Calls for arming our state’s teachers and school administrators in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings continue. Police officers think this is a horrible idea. So do the teachers themselves. And the dangers to children should be obvious.
The big problem, of course, is that teachers are not cops. And we shouldn’t expect them to be.
Teachers don’t just lack the training given to law enforcement officers, but also the authority to make arrests and enforce laws, as well as the legal protections afforded to officers.
Under federal law, officers have qualified immunity as long as they are acting within the scope of their authority. Qualified immunity shields an officer from suit when the officer makes a decision that, even if constitutionally deficient, reasonably misapprehends the law. In the use of force context, the Supreme Court explained that “qualified immunity operates to protect officers from the sometimes hazy border between excessive and acceptable force.” In determining whether qualified immunity applies, courts consider the seriousness of the situation, the threat to third parties, and the responses of the suspect.
It’s easy to imagine a scenario where an officer would not fire at an attacker – likely because the risk to bystanders would be too great relative to the chance of stopping the attack. A school district would probably face additional liability for negligent training in that situation if a school employee – not an officer – fired shots at an attacker that hurt someone in a situation where an officer would not have fired shots. The school employee in that situation would face not only civil liability from acting negligently or recklessly, but also criminal charges for negligent homicide (a misdemeanor) or reckless homicide (a felony).
To provide teachers the same type of immunity as police officers would require a change in state law. But this is not a simple as just saying, “they are immune in these circumstances.” Legislators would have to consider training requirements which would be enough to justify treatment as officers, as well as the authority of the teachers. For example, would teachers have arrest authority? Would force be authorized before an attacker actually initiated deadly force?
According to an experienced criminal law attorney, consulted for this article, “the authorization of deadly force by the Legislature for non-law enforcement officers is practically unprecedented.”
The recent shootings in Connecticut were a terrible tragedy by any measure and legislators around the country feel compelled to do something to illustrate their concern and their willingness to prevent this type of disaster from happening again. But knee-jerk reactions, like allowing or even requiring teachers or other school officials to carry guns in schools, without fully considering all of the ramifications like training and liability and immunity, are not the answer and might serve to make the problem of gun violence in schools even worse.