snuffed out

Bill to arm some Tennessee teachers with handguns killed in House committee

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee State Capitol

A bill that would open the door to arming some Tennessee teachers died Tuesday after state lawmakers exchanged occasionally harsh words about whether educators with handguns would actually make students safer.

Meanwhile, another bill emerged as an alternative and would place armed, off-duty law enforcement officers in schools that aren’t already patrolled by school resource officers. It’s an expensive measure — up to $48 million annually — but lawmakers who back it pledged to get that number down.

Chairman Harry Brooks declared that the proposal to arm teachers failed on a close voice vote after almost an hour of debate in the House Education Administration and Planning Committee.

The decision ended the march of a measure that had easily cleared two legislative hurdles and was scheduled to make its debut later Tuesday in the Senate, where the powerful chairman of the chamber’s education committee had signed on as a co-sponsor. The bill already had 46 co-sponsors in the 99-member House.

But the measure was opposed by Gov. Bill Haslam, who is proposing additional money to hire more school resource officers in economically distressed counties without them. The state’s largest teachers union and the Tennessee Sheriffs Association were also against arming teachers.


Here are five things to know about school resource officers in Tennessee


Lawmakers asked pointed questions about training, liability, and the need for armed teachers when, just last week, the governor submitted his emergency school safety plan in response to the Feb. 14 shooting that left 17 people dead at a Florida high school.

The exchange got testy when Rep. Eddie Smith talked about two school shootings near his Knoxville district in 2008 and 2010.

“To be honest with you, it feels like the bill has been put together on the back of a napkin that’s held together with bubblegum and duct tape,” said Smith, who did not offer specifics. “I just don’t think this is the right time to bring this bill up. I don’t think this bill is ready.”

Sponsoring Rep. David Byrd took issue with that, saying that he’s worked on the bill for three years, initially as a way to provide security coverage in two rural counties that he represents that haven’t had school resource officers for years. “It wasn’t something I wrote down on a napkin,” the Waynesboro Republican told Smith.

Rep. Roger Kane, a Knoxville Republican who is a former teacher, suggested that it’s smarter for teachers to stay with their students during a lockdown situation, and he questioned how an armed teacher could confront a shooter with a semi-automatic weapon.

"A teacher with a handgun taking on an intruder with an AR-15 is bringing a slingshot to a bazooka festival."Rep. Roger Kane

“A teacher with a handgun taking on an intruder with an AR-15 is bringing a slingshot to a bazooka festival,” he said. “You can’t win that competition.”

Others praised Byrd’s bill as a way to make schools safer, especially in rural areas where many educators are avid hunters who are used to handling guns.

“What I love about this legislation, it keeps a question in the mind of someone who comes [into schools] who would do harm to our children,” said Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, a Republican from Smith County. “Unfortunately, we just don’t live in Mayberry R.F.D.

Also Tuesday, committees in both the House and Senate unanimously advanced another bill that would allow armed, off-duty officers to provide security in schools that don’t already have an SRO.

Unlike SROs, those officers could not address student discipline unless a crime is committed. But they also could pursue SRO certification, which requires an additional 40 hours of training.

“This bill is not meant to be a permanent solution,” said Rep. Micah Van Huss of Jonesborough, sponsoring the measure along with Sen. Mark Green of Clarksville. “It’s meant to be an emergency measure for four years until we’re able to get something more permanent in place.”

Van Huss said the bill’s annual $48 million price tag was the maximum and could be pared down to almost half of that. He pledged to work on that with the House Finance Committee.

The governor is neutral on the bill, said Haslam press secretary Jennifer Donnals.

Haslam’s school safety plan includes an additional $30 million for school safety grants, but most of that is a one-time boost in spending.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional information.

Local funding

Aurora board to consider placing school tax hike on November ballot

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora, Colorado helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Seeking to boost student health and safety and raise teacher pay, Aurora school officials will consider asking voters to approve a $35 million tax plan in November.

The school board will hear its staff’s proposal for the proposed ballot measure Tuesday. The board may discuss the merits of the plan but likely would not decide whether to place it on the ballot until at least the following week.

Aurora voters in 2016 approved a bond request which allowed the district to take on $300 million in debt for facilities, including the replacement building for Mrachek Middle School, and building a new campus for a charter school from the DSST network.

But this year’s proposed tax request is for a mill levy override, which is ongoing local money that is collected from property taxes and has less limitations for its use.

Aurora officials are proposing to use the money, estimated to be $35 million in 2019, to expand staff and training for students’ mental health services, expanding after-school programs for elementary students, adding seat belts to school buses, and boosting pay “to recruit and retain high quality teachers.”

The estimated cost for homeowners would be $98.64 per year, or $8.22 per month, for each $100,000 of home value.

Based on previous discussions, current board members appear likely to support the recommendation.

During budget talks earlier this year, several board members said they were interested in prioritizing funding for increased mental health services. The district did allocate some money from the 2018-19 budget to expand services, described as the “most urgent,” and mostly for students with special needs, but officials had said that new dollars could be needed to do more.

