Bill to Arm Mississippi School Employees Raises Concerns About Liability
Some school districts in Mississippi are worried about the financial and legal ramifications of a bill which would allow them to arm employees as a school safety measure.
Senate Bill 2079 would create a “School Safety Guardian Program,” an optional program that would authorize trained district employees to respond to school shootings. If a district chooses to participate and nominates a school employee (who must have an enhanced concealed carry permit), the employee would participate in a training course from the Department of Public Safety and undergo multiple screenings before being dubbed a “School Guardian.” A House addition to the bill would allow either school employees or outside people to serve in this role, a provision Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell said he would prefer removed.
The proposed program, largely borne of concern regarding the rising rate of school shootings nationally, is intended to provide school districts with another way to increase school security. The risks associated with the program, including accidents related to carrying a gun and potential increases in insurance costs will likely prevent most districts from participating, though some districts have already expressed interest.
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Marcus Burger of Ross and Yerger, a local insurance agency, said one insurance carrier has already expressed to him it does not plan to cover any liability related to the program. He doesn’t expect to see mainstream insurance carriers offer policies until the program has been around for a few years to give carriers a better understanding of the risks. When Kansas passed a law in 2013 to allow armed teachers (with no special training) on school campuses, the state’s primary liability insurance carrier declined to cover districts with armed employees. Burger added some higher-risk carriers may offer coverage, potentially for a higher premium.
Enhanced concealed carry permit holders are already allowed to bring guns onto school campuses, but, a Mississippi Department of Education official told Mississippi Today in December, after the policy garnered attention last summer, that school districts had concerns about the added liability of more guns on campuses and the impact it would have on their insurance costs.
School shootings have been on the rise nationally over the last decade, with 93 incidents in the 2020-2021 school year. Mississippi’s most notable school shooting occurred in 1997 at Pearl High School. More broadly, the Clarion Ledger reported there have been at least 25 incidents involving guns and students in Mississippi over the last 40 years.
Twenty-eight states already allow school staff to be armed in some capacity according to a RAND Corp. report, but fewer have training programs targeting active shooter response.
In Florida, where a “guardian” program was adopted after the 2018 shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, the state added liability protections to their professional liability policy for teachers who participated in the program. When the protections were added, the Florida Department of Education asked their Legislature for $200,000 to cover the additional cost – it is unclear if they received it.
In Texas, the number of districts participating in their guardian program has risen significantly since 2018, from 303 to 445. A Texas Association of School Boards 2022 report said most districts were only allowing “commissioned peace officers,” a broader term for people with any type of law enforcement experience, as school guardians.
Jim Keith, a school board attorney whose firm represents over 20 districts across Mississippi, said some districts he works with are interested in adopting the guardian program but he does not expect it to be widespread.
Some education officials and school leaders have said school resource officers, or police officers that work in or for schools, would be preferable to the guardian program, but acknowledged this program could fill a gap for some rural or financially stressed districts that lack qualified applicants or can’t afford full-time school resource officers.
Lauderdale County School District Superintendent John-Mark Cain said his district works with the local sheriff’s office to put a school resource officer on every campus, but he knows other districts that do take advantage of state law as it currently stands to arm staff.
“The district sees (school resource officers) as the most opportune situation since we have that great partnership. However, we do understand that certain districts do not have that luxury, and those local boards will have to work with their attorney and their insurance to essentially measure that liability and that risk,” Cain said.
Research on the impacts of school resource officers has not shown them to be effective at preventing shootings and they are linked with increased suspensions and arrests, but have been effective at stopping fights.
Mississippi’s proposed program includes legal protections for the guardians from both civil and criminal liability if they are actively responding to a shooter or other safety threat. The bill specifies guardians can still be sued if they fail to carry out their official duties.
Keith said in his reading of the bill, the civil protections for guardians would also extend to the school district. Keith added he is concerned about what exactly will fall under a guardian’s official duties.
He said it needs to be clear “what those requirements are going to be to enable someone who is a guardian to make sure that they are acting within the course and scope of those duties. Because if they act outside it, then they lose their immunity, which means the school district could possibly lose its immunity.”
Tindell, whose department is overseeing the program, said that he understands this concern but does not expect guardians to have rigidly outlined duties.
“The primary duty is to protect the school from an active shooter and protect the students,” he said. “I think if they’re doing anything outside of that, that would be outside of the scope of their duties.”
Some have also expressed concern about accidents occurring with the guardian’s gun, which Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville, brought up during debate on the House floor. Rep. Nick Bain, R-Corinth, who was presenting the bill, said the school district and teacher would be liable in cases of accidents and the immunity provision in the bill would not apply.
“If a teacher accidentally discharges a firearm because the gun falls out of the holster or there’s a scuffle between students and they try to break it up and a student grabs the teacher’s weapon and somebody else that’s not involved gets shot, what’s the course (sic) of action for that?” Hines told Mississippi Today after the debate.
Hines also expressed concern about the provision of the bill that requires guardians to have their gun on their person at all times, referring to it as “overkill.”
Tindell said this provision is important so that guardians are quickly able to respond if an active shooter situation arises, but that he would also be amenable to amendments allowing for the gun to be locked up at certain times. Tindell also highlighted that the bill requires a school shooting response plan and chain of command to be created and uniformly implemented across the state.
Like Hines, school leaders are worried about the increased risk that comes with more guns on school property. James Waldington, superintendent of the Greenwood-Leflore Consolidated School District, said he worries daily about guns being brought to campus by students, shooters and school resource officers.
“Although I feel the bill is being discussed as another level of protection for our students (and) staff and I sincerely applaud that effort, to add another dimension to the educational environment where a loaded weapon is present is concerning, to say the least,” he said.
The bill has passed both houses of the Legislature with a sizable majority, and currently heads to a conference committee to work out the differences between the two versions. Sen. Angela Hill, R-Picayune, authored the bill and said the differences between the two versions are relatively minor.
It’s likely Gov. Tate Reeves will sign the bill, as he included a version of the program in his legislative budget recommendations from November of last year.
When asked about possible increases in the cost of liability insurance for districts related to this program, Hill said she was not familiar with this concern but that similar programs had been adopted in other states “and they still have liability insurance.”
Hill said she chose to author this bill because the superintendent of her district asked for it.
“Many of these campuses are rural, they’re spread out, the response time to have additional law enforcement is sometimes unacceptable,” she said. “Some school districts feel like they need more qualified people to be able to respond as a part of their security team.”
Ken Barron, superintendent of the Yazoo County School District, said the district has its own police force to provide security, but that he might be interested in adding this program on top.
“I could see this possibly being a benefit with the right parameters in place,” he said.
This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.