Major ruling: Years-long Madison lawsuit leads to statewide change in arming school staffers

School staff members armed by their districts in Ohio will need the same level of training that peace officers receive after a decision handed down Wednesday by the Ohio Supreme Court.

A group of parents sued Madison Schools in September 2018 seeking an injunction blocking the district from allowing teachers and other staff to carry guns without the training required of law enforcement officials — 728 hours versus the 24 hours the school has in its policy.

In a 4-3 decision, the majority of the justices agreed state law requires advanced training before staff can carry concealed weapons on campus.

Erin Gabbard, one of the parents who challenged the policy, said she is relieved the high court ruled in favor of the more robust training.

“Like any parents, we just want our kids to be safe,” Gabbard said. “The Madison school board armed minimally-trained staff, one of whom even failed the accuracy test multiple times. Once this ruling is implemented, parents will at least know that the teachers who carry firearms in our schools are properly trained, as required by state law.”

Madison School Board President David French said district officials are disappointed by the “split decision” but pleased three justices and the state attorney general believe their policies are lawful.

“The board has always done, and will continue to do, what is in the best interest of our community. Our primary concern has been and continues to be the safety of our students, and what works for our community may not work for others,” French said in a statement.

“While this policy has received a substantial amount of attention, it is just one of the many steps that the district has taken to ensure student safety. We are considering all of our options moving forward, and hope the Ohio General Assembly considers taking action to correct this decision.”

ExploreOhio Supreme Court allows extra time to debate firearms training in Madison arming staff case

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor wrote the opinion and cited sections of the Ohio Revised Code that require peace officer training, saying a certain provision “does not provide schools with a mechanism to circumvent that requirement. Because the board’s April 2018 resolution purports to authorize certain school employees to go armed while on duty without also requiring that those employees satisfy the training-or-experience requirement (violates state law).”

The Madison school board enacted a policy two years after a 2016 school shooting in the district when four students were injured by a classmate. It allows 10 staffers to carry weapons on campus, if they have 24-hour FASTER (Faculty/Administrator Safety Training and Emergency Response) gun safety training, the eight-hour training to obtain a concealed carry license and other requirements.

Retired Common Pleas Court Judge Charles Pater previously ruled teachers and other staff are not peace officers and therefore do not require peace officer levels of training. The Twelfth District Court of Appeals disagreed and ordered the school district to stop the program without much more involved training. The school district appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court last year.

The high court heard the case in January. The key issue was whether two different statutes, one authorized in 1969 and another in 1992, must be combined when considering a policy authorizing armed staff.

“Unlike other state legislatures that have responded to more recent calls to arm teachers and other school staff by enacting legislation that is specifically tailored to that issue, the General Assembly has not done so,” O’Connor wrote. “Nevertheless, because (the statutes) are unambiguous and do not conflict with each other, we must apply both statutes as written unless and until the General Assembly directs otherwise by legislative action.”

Madison’s position was supported by 11 other school districts that have similar policies and Attorney General Dave Yost. Its program has been halted twice during the long court battle, and it is unclear whether it will return under this new directive.

Reinstating it could be difficult. In his supporting brief, Yost noted it would cost the district $7,265 to send a staffer through peace officer training at Butler Tech. In addition, the program is eight hours a day, five days a week, and completing it would take a little over 18 weeks.

Former Sen. Bill Coley tried to pass legislation a year ago that expressly negated the Twelfth District’s ruling. It passed out of the Senate but stalled in the House after one hearing. State Rep. Thomas Hall introduced similar legislation in February, and there have been three hearings.

He hopes it will be approved out of the House committee by the summer break.

“With the Supreme Court’s recent ruling, it has now become an urgent and critical piece of legislation for schools all across Ohio,” Hall said.

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