The teacher pay component was written into the contract approved earlier this year between the district and the teachers union. If Aurora voters approved the tax measure, then the union and school district would reopen negotiations to redesign the way teachers are paid.

In crafting the recommendation, school district staff will explain findings from focus groups and polling. Based on polls conducted of 500 likely voters by Frederick Polls, 61 percent said in July they would favor a school tax hike.

The district’s presentation for the board will also note that outreach and polling indicate community support for teacher pay raises, student services and other items that a tax hike would fund.



positive discipline

How this Indiana district is rethinking discipline to keep kids in school

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Warren Township administrators are taking a new approach to discipline — often forgoing traditional punishments, such as suspensions, in favor of interventions that better support the children who have gotten into trouble.

It’s called “positive discipline,” and it takes into account that traumatic events, such as a parent in jail, the loss of a family member, or homelessness, may be at the root of a child’s misbehavior. In those cases, experts say making a home visit or providing mentoring — paired with a consequence such as detention — can be more beneficial than forcing a student, who may need help, out of school.

“Children have problems at school because of things that have happened in their background,” JauNae Hanger, president of the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana. said. “As educators we’ve got to be cognizant of that.”

The result of these more mindful discipline policies: better care for students, and fewer students missing class.

This softer approach to discipline is gaining traction throughout the United States, particularly as schools confront high suspension and expulsion rates that have been found to unfairly target students of color.

Indiana in particular has grappled with such disproportionately harsh discipline for black students. Now, the state is establishing guidelines for educators to use this new approach in their own classrooms.

“Even one detention in the ninth grade can increase the risk of a child going into the juvenile justice system,” Hanger said. “School discipline data suggests that we do have a problem. It’s a statewide problem.”

Through a new state law passed this year, the Indiana Department of Education is developing a best practice model for districts like Warren Township that are interested in implementing “positive discipline,” which seeks to teach rather than to punish.

The model will provide ways to reduce out-of-school suspension and inequities in discipline, to limit referrals to law enforcement or arrests on school grounds, and to draft or strengthen policies that address issues of bullying on school property.

Schools are not required to adopt the best practice model, nor are they required to reduce their suspensions and expulsions, but the state must provide information and support to districts upon request.

“Operating in the mode of punishment without supports is not productive for families or kids,” said James Taylor, Warren Township’s director of student services. “We want to support families as much as we can because we’re the first line of defense before the juvenile system.”

Warren Township is one of seven Indiana districts that participated in specialized training last year to learn how to respond to misbehavior in a way that considers what’s happening in a student’s life outside of the classroom. Children in poverty are more likely than their peers to experience traumatic events.

The training is hosted by the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana, which is known for its efforts around reforming laws, policies, and practices to keep children in school and out of the criminal justice system. Training comprises a two-day summit and four one-day sessions during the course of a year.

Each session is designed for a different group of school employees, including administrators, teachers, and school resource officers. The final session brings everyone together for cross-disciplinary training, team building, and strategic planning.

Jim Sporleder is a trauma-informed coach who helps lead positive discipline training sessions across the U.S., including Indiana. He has seen how adopting a different mindset on discipline can be difficult: “It’s going against tradition,” Sporleder said. “It’s going against how we were raised.”

That was an early challenge for Warren Township schools. The strategy requires “a paradigm shift,” Taylor said.

“Everybody has to be on board, but everybody’s not always on board,” he said. “It’s tough to get people out of that mindset that this kid really painted a black eye for our school, and how do we move past the pain and the hurt of the situation when it happens?”

At Warren Central High School, 584 out of 3,710 students received out-of-school suspensions before the district began taking this new approach in 2016-17. But last year, when the district started the positive discipline training, the number of out-of-school suspensions decreased by more than 15 percent, according to state data.

Warren Township now outlines its approach to positive discipline in its student handbook, which defines discipline on the cover as, “instruction that corrects, molds, or perfects character and develops self-control.”

At the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana, Hanger said she uses schools’ discipline data to identify schools with a high rate of suspensions and where leaders are willing to address the issue. She and her team are still collecting data, but they believe suspensions will go down within the first year of training.

Suspensions have long been a problem in Indiana: During the 2012-13 school year, one in 10 Indiana students were suspended. For black students, the number was even greater — one in five.

However, some groups that represent educators have had concerns about how to roll out this approach effectively. Tim McRoberts, associate executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals, said he doesn’t want schools to restrict how teachers can discipline students. Teachers still need to have a full range of options when dealing with incidents.

Still, he said he supports keeping students in school.

Sporleder, the trainer, said that in order for a shift toward positive discipline to work, the entire school has to change the way it looks at all students.

“Some people separate out who’s trauma and who’s not,” Sporleder said. “We can’t do that because we don’t know. Your most compliant student in classroom could be most traumatized. Trauma isn’t a checklist. It’s who you are.”