Civil rights group rallies against bill to arm teachers

JACKSON — Civil rights groups said yesterday that a bill that would provide funding for officers to police schools or arm teachers would ultimately make Mississippi schools more dangerous.

Several groups and lawmakers gathered yesterday on the steps of the Mississippi Department of Education building to protest the bill. They included representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, One Voice, and the Southern Poverty Law Center as well as Reps. Adrienne Wooten, D-Jackson and John Hines, D-Greenville.

Nancy Kohsin-Kintigh, program director for the ACLU of Mississippi, said investment in counseling, social workers and other services — not guns — were needed to address safety issues in schools.

“Invest in our children now,” Kohsin-Kintigh said.

Senate Bill 2659 would provide funding for school resource officers to police around primary and secondary schools. The House version of the bill would allow local school boards to develop safety policies to arm administrative employees and teachers. The policy would have to be submitted to the State Board of Education and Department of Public Safety and would authorize school superintendents to allow their employees to carry a concealed weapon with the proper permit. Language for the House amendment was inserted from House Bill 958, which died in the Senate Education Committee. Civil rights groups oppose both versions of the bill.

Bills to arm teachers have been debated in states across the country since the shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December, including in Arizona, Florida and Kansas.

Wooten told The Associated Press that bills passing through the Legislature have grown increasingly radical under Republican leadership. The amended version of the bill passed the House 75-41. Wooten did not expect opposition to sway Republican lawmakers.

“The course has been set,” she said. “As far as I’m concerned at this point, our constituents need to start sitting and taking notice that you very well may have a representative who doesn’t care about your concerns, who doesn’t care about your issues and doesn’t care what’s in the best interest of you, and you are the person who should be represented here at the House. That’s not what I’m seeing taking place.”

Wooten said parents should be concerned about the bill, regardless of their party affiliation.

“You don’t know enough about these individuals to feel safe knowing that they have a weapon around your child, let alone speak of where the weapon is going to be housed,” Wooten said. “How do you know that the children will not have the ability to access the weapon? You open up so many doors for more mishaps, in my opinion, than for actual protection of our students.”

Nsombi Lambright, communications director for One Voice, said investment into school resource officers was misplaced.

“The proposal to bring more armed guards into schools and to arm teachers is like a slap in the face to us as advocates and to those of us who are parents and aunts and mentors to young people in Mississippi Schools,” Lambright said. “As the parent of a 15-year-old in the public school system, I know that the risk of him being harmed by an angry guard or an angry teacher is far greater than him being harmed by somebody who is coming into the school from the outside.”

Civil rights groups say they oppose school resource officers because they target school discipline with arrests rather than through typical in-school punishments, like detention. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, schools with a school resource officer have five times the rate of arrests than other schools, controlling for poverty.

House and Senate versions of the bill are being reconciled by members of the two chambers.

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