School districts across the state continue to have questions about an individual's ability to bring a firearm onto school district property. Below, we outline the most recent guidance and provide some policy considerations that you may find helpful as you navigate this issue in your district.
Generally, it is unlawful for anyone to knowingly possess a firearm within 1,000 feet of school grounds. This does not apply to private property adjacent to school grounds such as a commercial store, driveway, or residence. However, there are two main exceptions to this general prohibition. First, an individual who possesses a state-issued concealed weapons permit (CWP) may carry an unloaded firearm onto school grounds if the weapon is stored in a locked container or firearms rack. Second, a law enforcement officer acting in his/her official capacity may bring a weapon on school grounds.
Additionally, South Carolina law states it is unlawful for a person to possess a firearm of any kind on any premises or property owned, operated, or controlled by a private or public school without the express permission of the authorities in charge of the premises or property. “Premises” and “property” do not include state or locally owned or maintained roads, streets, or rights-of-way running through or adjacent to premises or property owned, operated, or controlled by a private or public school, college, university, technical college, or other post-secondary institution, which are open full-time to public vehicular traffic.
South Carolina law also states it is unlawful for any person except state, county, or municipal law enforcement officers or personnel authorized by school officials, to carry firearms while on any elementary or secondary school property.
These rules prohibiting the possession of a firearm on school property do not apply to a CWP holder so long as the weapon remains inside an attended or locked motor vehicle and is secured in a locked box in the trunk or a glove compartment.
Attorney General Opinions
Several South Carolina Attorney General (“SCAG”) Opinions provide guidance on this issue.
The SCAG most recently opined that school districts are not permitted to implement a policy prohibiting CWP holders (including staff) from parking on school grounds with a firearm locked securely in their trunk or glove box pursuant to state law. However, this opinion appears to run afoul with a State law granting certain rights to public and private employers. The SCAG also released an opinion in 2009, concluding that a county could adopt an ordinance prohibiting the possession of firearms within its parks. This opinion is significant to school districts because, as political subdivisions, districts also likely have the statutory authority to prohibit the possession of firearms on its grounds.
Deciding on a Weapons Policy
Most districts utilize their Staff Conduct policies to outline their position on weapons on school grounds. It is our position districts have some discretion in how they address this issue. As discussed above, the law and SCAG opinions on this issue are unclear, and there presently are no court decisions providing clarification. Boards should decide whether to follow the most recent SCAG Opinion and allow those district staff possessing a CWP to have a firearm in their locked cars parked on district property. If the board adopts that position, the district's Staff Conduct Policy should state “possession of weapons on school grounds by employees is prohibited, unless possession is authorized by South Carolina law.”
If the board is going to allow CWP holders the right to possess firearms in their cars, the board also should consider whether it wants to provide a process by which a CWP holder can be given permission to bring a firearm into the building (e.g., the board secretary who is required to leave the building late at night).
Alternatively, it is our opinion a board has the right, as a public employer and as the owner of district property under South Carolina law, to adopt a policy prohibiting staff, regardless of CWP possession, from possessing a firearm on school grounds. In this case, the district's Staff Conduct Policy should state “possession of weapons on school grounds by employees is prohibited, regardless of state-issued concealed weapons permit.” The district must then post the required “No Concealable Weapons” signage on school property—State law specifies how those signs must be worded, placed, etc.
What is clear about the limitations placed on CWP holders with respect to firearm possession on school premises? CWP holders may not bring weapons into a school building without permission from the district. The weapon must remain in a locked car, either in a closed glove box/console or in a locked container in the luggage compartment. Additionally, CWP holders may not bring weapons into the district office or to a school board meeting without permission from the district. Most importantly, the district has the sole discretion whether to grant that permission and may revoke it at any time.
If your district has questions about the options related to firearm possession on school grounds by employees, please feel free to contact our office.