Florida teachers can arm themselves under new gun bill

FILE PHOTO: A selection of Glock pistols are seen for sale at the Pony Express Firearms shop in Parker, Colorado December 7, 2015. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

By Daniel Trotta

(Reuters) – Florida’s legislature on Wednesday passed a bill allowing teachers to carry guns in the classroom, expanding a program launched after the deadly high school shooting in Parkland with the aim of preventing another such massacre.

Florida’s House of Representatives voted 65 to 47 to pass the bill after hours of debate over two days in which the Republican majority thwarted Democratic efforts to amend, stall or kill the measure. Florida’s Senate approved it 22 to 17 last week.

Republican Governor Ron DeSantis is expected to sign the bill into law, enabling school districts wishing to take part in the voluntary Guardian program to arm those teachers who pass a 144-hour training course.

On Feb. 14, 2018, a former student armed with a semiautomatic rifle opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 people and wounding 17 others.

President Donald Trump and the National Rifle Association have argued an armed teacher could provide the best defense against a shooter bent on mass murder.

Opponents questioned whether the solution to gun violence should be the presence of even more guns and warned of the danger of a teacher misfiring during a crisis or police mistaking an armed teacher for the assailant.

Passage marks a victory for gun-rights advocates, who were on the defensive a year ago when Parkland students inspired nationwide protests in favor of gun control.

After the Parkland shooting, Florida lawmakers rushed through legislation that required schools to place at least one armed staff member or law-enforcement officer at each campus.

The law also imposed a three-day waiting period for gun purchases and raised the age limit for buying rifles from 18 to 21 – remarkable measures in a gun-friendly state.

Although last year’s law allowed some school personnel to carry weapons, guns were still banned from the classroom.

Backers of arming classroom teachers revived the issue this year, arguing that school shootings often erupt too quickly for law enforcement to respond.

In anticipation of passage, school employees in 40 of Florida’s 67 counties already enrolled in or planned to take the 144-hour course, a spokesman for the Speaker of the House said. Some counties have resolved not to participate in the Guardian program.

Florida’s gun-control advocates had made stopping the proposal a top priority, among them Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense, which is funded by billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; additional reporting by Steve Gorman)

Oklahoma teachers end nearly two-week walkout that shut schools

Protester march during a strike by Oklahoma educators demanding more school funding near the Oklahoma state Capitol in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 9, 2018. Picture taken on April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Heide Brandes

By Heide Brandes

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) – Oklahoma’s largest teachers union on Thursday called off a nearly two-week walkout that shut public schools statewide, saying it had secured historic gains in education funding after school budgets were devastated by a decade of cuts.

The move came after the Republican-dominated legislature passed its first major tax hikes in a quarter century that raised about $450 million in revenue for education. Republican leaders said they had no plans to go as high as the $600 million being sought by educators.

“We absolutely have a victory for teachers,” Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, told a news conference.

“Our members are saying they want to go back to the classroom,” said Priest, whose union has about 40,000 members.

Some major districts have said they will resume classes on Monday.

The strike was part of a wave of actions by teachers in states that have some of the lowest per-student spending in the country. A West Virginia strike ended last month with a pay raise for teachers, and educators in Arizona protested before classes on Wednesday, without skipping work, to seek enhanced education funding.

The Oklahoma walkout began on April 2 and affected about 500,000 of the state’s 700,000 public school students.

Opinion surveys showed it had garnered wide support among Oklahoma voters, many of whom had seen firsthand how students at struggling schools had to share outdated and tattered textbooks and sometimes go to a four-day school week to help save districts money.

Oklahoma teachers, who were seeking a $10,000 annual wage hike over three years, will see an average annual pay raise of about $6,100 from the increased funding, lawmakers said.

In May 2017, their annual mean wage was $41,880, among the lowest in the country, compared with neighboring states such as Texas at $57,830 and Kansas at $50,470, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

School districts for the most part supported the teacher walk-out. But they began to run out of wiggle room to make up for lost time when the labor action threatened to extend the school year, piling pressure on teachers to return.

Low wages have created an exodus of educators, causing a teacher shortage in Oklahoma. As a result, school districts had to cut curricula and deploy nearly 2,000 emergency-certified instructors as a stop-gap measure.

