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A bill that would allow a select number of teachers to carry guns on campuses across Tennessee passed its first hurdle in the state legislature Wednesday.
George Walker IV / The Tennessean

Tennessee has more than twice the national average of incidents where students bring firearms to school, state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday, and just 865 school resource officers for the state’s nearly 1 million students.

McQueen cited the high rate in the first meeting of the Gov. Bill Haslam’s school safety task force held at the Capitol on Thursday.

Haslam announced the group earlier this week, putting the state at the forefront of a national debate on guns and school security. Lawmakers are debating whether the state should arm some teachers.

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The governor said the state is higher than the national average on a number of items.

“All of those showed us at the wrong side of the curve, if you will,” Haslam said. “They are all things that are part of the reality of the school situation that we want to deal with.” 

McQueen said there were 7.5 incidents per 100,000 students in which students brought guns to school in the 2015-2016 school year, more than double the national average of 3.1 incidents per 100,000 students. 

Mike Herrmann, the education department’s director of conditions for learning, noted the state has less than one specially trained law enforcement officer or school resource officer per 100 students.

McQueen said similar data reported by schools shows about 10 percent of high school students say they’ve been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property in the last year. Almost 11 percent report being in a fight.

McQueen also said a growing number of Tennessee students in recent years have reported they did not go to school because they felt unsafe.

“There is no doubt that students today, if you went to them today and say, ‘Do you feel secure in school?’ They’d say, ‘A lot less so than I used to,’ and that’s part of the reality of what we have to deal with,” Haslam said. 

Speaking with reporters, Haslam said that the numbers indicate the state does not have enough school resource officers.

This is among the problems he hopes his task force can solve before the end of the legislative session.

Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, has introduced a bill that would allow select teachers to go armed in schools across the state, but has agreed to hold off on the bill until the work group can discuss ideas. 

Haslam has opposed the bill.

Still, the governor said there is an issue of cost for more school resource officers.

“When you start talking about multiplying that by large numbers per every school there is in the state, obviously you are starting to talk about some real dollars,” he said. “One of their tasks is to say, what are the possibilities, and then what are the fiscal implications of that as well.”

Haslam said despite the ticking time clock of the legislative session, he has no problem calling a special session to address school safety issues if necessary.

Reach Reporter Jordan Buie at 615-726-5970 or by email at jbuie@tennessean.com. Follow him on Twitter @jordanbuie.

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