Youth violence prompted emotional debate April 19 in the New Hampshire state Senate, where lawmakers approved one bill aimed at making schools safer but rejected another.
Senators passed a measure that would make it harder for children and parents to sue teachers over the way they discipline their pupils. The bill, which now goes to the House, means teachers and other school employees would not be liable for harm they cause as long as they are acting within the scope of their jobs, don’t break any rules or laws, and don’t display willful misconduct or indifference to a student’s safety.
The bill also gives schools and employees immunity from civil or criminal suits if they report that pupils are involved with drugs, alcohol, guns, or have committed crimes on school grounds.
Supporters said changing the law would give teachers more control over their classrooms.
“We all want schools to be a safe place for our children. We expect children to behave responsibly, but on those occasions when they behave irresponsibly, we expect our school employees to maintain discipline,” said Sen. Jane O’Hearn, R-Nashua. “Even the threat of a lawsuit makes teachers tentative and reduces their effectiveness.”
Several lawmakers said they supported the bill only reluctantly. Sen. Ned Gordon, R-Bristol, said he agreed with giving teachers a greater sense of authority, but as a lawyer, had concerns about giving them immunity.
“We are not going to hold teachers accountable for their ordinary negligence,” he said. “I have some reservations about that.”
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Russell Prescott, R-Kingston, called it a simple issue of safety. “How can we expect our kids to learn if they don’t feel safe?” he said.
Sen. Burt Cohen repeated those words later in unsuccessfully urging the Senate to support the second youth violence bill, one that would have banned anyone under age 21 from obtaining a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
Although federal law prohibits gun sales to those under 21, state law does not set a minimum age for permits. Instead, police chiefs decide whether applicants are “suitable” for permits. The bill originally set the age at 18, but police chiefs asked that it be 21.
“We have age limits for driving, alcohol, and tobacco, does it not make sense to have an age limit for concealed weapons?” said Cohen, R-New Castle. He said Milford police recently granted a license to a 15-year-old boy.
But opponents argued that police chiefs have the power to reject young applicants and that there is no proof that children are routinely applying for and receiving permits.