MARIETTA — Cobb’s education leaders say they’re mixed on legislation that would allow Georgia school boards to discuss school security plans, potentially including whether or not to arm teachers, behind closed doors.
Currently, school boards are only allowed to discuss matters that involve real estate, personnel or litigation, as well as some student discipline decisions, away from the public eye.
The bill in question passed out of the House Governmental Affairs committee on Jan. 28 by a 9-6 vote. It has not yet been scheduled for consideration in front of the full House.
The bill was authored by state Rep. Eddie Lumsden, R-Armuchee. State Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, called it a commonsense effort to allow school boards to keep students safe.
“For a school board to speak publicly about certain vulnerabilities ... is counter-intuitive. If you’re going to discuss where you’re vulnerable for a breach and how you want to make a plan to correct that, you can’t have that conversation in public and maintain the idea that we are doing everything we can to ensure school safety,” Reeves said.
Reeves said he believed it “extremely unlikely” that a school board would both discuss and implement such a dire measure as arming teachers in secrecy.
Others at the state Capitol say the secrecy in the proposed bill is disconcerting.
“Discuss, review or assess school safety plans in executive session — that troubles me,” said state Rep. Mary Frances Williams, D-Marietta. “Included in (school safety) discussions is ways to handle student discipline, and that’s one of the parts that concerns me.”
Williams, who sits on the House Governmental Affairs Committee, said school systems should have to discuss ways their students may be disciplined in front of those students’ parents.
She is the only Cobb lawmaker on the committee and voted no on the bill.
Williams said a “much broader” school safety bill filed in the state Senate last year went through both the public safety and education committees, but this bill has not been heard by either.
On the topic of arming teachers, Williams said while she’d not broached the conversation, the discussion came up in the Governmental Affairs Committee.
Williams said, if school boards were to have that conversation, it should happen in the light of day, but she said the bill wasn’t filed for that purpose, and it seems unlikely.
“If there are going to be discussions about asking teachers to bring guns to school, I think parents need to know about it,” she said, adding that the more general items of school safety plans should also be able to be discussed in the open. “I just think parents need to know what plans are in place. And I don’t understand why those plans need to be secret.”
Because the bill is not intended to arm teachers, said Marietta schools Superintendent Grant Rivera, linking that action with the legislation seems inappropriate.
There has so far been no suggestion to arm teachers in either the Marietta or Cobb districts.
“If that is the intention of the bill, it’s never been characterized like that to me, nor is it stated in the specific statute,” he said.
Rivera said he believes it reasonable to discuss certain safety issues in private that could otherwise result in safety risks for students and staff.
Cobb school board mostly undecided
Cobb school board member Randy Scamihorn said he couldn’t give a yes or no answer on whether he would support the bill because “it’s more nuanced than that.”
But Scamihorn agreed with Reeves that, in the case of potential perpetrators that may want to harm children in schools, the board shouldn’t make vulnerabilities easier to spot.
Scamihorn said if the Cobb School District was going arm teachers, parents should know it was happening, but he would be OK with certain details being hidden.
“The policy of arming teachers should be public so everybody knows. The how and who and where should be more behind closed doors,” he said.
Others on the school board also said they were uncertain whether they could outright support or oppose the school safety bill. Only one board member the MDJ spoke with, David Morgan, said he fully supported the bill.
Board member Charisse Davis said she talked to trusted sources about the bill, and they told her it likely wouldn’t be harmful or move far beyond what the board already does.
While she said she was undecided on the school safety legislation, Davis’ opinion on arming teachers was similar to Scamihorn’s. But Davis added she wouldn’t want that decision made without input from the public.
Local education advocates took a more hard-line stance.
Advocates: Safety bill is too broad, ‘short-sighted’
While Connie Jackson, president of the Cobb County Association of Educators, said arming teachers is not something she thinks the Cobb school board would ever consider, she said she would never support the discussion if it came up.
But Jackson also said, with personal experience in law enforcement, she understands the concern surrounding announcing certain school safety measures to the public.
If she had to choose, she said she would not support the bill because of her transparency concerns, especially related to even a slight possibility of guns in the classroom.
“I think there are great advantages to things being done in the light, particularly in my position. I want to know what school boards are discussing because I represent the people that it effects,” Jackson said. “I do not feel (arming teachers) is safe for the teacher (or) safe for the student, and I do not believe it would improve school safety. Quite the contrary, I believe that it would be a negative impact.”
South Cobb PTA Council President and Cobb parent Tre Hutchins called the bill short-sighted and is concerned how the legislation could disproportionately affect students of color.
Hutchins said since data already shows Cobb’s students of color face disciplinary action more often than their white counterparts, he would not want legislation passed that would escalate those issues.
The school district’s website shows that in the 2019-20 school year, 37.2% of Cobb students were white, 30.3% were black, 22.4% were Hispanic, 6% were Asian and 4.1% were listed as “other.”
Cobb County School District data from the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement shows that in school year 2019, black students accounted for nearly 56%, of all disciplinary incidents and Hispanic students accounted for just over 21%. White students made up just over 17%.
The data further shows black students were between two and three times as likely to receive either in-school or out-of-school suspension than white students.
Of all in-school suspensions given to Cobb students last year, black students made up 51.8%, while white students made up 19.3%. For out-of-school suspensions, that ratio was 54% to 20.1%.
Hutchins said if it ever came to carrying guns in the classroom, he would be concerned about how those disciplinary concerns could escalate.
“If teachers can carry guns in the classroom, and we know that kids are already being disproportionately disciplined, I can’t imagine what that would look like if teachers had a gun in their hand,” Hutchins said. “(I’m concerned about) how it could escalate and how it could be a bigger problem. And that kind of liability on a school, on a teacher, on families — I think the bill is short-sighted in those regards.”
The PTA council president, who is running for Morgan’s seat on the Cobb school board, said parents should be able to trust that the district is making decisions on school safety plans in the best interest of its students, but “that is a community conversation.”
“Everybody should be at the table to discuss the safety of our kids within the schools,” Hutchins said.