Some risks, however significant, are simple to understand. Homeowners and their insurance companies agree that smoke detectors and fire extinguishers reduce the risk that a house will burn down and lives will be lost. When it comes to firearms, however, both the problems and the proposed solutions are considerably more complex.
In the wake of recent highly publicized school shootings, school districts and legislators across the country have been working to determine how best to protect children and school staff from gun violence at schools. As part of this conversation, at least two states have enacted legislation in 2018 that would facilitate the carrying and use of firearms on school grounds,1 with Florida recently passing legislation allowing school personnel (excluding classroom teachers) to be trained and armed.2 At least 24 states across the country have policies that allow security personnel to carry weapons in schools, and at least nine states have policies that allow other school employees to do the same.3 But how could these laws affect school districts’ insurance policies and coverage? It’s not quite so easy, as the state of Kansas found out when it passed a law in 2013 allowing school staff to carry guns, and an insurer that covers most districts in the state subsequently issued a letter denying coverage to schools that took on this risk. Five years later, no Kansas school employee has carried a gun into a K-12 school.4
Arming school staff and allowing guns in schools both pose challenging issues of risk and liability. As with any legislation, the ramifications of a new policy can be complicated, and there are a variety of factors that governments and school boards would be wise to consider as they debate this divisive and weighty issue. This paper discusses risk and insurance considerations for school districts and legislators tackling this difficult subject across the United States.
What does K-12 insurance look like?
Currently, most schools are insured in one of two ways—with commercial liability policies or, more often, as part of formal intergovernmental risk pools. Risk pools, generally structured by state regulation, are a type of self-insurance in which schools or other public entities join forces to spread the cost of risk and share best practices on risk management. The Association of Governmental Risk Pools (AGRiP) estimates up to 80% of public entities nationally, including K-12 schools, buy one or more coverages through a risk pool.5
When it comes to arming school personnel, a district’s insurance needs will vary widely based on a number of factors. Two federal laws prohibiting firearm possession in or near K-12 schools apply to all states, but exceptions to the federal laws are permitted, and state-by-state legislation varies. More often than not, allowing guns on campus remains a matter for each school to decide. Some school boards in isolated or rural regions, such as public school districts in Harrold and Argyle, Texas, have voted to allow certain personnel to carry guns because those schools are 15 minutes or more from first responders.6,7
Governmental immunity laws also come into play when assessing the potential liability of public schools. Governmental immunity holds that certain public entities may be immune from some tort lawsuits.8 For public entities such as public schools, these laws may dictate caps on losses from certain risks, such as natural disasters. In the case of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, parents of the victims looking to sue were informed by the school’s insurer that the school’s liability for damages could not exceed $300,000, according to local law.9 These limits protect public schools from a certain amount of financial peril in the event of a catastrophe. But for many public entities, there may be exceptions to these local laws that could open public school districts up to increased risk. Geography, population, and individual local laws vary widely and, as a result, liability coverages should be tailored to the needs of the individual district or risk pool.
What do we know about firearm risk in schools from claims data?
When it comes to employing armed personnel in schools, we do not know much about firemarm risk in schools from the claims data. Anecdotally, news reports have noted instances of injuries due to accidental firearm discharge in schools.10 And in April, CNN released a catalogue of 20 school shootings that have occurred since the beginning of this year.11 But hard and fast data is scarce. Based on recent conversations with only a small sample of its member pools, AGRiP reports it has not heard about any liability claims resulting from schools with armed staff. A couple anecdotal stories exist within AGRiP membership about workers' compensation claims for accidental wounds during gun safety training by school staff. Similarly, according to Milliman research, gun-related liability claims in one large risk pool for schools amount to just a tiny fraction of all sizable claims—about one incident in a thousand. Without a larger sampling of data (for instance, the number of armed personnel throughout U.S. schools or the number of gun-related claims), we cannot assume this data is representative or draw conclusions as to risk.
With a relative lack of liability claims data in schools, law enforcement experience can shed some light on liability risk and pricing issues. In evaluating law enforcement risk, shooting claims are often found to be expensive regardless of whether the victim was the one breaking the law. Further, law enforcement experience has shown that even if a police officer was not shown to have used excessive force, juries tend to award damages to the survivors. Of course, juror attitudes may vary–law enforcement personnel are not schools and teachers, and jurors may not see schools as such deep pockets of funds as city or state governments. Also, teachers may be less likely to be portrayed as the “bad apples” in law enforcement that motivate some awards. But the experience is not to be ignored; a liability claim of the kind seen in law enforcement could cause large increases in any entity’s excess insurance costs. Multiple claims could mean a dramatic change to coverage.
Liability considerations for arming school personnel
As states and districts grapple with the issue of having armed personnel on K-12 campuses, insurers and risk managers will ask a variety of questions to assess the risk:
- How big is the school?
- Where is the school located?
- How many guns are in the school?
- Where are the guns kept, during the day and at night?
- Who has access to guns and how?
- What is the level of safety training available, and is it required?
- Are there background checks of armed staff?
- Are protocols in place for when a gun may or may not be used?
There is also an important distinction to be made as to who is being armed. The liability considerations for arming security personnel (such as a law enforcement officer or trained safety officer) in schools are different than for arming or providing firearm access to teachers or school staff with little or no professional firearm training or state-specific certifications. While armed security personnel may present a higher cost to school districts than armed teachers, this approach likely would mitigate accident risk and provide better loss control.
