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Texas Bill Would Shield Teachers Who Kill on Campus from Prosecution

The proposed law has been met with heavy criticism and shock — even in a notoriously pro-gun state with relatively lax gun control like Texas.

by Eva Hershaw
Feb 3 2015, 6:45pm

Photo via Flickr

Gun rights may reign supreme in Texas, but while the state legally permits certain teachers and administrators to carry firearms at schools, it currently offers no legal protection to them in the event that they feel threatened and use lethal force on campus.

One lawmaker, however, is seeking to change this.

A bill proposed by Republican State Representative Dan Flynn would grant teachers immunity from prosecution if they use lethal force against a trespasser, student, or anyone else whom they believe poses a threat to others on school property. Dubbed the Teacher's Protection Act, the bill — HB 868 — was introduced in response to what Flynn characterized as an "increasingly aggressive situation" in public classrooms.

'In all of my years teaching, never in my wildest dreams did I think that having a license to use lethal force would have helped any situation.'

But the bill has been met with heavy criticism and shock — even in a notoriously pro-gun state with relatively lax gun control like Texas.

"No one in their right mind would put this legislation forth," Ken Zafiris, a retired teacher and the president of Education Austin, told VICE News. His organization, which serves as a labor union for teachers in the Austin Independent School District, is concerned that the bill could worsen existing problems in schools.

"We have kids struggling to get by — this won't help anyone to succeed," he added. "It is vilifying kids and putting the focus on the wrong things."

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The bill was filed days before a video went viral that showed a teacher in New Jersey being slammed to the floor by a student. Flynn told VICE News that his bill was written before he saw the video. But the timing has led many to worry that the bill, which Flynn believes will make classrooms safer, could be used to justify the use of lethal force in situations like the one portrayed in the video.

"I am highly offended that this has been the reaction to my bill," Flynn said. He noted that despite the bill's use of the phrase "lethal force," his intention was never to allow teachers to shoot or kill students with impunity.

"Attacks are happening in classrooms on a daily basis," he noted. "Teachers are concerned with their safety, and this bill would offer them protection in the case that they had to defend themselves."

Flynn contends that under current law — which states that force, but not deadly force, can be used in certain classroom situations — is insufficient because it prevents teachers from defending themselves because they fear the legal consequences of doing so.

"The law as it is written is not clear, and teachers are asking me for a clarification," he said. "As it is now, teachers are not sure that they can even raise their hands to defend themselves."

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But the law's necessity isn't obvious to many of the bill's critics, who note that police and the justice process would normally be tasked with determining whether a teacher's use of lethal force was justifiable under the circumstances.

"No one would stand behind a shooting in this case," said Flynn in reference to the New Jersey video, "but a teacher should not have to stand by while they are being beat up on."

"People want to make news coming out of Texas into something that it isn't," he added. "This has never been about shooting students."

In 2013, Flynn co-authored legislation that would have allowed firearms on college campuses. The bill was diluted before it was passed, and ultimately allowed students with concealed-carry permits to transport or store handguns and ammunition in their vehicles. He also co-authored legislation that reduced training requirements for concealed handgun licenses.

Currently, the state of Texas is one of at least eight states that allow school employees to carry concealed weapons on campus. The 2013 Protection of Texas Children Act allows "school marshals" that undergo safety training and a psychological exam to carry weapons on campus, a safety option that author Jason Villalba, a Republican state representative, insisted was less expensive than putting a police officer in every school.

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In 2014, an estimated 78 of the 1,024 school districts in Texas adopted plans that called for designated members of the staff to carry a gun, according to the Texas Association of School Boards.

For parents with children in Texas public schools, the thought of teachers being legally shielded from prosecution in the event that they use lethal force at school is chilling.

"It is a very scary thought," said Lauren Harris, a former third grade and high school physical education teacher, whose son is now in elementary school in San Antonio. "There are ways of disabling threats without using lethal force, and just the thought of having a gun in the classroom is hard to wrap my head around. You're assuming the teacher would know how to use it, when to use it, and how to make sure other students couldn't access it."

Zifiris said he couldn't imagine a scenario in which a teacher would need to shoot a student.

"In all of my years teaching, never in my wildest dreams did I think that having a license to use lethal force would have helped any situation," he said. "We need to empower ourselves to teach — teachers don't need a license to kill a child. If anything is going to die, it will be this bill."

Follow Eva Hershaw on Twitter: @beets4eva
Photo via Flickr