Beyond politics, arming teachers could cost schools
As the national debate rolls on over whether to allow armed teachers in schools, the insurance carrier for the St. Helens and Scappoose school districts says it discourages schools from letting employees carry weapons.
"Our belief is that arming staff is not the most efficient method of keeping students safe while in school," said Alex Pulaski, communications spokesman for the Oregon School Board Association and insurer carrier, Property and Casualty Coverage for Education, or PACE.
PACE covers nearly all 197 Oregon school districts, including St. Helens and Scappoose. And PACE officials understand this is a politically touchy issue.
"We recognize there exists a wide variety of views on this subject and we respect the right of school boards to determine those policies that reflect local values and are designed to keep young people safe," Pulaski explained.
St. Helens and Scappoose do not have specific concealed weapons policies.
"We do not encourage staff to obtain a concealed carry permit," said St. Helens Superintendent Scot Stockwell. As such, and by the nature of concealed weapons protocol, he added, school administrators do not know if any staff actually do. In 2013, however, when the school board reversed a policy approved in 2008 that prohibited school staff from carrying concealed weapons on school grounds, many perceived the school district was encouraging teachers to carry guns proliferated.
Scotwell said that's not the case.
"I think St. Helens has developed a misunderstood reputation," he said. "I receive calls on a regular basis from groups such as The Washington Post asking for interviews. It is not that we encourage, it is a matter of not having a rule against."
Scappoose Interim Superintendent Ron Alley said the district would require any teacher wishing to carry a concealed weapon to notify the school district, which would then notify PACE, the insurance carrier.
St. Helens and Scappoose school districts contract with local police to have a school resource officer presence at the schools, providing supplemental security.
PACE supports such local law enforcement partnerships.
"Ideally our schools will contract with a local city police department, or local county sheriff's office for security, because of the higher level of training required of these officers/deputies," Pulaski stated in an email to the Spotlight. "If they [the school districts] do this and the municipality assumes the liability for the actions of their personnel, we charge no additional premium."
But if a school decides to arm their own staff and make it part of their job description, PACE requires they obtain a higher level of training than merely getting a concealed weapons permit from the county sheriff's office.
Applicants must also pass Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training certification. If they aren't DPSST certified, then coverage is excluded," Pulaski explained. PACE will also annually charge school districts an extra $2,500 per full-time employee on top of their overall premium, he noted.
Seven districts in Oregon currently follow those procedures and have employees who can carry concealed weapons. Coverage will be excluded for an employee if the employee has a negligent mishap with their firearm, Pulaski added.
Forty-three school districts, educational service districts or charter schools in Oregon have passed specific policies restricting staff from bringing concealed guns to school.
"There may be more, those are just the ones we know of," Pulaski said. Most school districts do not have a policy, he added.
No school employees in the St. Helens and Scappoose districts have asked for permission to carry a concealed weapon.
If any surface, Gabe Caso, is interested in helping them. The St. Helens business owner runs concealed weapons permitting and gun safety classes. In the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting that killed 17 people in Florida shooting last February, Caso decided to waive his usual $45 to $80
training fee for school employees.
"I've had one-half dozen school employees approach me about classes," said Caso, a former school maintenance employee himself for the David Douglas and other school districts.
Brieanna Brookes is one of them.
"I grew up in a family where guns were positively viewed," said Brookes, 24, who lives in Washington County but has family in St. Helens and attended a recent Caso-taught training class. She is substitute biology teacher in Portland-area school districts.
"If a school district allows it, it's my discretion, if I want to carry a concealed weapon," she said.
Completing Caso's one-day class enables students to pass the training requirement portion of their application to obtain a concealed handgun license from the Columbia County Sheriff's Office.
On a recent Saturday, eight students, five women and three men, attended the session in downtown St. Helens. Caso emphasized that students see obtaining a concealed weapons permit as a defensive action.
"If you don't currently walk down dark alleys at night, don't start doing so now because you have a concealed permit," he cautioned. "The idea is to avoid fights. Remember that words alone can diffuse a dangerous situation."
Caso said for interested school employees, he would recommend, the smaller, the better, for their choice of handgun. It's crucial for students not to know the employee is carrying, and smaller weapons are more easily concealed, he explained.
Caso prefers employees carry their weapons on them, such as with a shoulder, waist or ankle holster, rather than in a purse or locked in a desk. Women can even purchase a brassier holster for small handguns.
Caso takes great pains to tell students that the law, the potential scenarios, and the consequences are not simple. If they ever feel the need to fire their weapon, he warns them, they might face liability, litigation or even stand trial before a jury.
"But the time might arise," he concludes, "when it's better to be judged by 12 — than carried out by six."