An Iowa bill would arm school staff and give them qualified immunity. What you should know:

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Photo by Des Moines Register / Foto por Des Moines Register
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By Samantha Hernandez, Des Moines Register

Students across the state held walk outs over gun violence follwing a shooting at Perry High School Monday, Jan. 8, 2024.

Just weeks after a a shooting at Perry High School, a bill that would allow Iowa schools to arm staff and require others to hire school resource officers is advancing in the Legislature.

It would also give school staff qualified immunity against legal action if they are armed.

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The Republican-led House introduced the bill more than a month after police say Dylan Butler, a 17-year-old Perry student, fatally shot Ahmir Jolliff, an 11-year-old sixth-grader, and wounded seven other people, including Principal Dan Marburger.

Marburger — who police say tried to intervene to protect students — died 10 days later. Butler was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot, authorities said.

Flameless candles flicker in front of a picture of Perry High School prinicpal Dan Marburger, who died after being shot on Jan. 4, during a March for Our Lives vigil for gun violence victims at the Iowa State Capitol on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024, in Des Moines.

This is not the first time Iowa lawmakers have tried to clear the way for school officials to arm staff. A previously passed state law gave school officials the authority to have employees carry firearms. But two schools that were ready to allow staff to carry weapons reversed course after their insurers said they wouldn’t cover them because of liability concerns.

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Those who registered in favor of House Study Bill 675 said neither the current law nor the bill address the long-standing issues around companies declining to insure schools where staff are approved to carry guns.

After more than 30 minutes of discussion Monday, the three-member committee voted 2-1 to advance the bill.

Here is what you need to know about House Study Bill 675:

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What would House Study Bill 675 do in Iowa schools?

HSB 675 would require school districts with 8,000 or more students to have at least one security officer or school resource officer in schools where ninth through 12th-grade students regularly attend classes.

Private schools and public schools with fewer than 8,000 students are encouraged to contract with or employ a security guard or school resource officer.

The bill also allows school districts, private schools and colleges and universities to arm staff.

Those who want to carry would need to go through a permit process that includes one-time, in-person legal training covering “qualified immunity, annual emergency medical training and annual communication training” approved by the Iowa Department of Public Safety.

The department would also need to “implement required annual live scenario training and quarterly live firearm training” for school employees with permits.

What is a school resource officer?

School resource officers, also known as SROs, are trained law enforcement officers assigned or contracted to work in schools.

They have full police powers. Des Moines Public Schools ended its SRO program several years ago.

How will Iowa school districts cover the cost?

The bill, if passed, would require the Iowa Department of Education to create a school security personnel grant to provide up to $50,000 per district in matching funds to help cover the cost.

During Monday’s hearing, it was suggested lawmakers increase the amount because some school districts, including Des Moines, have more than one high school.

Does Iowa law allow school staff to carry firearms?

Yes, Iowa code 724.4B allows approved school staff to carry a gun on campus. But few schools have tried to implement the law.

Why aren’t Iowa schools arming staff?

While Iowa law allows school staff to be armed, it does not require insurance carriers to cover those districts.

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During the 2022-23 school year, Spirit Lake and Cherokee school districts approved arming staff.

In June 2023, officials at both schools reversed their decisions after EMC Insurance declined to cover the two small rural districts ahead of the 2023-24 school year if staff were allowed to carry weapons.

How does the House study bill differ from Iowa law?

Unlike the previous code, the House bill includes a qualified immunity provision for permitted staff.

Qualified immunity is a “type of legal immunity that protects a government official from lawsuits alleging that the official violated a plaintiff’s rights,” according to Cornell Law School website.

Proponents of the bill say this is a step in the right direction.

“We had implemented guns as a safety measure in our school — had it in place for six months — and then EMC told us they were going to terminate our insurance,” said Spirit Lake Superintendent David Smith during the hearing. “So, we had to go away from it and we’re struggling to find a new carrier. We know immunity is a big piece that will help us find people from the outside to come in and insure us.”

The insurance issue is why more districts, many of them in rural areas, have not explored the option said Panorama Community School District Superintendent Kasey Huebner. This includes his own district.

District families have been asking him about security since the Perry shooting in early January, Huebner said. His district is about 20 miles away from Perry Community School District.

“I have 1,400 parents that are trying to trust me to keep their kids safe,” he said. “All right, regardless I’m going to be running towards the fire. All I ask is that I actually have the chance to go back to my family because I would be prepared enough.”

Huebner also spoke in favor of districts adding school resource officers.

Have lawmakers tried to fix the insurance issue previously?

During the 2023 legislative session Iowa lawmakers introduced House File 654 which would have prohibited insurance companies from denying coverage to districts who want to arm their staff. The bill did not pass the Senate.

As House Study Bill 675 progresses, the hope is EMC will meet with lawmakers, said State Rep. Phil Thompson, R-Boone. No one from EMC signed up to speak during the hearing.

“I think this sets a very good bar, a very good standard for our schools to participate,” Thompson said before announcing the bill would advance, “and it allows those schools that want to do the right thing to protect their kids to do just that. We do have some insurance issues to address.”

Who opposes House Study Bill 675?

Several groups registered against the study bill.

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Roosevelt High School student Hannah Hayes opposed the bill on behalf of Students Demand Action.

“We ask that you oppose this bill because of its provisions of qualified immunity,” Hayes said. “To arm school personnel raises concerns about accountability and oversight, further undermining the bill’s efficacy and potential for unintended consequences. As a student myself, I can tell you that adding more guns to schools is not going to make me safer.”

Iowa ACEs 360 — a coalition of groups that support policies to strengthen families — said the bill did not go far enough to address student safety, including mental health support.

“Our primary concern with the bill is that addressing school safety requires a comprehensive strategy,” said Lisa Cushatt, the organization’s executive director, “and this just focuses on one and as we’ve heard some other folks talk about, there’s a lot of different things within the different safety plans.”

Samantha Hernandez covers education for the Register. Reach her at (515) 851-0982 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @svhernandez or Facebook at facebook.com/svhernandezreporter.

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