Indiana’s House Education Committee meets at the Statehouse on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023, in Indianapolis. (Casey Smith/Indiana Capital Chronicle)
Indiana lawmakers on Wednesday advanced a bill that seeks to provide state-funded firearms training for school personnel — including teachers.
Bill author Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, said the proposal serves as a response to deadly mass shootings at schools across the country.
The bill would reallocate funding from the Indiana Safe Schools fund — and others like it — for optional firearms instruction for school employees. It additionally provides state dollars for counseling services for students, teachers, school staff and employees in the event of a school shooting.
“What we’ve seen consistent throughout all of these school shootings is just a massive breakdown. And not just school policy — police tactics, communications, open doors left in schools where shooters can walk through, and of these are all human mistakes,” Lucas said. “The purpose of this bill is to train teachers and staff — that volunteer and want to have the ability to defend themselves — a chance to survive.”
House Democrats opposed the effort, however, maintaining that Lucas’ bill amounts to a “coordinated campaign” meant to put more guns in schools, as opposed to decreasing threats to students and school staff through resources and “commonsense proposals.”
The measure passed 9-4 from the House Education Committee and now heads to Ways and Means for further consideration, due to its financial impact.
It was one of nearly a dozen education-related bills lawmakers debated on Wednesday. Other bills up for consideration included those to require high schoolers to apply for federal financial aid, limit the use of high school graduation waivers, and ensure students can access college transcripts.
More funding for firearms training
Police resource officers are typically responsible for school safety. But under current Indiana law, school districts can also allow designate people — including teachers — to carry guns in schools. No training is required.
Lucas’ bill does not mandate firearm training requirements for teachers or school staff, but he said it does make it available to anyone who wants to “feel safer.”
Currently, a school corporation can receive a matching grant from the Indiana Secured School Fund for its security program once per year. The bill would up the amount of additional grants schools can receive for firearms training or counseling.
The voluntary program for teachers would involve 40 hours of training for firearm safety and use, designed to “take the average person on the street and get them to a level of proficiency that — in the event of an active shooter situation — they will at least have an opportunity to defend themselves and those around them, if they so choose,” Lucas said.
He added that the training is based on that which law enforcement officials currently use.
Chris Lagoni, executive director of the Indiana Small and Rural Schools Association, said the group supports additional training that could help increase safety in Indiana’s smaller school district.
“I’m not sure people understand how many – how few – officers are actually on duty in a rural county if something were to happen,” he said.
Renewed attempt to require FAFSA
The Senate education committee on Wednesday additionally heard testimony on a bill that would require all high school seniors to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to qualify for financial aid.
The FAFSA mandate has been proposed at the Indiana Statehouse the last several years but has yet to make it across the finish line. In 2022, lawmakers scaled back the measure to only require that school officials provide high school seniors and their parents with more information about the FAFSA.
Republican Sen. Jean Leising of Oldenburg, who sponsored three previous unsuccessful bills seeking to make FAFSA a requirement in Indiana, filed a similar measure again this year. Leising said she’s adamant about getting more students to apply for federal aid, given that Hoosier students left at least $65 million in potential federal aid unclaimed just last year.
“I represent a large rural area, and I think a lot of my kids and parents don’t even know this exists,” she said. “And since they don’t know it exists, they don’t apply — and what a loss.”
Only 31% of Indiana’s 2023 high school graduates have completed a FAFSA form as of Feb. 2, according to the Indiana Commission for Higher Education (CHE). The state agency has continuously rallied for state lawmakers to require the FAFSA for students as a way to boost the number of students who pursue some form of higher education.
Still, the Indiana Principals Association maintained its opposition to the bill Wednesday, saying the FAFSA requirement would add to the already heft workloads of school counselors and administrators.
The Senate also discussed a proposal to automatically enroll all eligible students into the 21st Century Scholars program, which provides up to four years of undergraduate tuition to income-eligible students at certain Indiana colleges or universities. The bill could come up for a vote next week.
Currently, fewer than half of eligible students enroll in the program, despite its success – more than 80% of those who complete the program go to college.
Meanwhile, the House and Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday voted to greenlight the House version of the 21st Century Scholars bill. The proposal now heads to the Senate.
Other bills on the move
A bill to ensure students and former students can access their college transcripts also advanced from the Senate education committee Wednesday. Currently, Indiana colleges can refuse to provide transcripts to current and former students based on debt the individual owes the institution.
The measure, authored by Sen. Spencer Deery, R-West Lafayette, would prohibit universities from withholding a transcript if the student pays a fraction of the debt or enters into a repayment plan.
In the House education committee, lawmakers further voted 8-3 in favor of House Bill 1635, a broad education matters bill that includes a provision to address the use of graduation waivers, which are given to students who are unsuccessful in completing postsecondary-readiness competency requirements by the end of their senior year.
Under the bill, the number of students who can graduate with the waivers would be limited. Two options would instead be opened up for students to meet graduation requirements: passing a graduation assessment or completing a postsecondary readiness competency.
The bill, authored by committee chairman Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, originally included language that would have blocked waivers altogether.
The latest draft of the bill approved on Wednesday would instead set a 6% cap on the number of students who can graduate from a school with a waiver before July 1, 2027. After that, the cap drops to 3%
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