(Reporting by Heide Brandes in Oklahoma City and Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton in Tulsa; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Sandra Maler)

Oklahoma teachers press Senate to pass tax plan to end strike

Teachers rally outside the state Capitol on the second day of a teacher walkout to demand higher pay and more funding for education in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

By Heidi Brandes

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) – Oklahoma teachers packed the state Capitol on Monday to press the Republican-dominated Senate to enact a capital gains tax overhaul educators said could bring in about $100 million and help end a statewide walkout now in its second week.

Tens of thousands of teachers have come to the Capitol each working day since the strike started April 2 calling for increased spending for an education system where inflation-adjusted general funding per student dropped by 28.2 percent between 2008 and 2018, the biggest reduction of any state, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Public schools serving more than half of the state’s 700,000 students were closed on Monday, including those around Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Oklahoma teachers are some of the lowest paid in the country.

“We need lawmakers to make a long-term investment in our children’s future,” the Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union with about 40,000 members, said on Monday.

In the past few weeks, lawmakers approved nearly $450 million in new taxes and revenue to help fund teachers’ pay and education, but that is still short of the $600 million being sought by teachers.

The Senate is set to meet this afternoon and discuss a bill that would remove a tax exemption on capital gains. If the bill is enacted, the union has said it would be a major step toward ending the strike.

They also want lawmakers to implement a hotel tax that would bring in an estimated $50 million.

The strike has garnered strong public backing, with a statewide survey from the Sooner Poll agency released last Friday showing that 72.1 percent of respondents supported the walkout.

The job action comes after a West Virginia strike last month ended with a pay raise and as teachers in other states, increasingly angry over stagnating wages, consider walkouts of their own.

Opponents of the tax hikes, including Oklahoma Taxpayers United, argue that lawmakers could boost education spending by cutting bureaucracy and waste rather than raising taxes.

The new tax and revenue that has been approved by lawmakers translates into an average teacher pay raise of about $6,100.

Teachers are seeking a $10,000 raise over three years. The minimum salary for a first-year teacher is currently $31,600, state data shows.

A major cause of budget strain comes from tax breaks Oklahoma granted to its energy industry, which were worth $470 million in fiscal-year 2015 alone.

(Writing and additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Tom Brown)

Buckets of rocks are Pennsylvania schools’ last defense against shooters

Students from Gonzaga College High School in Washington, DC, hold up signs with the names of those killed in the Parkland, Florida, school shooting during a protest for stricter gun control during a walkout by students at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By David DeKok

HARRISBURG, Pa. (Reuters) – A rural Pennsylvania school district has equipped all 200 of its classrooms with buckets of rocks that students and teachers could use as a “last line of defense” in the event of a school shooting, the district’s superintendent said on Friday.

The buckets are just one of the measures that Blue Mountain School District in Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania, has put in place this academic year, along with security cameras, secured building entrances and fortified classroom doors, Superintendent David Helsel said in a telephone interview.

“We didn’t want our students to be helpless victims,” Helsel said. “River stones were my idea. I thought they would be more effective than throwing books or book bags or staplers.”

Last month’s massacre of 17 students and educators at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, sparked fresh debate in the United States over how to prevent school shootings.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans are expected to join rallies in Washington and around the country on Saturday calling for tighter gun laws in “March for Our Lives” protests organized by the young survivors of the Parkland shooting.

Helsel said the idea of equipping classrooms with rocks grew out of his reading of the active-shooter defense program known as ALICE, which stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate.

He first spoke about the rock buckets in testimony at the Pennsylvania state house in Harrisburg last week.

Helsel said his school board approved the rock buckets before they were put in the classrooms at the district’s five schools last fall. Parents in Orwigsburg, about 92 miles (148 km) northwest of Philadelphia, have been mostly supportive, he added.

“It is so unbelievably tragic that our society has come to a point where schools have to arm themselves with buckets of rocks to defend the against active shooters,” said Robert Conroy, director of organizing with gun-control group CeaseFirePA. “We should be talking about real reform of gun laws.”

(Editing by Scott Malone and Dan Grebler)