Should schools decide to arm their employees, it’s unclear whether those districts would need to take out more insurance in case of an accident or if they’re protected by tort-reform laws.
The killing of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla., on Valentine’s Day has prompted handwringing among policymakers about how to better protect schools, including in Mississippi.
Last week, the state Senate approved HB 1083, which would allow school districts to let teachers and other employees undergo specialized concealed carry training. Supporters of the measure say that having armed employees could help mitigate casualties in an active shooter situation. Critics, including the majority of Democratic legislators, say that teachers shouldn’t have to wear the hats of educators and law enforcement.
Debate on similar proposals in statehouses around the country has also raised questions of whether the legislation would cause school districts to incur additional costs for training, safety equipment or, possibly, insurance.
The answers to those questions depend on who you ask. Two of the state’s largest school districts told Mississippi Today that their insurance companies have told them that arming teachers would greatly increase their insurance bills.
“We have liability insurance to cover School Resource Officers. Our insurance provider has indicated that expanding the coverage to teachers would be very expensive, but we were not provided with exact numbers,” said Katherine Nelson, a spokeswoman for DeSoto County Schools, the state’s largest school district.
Jackson Public Schools, the second-largest district in Mississippi, is likewise unsure whether its insurance company would cover the district should it opt in and allow employees to have guns.
“Our current professional liability policy does not cover teachers (carrying) weapons, only our law enforcement policy does. An increase in cost is expected to purchase this type coverage, if it is indeed available,” said Sherwin Johnson, a spokesman for Jackson schools.
Brian Johnson, a vice president at Fisher Brown Bottrell, which provides insurance services to JPS, said in an email to Mississippi Today that the company would “work with individual school districts and our underwriters to determine strategies that address the district’s approach to this issue from a policy, procedure and safety standpoint.”
The feedback Jackson and DeSoto received are in line with recent experiences in other states. A recent report from Best’s News Service, a business news wire, cited the example of Oregon where that state’s largest pool insurer of public schools charges premiums of $2,500 per armed, state-certified staff member allowed to carry.
The state of Kansas responded to the 2013 mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., by passing a law allowing schools to permit certain employees to carry weapons. At the time, EMC Insurance Companies, one of the state’s largest school insurers said they would not insure schools with armed employees.
“Concealed handguns on school premises pose a heightened liability risk,” that company told its agents then. “We have chosen not to insure schools that allow employees to carry concealed handguns. Schools permitting concealed handguns will be declined, as new business. Existing schools permitting concealed handguns will not be renewed.”
Mississippi currently prohibits bringing weapons onto school grounds unless you have an enhanced concealed carry permit; in order to obtain one of these permits, you must be over 21, pass a background check and complete a safety training course. Forty states prohibit school employees from having guns on school grounds.
Despite what districts in Mississippi and elsewhere have been told, several state officials believe that Mississippi school employees are protected from onerous lawsuits by the Tort Claims Act, which the Legislature passed in 2009.
Mike Chaney, the state insurance commissioner, said Mississippi public school teachers are covered under tort reform. He added that as long as any actions that cause injury or harm are within the course and scope of their employment, the district and not the teachers themselves is liable for the damage.
The legislation capped pain-and-suffering damage awards at $1 million in most lawsuits and $500,000 in medical malpractice cases. It also capped punitive damages based on the defendant’s net worth.
Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, chairman of the House Insurance Committee, echoed Chaney.
“The most you can get is what the Tort Claims Act says you can get,” said Chism, who also owns an insurance-services business.
Now that it has passed the Senate, HB 1083 goes back to House which can send it to a conference committee to work out difference or agree with the changes and send to Gov. Bryant for signing.
Contributing: Kate Royals