OKLAHOMA CITY -- Leaders in the Oklahoma House ramped up security by erecting guard stations in hallways, banning public access to stairwells and hiring an ex-police officer licensed to carry a gun less than one year after thousands of teachers' staged peaceful protests in the Oklahoma Capitol to demand more education funding.
The increase in security was imposed by majority Republicans as a new session of the Legislature opened Monday. House Speaker Charles McCall denied the measures were prompted by the two-week teacher walkout, which was peaceful and didn't result in any arrests.
"These changes aren't meant to be heavy-handed in any way," McCall told The Associated Press. "We're interested in being proactive to ensure people who visit the Capitol have a safe, positive experience."
He said limiting public access to the stairwells would allow members to more easily access the chamber and that the guard stations outside the offices of the top two House leaders were to provide information to visitors.
But the No. 2 House leader, Rep. Harold Wright, acknowledged the teacher walkout — which at times packed hallways and member offices with frustrated teachers — played a role in the decision.
"I think because of some of the issues that occurred last year, mainly to provide for a little more decorum in the House, that was part of the reason for it," said Wright, who added he's never felt unsafe at the Capitol.
McCall confirmed that one of the newly hired House sergeants is an ex-police officer licensed to carry a firearm inside the Capitol who is "trained and experienced in identifying security vulnerabilities."
Several House members said they were caught off guard by the changes and questioned why they were needed at all.
"This is the people's House, and access should not be restricted," said Democratic Rep. Forrest Bennett. "I understand the need for members-only areas, but these are hallways and member's offices. It's ridiculous."
The changes follow last spring's teacher walkout during which thousands of teachers and their supporters rallied at the Capitol for two weeks, cheering and chanting in the rotunda. Teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky and Arizona also staged such protests last year, demanding more education money from their state governments.
Oklahoma's protests surprised many legislators, particularly Republicans who were forced to vote on increasing taxes to fund teacher pay raises just days before the walkout. One lawmaker chastised teachers at the time in a video he posted on Facebook for failing to thank lawmakers for their vote.
"I'm not voting for another stinking measure when they're acting the way they're acting," said Rep. Kevin McDugle, who barely won re-election after a teacher challenged him in a GOP primary and lost by just five votes.
Rep. Bobby Cleveland found his office flooded with angry teachers for days after he told a reporter during the protests that he thought they should return to the classroom. Cleveland later lost his seat in the Republican primary to an assistant principal.
A spokesman for the Oklahoma Education Association, the state's largest teacher union that helped orchestrate the walkout, did not immediately respond to a request for comment
The tension between teachers and GOP lawmakers remains. Several bills have been introduced by Republican lawmakers to make it more difficult for teachers to rally at the Capitol, including one to make it illegal for teachers or districts to participate in a walkout and another to require groups of more than 100 at the Capitol to post a $50,000 bond. Both are unlikely to become law.
Even before the Oklahoma teacher protests, the Department of Public Safety had a team of armed Highway Patrol troopers stationed at Capitol metal detectors near entrances. The department's commissioner has increased the number of uniformed troopers at the Capitol in recent years, but he said those changes were unrelated to the teacher walkout.
Unlike the House, Oklahoma Senate officials said they haven't made any security changes related to the walkout and none of their sergeants are armed.
Security measures have been upgraded at state Capitols across the country in recent years, but not typically as a result of an organized protest. North Dakota joined a growing list of states that installed metal detectors at its Capitol in late 2016 amid protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline. Security was also temporarily increased during 2011 union protests in Ohio and Wisconsin.
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