Most schools that decide to arm staff or employ armed personnel on campus will likely need to structure and implement safety training programs that address gun use, though the state legislative requirements around this issue vary. Schools in Texas, for instance, must choose one of two programs if they want to allow armed personnel in schools: The Guardian Plan allows local school boards to determine training standards and authorize specific employees to carry on campus at all times, and The School Marshal Program allows local boards to authorize employees, but they must be trained and licensed by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.12
State legislation varies, but the liability issues depend on many factors. What will the program look like? Who will manage it? How will it be rolled out? Who will be responsible for it? How will results be measured? Safety training is rarely a one-and-done proposition—as a best practice, it often requires periodic retraining and recertification. In addition, accidents in training and the workers' compensation claims that follow are not unusual and should be anticipated. In California, for example, when sheriffs went to a lighter gun to accommodate people who had less grip strength, a large number of misfiring accidents and workers' compensation claims occurred. Costs of workers' compensation claims can include medical and surgical treatment, time lost from work, ongoing pain management and other pharmaceutical needs, long-term rehabilitative therapy, and potential post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) issues.
Liability arising from access to guns on school property and appropriate use must also be taken into account when calculating risk. The risk of gun theft if the firearm were not properly secured would become an insurance consideration if more of them were in schools. Schools may also need to consider the liability implications of a teacher who, in a certain situation, could or should have used a gun but chose not to. Or schools may have to consider the ramifications of an armed teacher who, in attempting to address a situation, mistakenly shoots an innocent student. As a practical matter, schools would need to look at making rules and providing thoughtful documentation around all these issues.
Alternately, a necessary part of the discussion on liability should address the question that looms largest in the debate around arming school staff: could increased firearm access by trained personnel decrease injury/crime (and therefore liability) in schools in the case of a violent event? Is there a cost to not providing armed security personnel? A 2013 commissioned report by the National School Shield Task Force found that a “properly trained armed school officer, such as a school resource officer, has proven to be an important layer of security for prevention and response in the case of an active threat on school campus.”13 However, the effectiveness of armed school personnel to prevent crime is difficult to measure. Proponents of this view point to data that looks at gun use by citizens in self-defense situations to prevent crimes in progress. A study conducted by researchers at Harvard shows that people used a gun in self-defense in 0.9% of crimes; another study, published by criminologists Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz in 1995, put that number much higher: between 2.2 and 2.5 million defensive gun uses annually.14 A 2015 Washington Post op-ed catalogues a number of anecdotal instances where armed citizens were able to stop crimes in process.15 But crime control and prevention in schools using armed security staff is a complex issue, with ramifications for student populations,16 and without specific data it is hard to draw liability conclusions. What is without question is that preventing crime would reduce not only the liability costs to school districts but more importantly the cost to human life, however it is accomplished.
Because there is so little data available on the risks of arming school staff, insurers or pools interested in pricing liability risk must use informed judgment to best model what the additional exposure will look like. According to news reports, districts that have allowed armed staff in schools have experienced a range of coverage responses and pricing. In Oregon, the risk pool Property and Casualty Coverage for Education (PACE) has implemented a number of pricing structures for school district members interested in contracting with armed security personnel. Districts that contract with law enforcement officers with specific state certification see no premium change as long as the district is not liable for the officer’s actions; if the district does assume liability for the officer’s actions, a premium charge between $1,500 and $2,500 per FTE would be incurred, depending on whether that officer is a member of law enforcement. According to the risk pool’s FAQ document on firearm liability, PACE will not provide coverage for armed personnel who did not receive certification through the state’s standards.17 Certain schools in Kansas, on the other hand, were informed by their commercial insurer that members would be denied coverage if school employees were allowed to carry handguns.18 AGRiP, in a memo from 2013, noted that as of that writing, it was unaware of any member pools that had excluded liability coverage as a result of a member carrying concealed weapons.19
For actuaries and insurers working to price this risk, the situation is comparable to the introduction of “self-driving” vehicles, where the frequency and severity of the risk is still a relative unknown. Without historical data around frequency and severity, it may not yet be possible to derive actuarially sound rates—but managing risk is still crucial. Similarly, risk mitigation efforts may be seen as ways to lower liability premium costs for school districts, such as the Oregon example above. Ongoing safety training, proper gun storage, and professional firearm experience may all be important factors for actuaries looking to price this risk. But as we’ve seen, uncertainty around risk is a common cause of increased pricing in liability coverage premiums.
What might this discussion look like five years from now? As states and districts continue to grapple with the safety of their schools and populations, the private sector has begun to respond with options for those looking to insure against catastrophic gun risk. On the commercial insurance side, new products have begun emerging, such as XL Catlin’s "Workplace Violence and Stalking Threat Insurance" in 2016.20 A recent Risk Management article featured a 2015 product from Beazley, underwritten by Lloyd’s, dubbed "active shooter" coverage, which is a standalone policy that began as an active shooter product, but evolved to encompass active assailants or malicious attacks.21
When it comes to gun use, insurance products are available as well. The National Rifle Association (NRA) offers personal firearm liability insurance, underwritten by Lloyd’s, designed to provide coverage for unintentional injuries or damage caused while hunting, shooting at private ranges, or shooting in competitions. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that this coverage might one day be expanded to cover schools if the demand existed.22 On the other hand, a growing chorus of advocates have put forth the idea of mandatory firearm insurance—that is, insuring the ownership and use of firearms as we do cars, both mandatory and with varying premiums based on risk and other factors.23
As a number of legislators and school boards across the country weigh the risks of arming personnel on campus, it’s important to understand the various insurance and liability considerations inherent in such a heavy decision. The risks of arming staff will vary by geography, population, training programs, school-specific rules, and state laws. What won’t change is the common desire of all stakeholders to keep their students and staff out of harm’s way.