COLUMBUS, Ohio – The state law that dictates training requirements for special police officers, security guards and others who armed with guns while on duty at school doesn’t apply to teachers and staff who receive permission to carry weapons, an attorney for a Southwest Ohio school district argued Tuesday before the Ohio Supreme Court.
“The teacher that is armed is there to provide a backstop for the protection of staff,” argued attorney Matt Blickensderfer, who is representing the Madison Local School District Board of Education in Middletown, in Butler County. He argued that is different from a school police officer on duty specifically to provide safety.
But that position is disputed by five parents. Through a series of appeals, the case came before the Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday, its first day of oral arguments in 2021. Tuesday was also the first day newly elected Justice Jennifer Brunner presided over a case after she was sworn in last week.
The parents who disagree with the district’s position argue the law makes it clear that people who are employed by the district are also subject to the training requirements that cops must undergo.
The case has drawn statewide interest. Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost and 15 school boards filed friend-of-the-court briefs in favor of the Madison district. The Fraternal Order of Police, Ohio Education Association, Ohio Federation of Teachers and the cities of Cincinnati and Columbus have filed briefs supporting the parents’ arguments.
The law in dispute
Since school zones prohibit deadly weapons, it’s the exceptions to it that were up for debate. The law at the core of the dispute states that no Ohio educational institution can employ someone as a special police officer, security guard, “or other position in which such person goes armed while on duty” unless the person completes an approved basic peace officer training course or has 20 years of active duty as a police officer.
But what does “position in which such person goes armed while on duty” mean?
Justices engaged in a lively exchange with attorneys.
“The algebra teacher with a weapon on their person is there to secure the safety of the students and coworkers,” Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor said, asking Blickensderfer how that is different from a school cop’s responsibilities.
“In a literal sense, absolutely, Chief Justice,” he replied.
“Not every school has a security guard or a special police officer,” O’Connor then asked. “Is that correct?”
“That’s correct,” Blickensderfer replied.
“OK. So in many, many schools of Ohio, our algebra teacher that is armed is the security on site,” O’Connor said. “… How is that algebra teacher not a person in an ‘other position in which such person goes armed while on duty?’”
Blickensderfer argued that the phrase shouldn’t be read separately from the words before it, which specifically mention special police officers and security guards.
“In our view, it’s intended to be a residual clause to take care of nomenclature issues,” he said. “For instance, schools hire employees called ‘school resource officers.’”
It could also cover other positions, Blickensderfer argued. Say, for instance, a school district hired someone with a title of “supervisor of safety.” But the legislature never intended for that phrase to include teachers and staff, he said.
The Madison district argues that because the state law doesn’t have requirements for armed staff, it is allowed to make its own policy.
It provides written authorization to staff to carry a concealed firearm if they have a valid concealed handgun license, complete at least 24 hours of active-shooter response training and obtain a handgun qualification certificate. Authorized staff must also pass a mental health exam, a criminal background check and an annual drug screening.
Justice Sharon Kennedy pushed back on O’Connor’s argument about the algebra teacher who becomes a security officer when authorized to carry a handgun.
“You’re not changing their role,” Kennedy said. “They’re not a security officer, they’re just a concealed carry permit holder that is now not subject to a criminal charge (of carrying a gun in a school zone) because the school board has authorized this permit holder with additional training to bring their gun into the school.”
Rachel Bloomekatz, an attorney representing the parents, however, argued the law makes it clear that that the legislature meant all school employees when it used the phrase “other position in which such a person goes armed while on duty.”
“We just had a lot of discussion about specific duties of individuals: Do they have to respond or not? What is their job title? How much of their time must they be providing security?” she said. “… The statute, by its plain text, is not limited to just security positions, or similar or full-time security positions, or positions requiring you to go armed. It just says ‘other positions.’”
Arguments lasted about 80 minutes, and the court will come out with its opinion in coming months.
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