would prefer having someone there all the time.”

He said the bill was designed to be for a hidden weapon where “nobody can see it or knows [about] it” except for the principal, the director of schools and proper law enforcement authorities.

Watson noted the bill was not a mandate, but an opportunity of which school systems can take advantage.

“This is one of those things you have to be careful about allowing a weapon in a school,” Watson said. “Some thought we were wanting to arm all the teachers and that’s not true at all. There has to be an agreement memorandum between the director, principal and law enforcement agency for the person to have that authority,” Watson said. “The director makes the final decision.”

“The bill is a tool,” he said. “If you want it, you have it. But it’s a two-headed sword. If you don’t use it and something happens to your school, I’d hate to be the one that said we had the option to appoint a veteran or retired state trooper that was willing to be a guard at the front door and we turned them down.”