Local school boards would have to decide every year whether they wanted to have gun-carrying employees at their schools under a proposal approved Tuesday by an Indiana House committee.
The House Ways and Means Committee endorsed the bill on a 16-7 vote after changing a previous version that would have required all of Indiana's about 1,900 public and charter schools to arm an employee with a loaded gun during school hours. That proposed mandate, approved by another House committee last week drew, criticism from Republican Gov. Mike Pence, numerous other state officials and education-related organizations.
The new version of the bill would still authorize the armed employees but would require local school boards to decide each year whether to seek a waiver from a new state school safety board. That decision would be made in a closed school board meeting. Waiver requests would be confidential, so which schools have authorized armed employees wouldn't be public.
How to keep students safe has become the focus of national debate since the December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Some Indiana lawmakers questioned Tuesday whether it was appropriate to have employees such as teachers, principals or others carrying guns in school.
Rep. Terry Goodin, D-Austin, called the move a "knee-jerk reaction" that could end up making schools less safe and wondered when pushes would be made to put more armed employees on school buses and elsewhere.
"Where does this end?" said Goodin, superintendent of the 550-student Crothersville school district in southern Indiana.
Indiana law currently allows school districts to authorize people other than police officers to have guns on school property, although several officials have said they don't know of any district that has taken that step. Lawmakers in more than 20 states are considering proposals to allow armed school employees, but no states currently require it, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Rep. Jeffrey Thompson, R-Lizton, sponsored the changes made to the bill Tuesday, saying he thought such safety decisions should be left to local school officials.
Other provisions added to the bill would prohibit any armed employee who isn't a police officer from carrying a visible gun and require schools to keep confidential the identities of those authorized to carry firearms.
"A school safety plan is already confidential," Thompson said. "So this follows the protocol from law enforcement that you keep safety plans for any public structure confidential."
The bill now goes to the full House for consideration.
The armed employee provisions were added to a Senate-approved bill that aimed to start a state grant program to help school districts buy safety equipment and hire police officers who've undergone extra training to become school resource officers.
Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, a Republican, was a leading advocate of that program and said Tuesday he was concerned that the bill was losing its emphasis on increasing the police presence in schools.
"All of the work this past year highlights the value of school resource officers developing the relationship between students and law enforcement in preventing many of the dangers of drugs and weapons in schools," Zoeller said in a statement. "Hopefully the importance of developing a stronger school resource officer program in Indiana will continue to be the focus of the final bill."
The Ways and Means Committee voted 17-5 against a motion to delete references to the armed employees from the bill.
Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, told the committee she supervised officers assigned to schools as a Hammond Police Department captain and that she was worried that teachers or others would be ineffective in responding to an attack.
"Don't stick a civilian in the building with a gun," Lawson said. "It's wrong."
Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, sponsored the armed employee provision in the House Education Committee last week and on Tuesday called steps proposed elsewhere, such as more background checks for gun buyers and limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines, simply "feel-good measures."
Lucas said asking school workers to volunteer to undergo training and carry a gun would provide some additional security, while putting a police officer at all Indiana schools could cost $100 million a year.
"To me this a cost-effective solution to a problem we still have 14 years after Columbine," Lucas said, referring to the 1999 mass shooting at Colorado's Columbine High School. " ... Right now, there are some many schools out there that have no protection."