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One roadblock to arming teachers: Insurance companies

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 5/26/2018 Todd Frankel
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Kansas has a problem: It has a law allowing teachers to carry guns in the classroom, but almost no schools are using it because insurance companies refuse to provide coverage if they do. As EMC Insurance, the largest insurer of schools in Kansas, explained in a letter to its agents, the company “has concluded that concealed handguns on school premises poses a heightened liability risk.”

Then came the Parkland, Fla., school shooting in February, leading frustrated Republican legislators in Kansas to try forcing the issue with a bill banning “unfair, discriminatory” rates for schools that arm staff. The insurance industry held firm. Last month, the bill failed.

“I don’t think insurance companies are notorious anti-gun liberals,” said Mark Tallman, associate executive director for the Kansas Association of School Boards, “so we think they’ve got good reasons for not doing it.”

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As proposals to arm teachers sweep across the nation, insurance companies are being forced to weigh the risks of these controversial plans. Some insurers are balking. Some are agreeing to provide policies but lamenting the lack of evidence about whether it makes schools safer — or increases the chances of people getting shot. Others are raising rates. 

“There’s not a lot of carriers that want to insure that risk,” Nate Walker, a senior vice president at insurer AmWINS Group. 

The reaction of insurance companies is notable because they are supposed to evaluate dangers through the dry eye of actuarial science, largely avoiding the heated emotions of the nation’s gun debate, in which one side condemns guns and the other side claims, as Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) did last week, that the best way to stop a bad person with a gun is a good person with a gun. 

“But an even better way,” Patrick added, “is four people with a gun to stop that person.”

Insurance companies are not so certain, worried more guns in schools might not only fail to stop mass shootings but lead to more accidents.

The epidemic of mass shootings in schools and other public venues has put new pressure on the insurance industry to take a stand. They face huge potential liabilities from these tragedies. The 2017 Las Vegas shooting, where a gunman fatally shot 58 people, could cost insurers more than $1 billion, including potential lawsuits and covering lost business income from the incident and its fallout, according to the International Risk Management Institute.

Schools turn to insurers for liability protection to cover them if there is an accident or someone gets hurts because of negligence.

Insurers are always looking for ways to minimize risk. It’s why companies that cover schools send out notices about even small dangers such as the tripping hazards of extension cords or warnings about hanging classroom decorations from ceiling lights.

Adding trained police officers to schools is generally viewed favorably, industry officials say. But giving guns to school janitors or history teachers — even with some training — raises concerns.

“Putting in more resource officers — that’s additional security — we feel that makes it safer,” said Paul Marshall, of McGowan Program Administrators. “It’s different when you start pushing it to arming teachers, volunteers, voluntary security.”

Marshall has a particular interest in ways to prevent school shootings because his company sells “active shooter” insurance policies. It’s a newer line of coverage that has gained popularity as schools look at ways to grapple with the risk of mass shootings on their campuses. The policies pay for counseling services and victim death benefits.

The 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, when a student gunman killed 32 people and wounded 17 more, cost at least $50 million in security upgrades and lawsuit settlement costs, Marshall said.

More guns make insurers nervous in other situations, too, said Scott Kennedy, president of CCIG, an insurance company in Colorado. He pointed to the common preference among insurers that nightclub bouncers remain unarmed, while off-duty police officers working security are usually allowed to carry firearms.

Reports of teachers caught bringing guns to school reinforce insurers’ concerns. In 2014, a sixth-grade teacher in Utah mistakenly shot a school toilet. No one was injured. Utah allows people with concealed-weapons permits to carry handguns on campus.

Joe Carter, a vice president of United Educators, which specializes in insuring schools, said he frequently hears from insurance executives at industry events worried about whether they will be asked to cover armed teachers and school staff. 

“I don’t know anyone out there who is ready to offer liability coverage for schools when they’re arming their teachers,” Carter said.

United Educators, based in Bethesda, Md., remains “agnostic” on the topic, Carter said. But it also hasn’t been asked to provide the coverage to any of the nearly 1,600 schools it services.  

At least 10 states have laws allowing teachers in some fashion to carry guns on K-12 campuses, according to the Education Commission of the States. And 17 states have considered bills to arm school staff since the Parkland shooting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Mississippi considered such a bill this year, leading the state’s largest public school district to ask its insurer how much that would cost.

“It’s kind of a given that it’d be very, very expensive to arm people,” said Katherine Nelson, spokeswoman for the DeSoto County district. 

 But the bill failed before the district received its cost projection, Nelson said.

In Georgia, Fannin County this month became just the second school district in the state to draw up a policy allowing some staff to carry guns, despite the state adopting the law opening the door in 2014. 

Fannin’s decision was a surprise for the rural district’s insurer, the Georgia School Board Association Risk Management division, which believes the new policy will lead to higher rates but “we won’t know for sure until the actuaries complete their analysis,” an association spokesman said.

Texas appears to have taken the lead on arming teachers, with more than 170 districts opting for policies that allow trained teachers or staff to carry firearms. The school board in Santa Fe, Tex., considered such a policy last year but waited while it looked at training requirements. 

Some schools are finding coverage through risk pools made up of other schools, allowing local districts to arm teachers “until there is data that the action is risky,” said Ann Gergen, executive director of the Association of Governmental Risk Pools. 

The issue is so new that there is not an extensive claims history for evaluating the risks.

“We don’t know anything,” said Jean Lemaire, a professor of insurance and risk management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

The states where arming teachers is catching on fastest tend to have strong state immunity laws. That makes it difficult to win large payouts when public employees do something wrong — such as an armed teacher accidentally shooting an innocent child. In these states, insurers might be more willing to cover armed teachers because the potential liability risk is limited.

Texas’s strong state immunity laws are one reason one of the first school districts in the nation to arm staff was the Harrold Independent School District outside Wichita Falls, Tex. The district began its program in 2007. Superintendent David Thweatt said it made sense for his rural district, where the closest sheriff’s deputy could be 30 minutes away. Thweatt said he hears from other districts struggling to find insurance.

“I would argue you’re probably going to be lowering the risk rather than raising it,” Thweatt said. 

Kansas, in comparison, does not have strong state immunity laws.

Kansas passed its law arming teachers in 2013, after the mass shooting the previous year in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman killed 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School. That immediately led EMC Insurance to announce it would rather exit the school insurance market than cover armed teachers and staff. Republican lawmakers were upset but couldn’t find another insurer willing to take on the policies.

Tallman, with the school board association in Kansas, said that’s partly because most school boards are not interested in arming teachers. It’s an idea being pushed by politicians, not educators.

After the Parkland shooting, Kansas Republican state Rep. Blake Carpenter joined a small group of legislators convinced that the insurance industry was standing in the way of a popular idea. Carpenter accused insurers of using liability concerns “as an excuse, a scapegoat.” But their bill to force coverage failed. EMC Insurance, based in Des Moines, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Ken Trump, a school safety expert, said insurance companies can sometimes be too conservative in assessing risks, but he agreed with the industry’s reluctance to support the move toward armed teachers.

“It may be well intended,” Trump said, “but it is not well thought out.”

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