Texas Schools Look for Guidance on Firearms Policies

Amid a flurry of post-Sandy Hook school safety proposals from Texas lawmakers, a handful of schools are considering policies that would allow employees to carry concealed handguns. But despite the increased attention on firearms policies, there is not much research on their effectiveness — or clarity on what the law governing them allows.

Because so few school districts allow employees to carry firearms, it is difficult to find evidence of how well they work, said Victoria Calder, the director of the Texas School Safety Center, a state-funded organization at Texas State University that provides training and resources for school security programs.

State law requires public school districts to adopt an emergency operations plan that includes employee training and mandatory drills for students and employees. School boards can also grant permission to anyone, including employees, to carry firearms on campus under the federal Gun-Free Schools Act and state law.

Since the Connecticut elementary school shooting, about a dozen districts have contacted the Texas Association of School Boards for advice on changing their firearms policies, according to a spokeswoman for the group.

Many have also turned to David Thweatt, the superintendent of Harrold Independent School District, which until recently was the only district in the state with such a policy. 

"For every media outlet that contacts me, I've had four schools," Thweatt said. "And I have had a lot of media."

In Thweatt’s district, which has about 100 students and is located near the Oklahoma border, employees may carry concealed firearms with school board approval after earning a concealed handgun license from the state and completing additional training provided by the district. Put in place after the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, the policy only allows the use of frangible ammunition, which is designed to prevent ricochet by breaking apart when it hits hard surfaces.

Union Grove ISD, a rural district of about 750 students in Gladewater, last week became the second to enact such a policy. The board there is considering devoting $10,000 to train license-holding employees in crisis intervention and management of hostile situations if they want to carry a concealed weapon.

In Cleburne, a district of about 6,800 students southwest of Fort Worth, the school board has begun discussing whether to shift school policy to allow employees to carry concealed weapons. The board's president, Brent Easdon, said that after an attorney examined the law, members were still unclear on what kinds of policies it authorized — even with Harrold ISD’s example.

A statement from the Texas Association of School Boards’ legal department advises districts to discuss the decision with their school attorney and insurance provider. Though state and federal law gives districts broad discretion to authorize the possession of firearms and other weapons on school premises, “granting such authority brings a host of practical concerns, including safety, liability, and insurance,” the statement said.

Easdon said the Cleburne board would probably wait to see how the Legislature changed state policy during the 83rd session. “The discussion is going to be about the direction we want to take and what we want to do," he said. "We may choose to do nothing."

As for the direction state lawmakers want to take, many options are available — some more controversial than others.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has called for state funding dedicated to training select school employees to carry concealed handguns and react in active-shooter situations. Attorney General Greg Abbott has focused on the school districts whose state-mandated safety plans are out of compliance. At a news conference in which he released the names of 78 districts in violation, he said the state should be able to penalize them for that offense. (Since then, nearly all of the districts have updated their plans in accordance with state law.)

Freshman state Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, intends to file legislation creating a program modeled on the federal air marshals that would permit districts to deputize employees to learn to use firearms as a last line of defense during an attack. Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, has also expressed interest in expanding access to concealed handguns for school employees.

State senators will hold a hearing on student safety policies next week, and three lawmakers, including the chairmen of the Senate Finance and Criminal Justice committees, announced Tuesday that they would push to allow school districts to raise local taxes to pay for security measures.

The latest proposal may be unlikely to help a district like Cleburne, where, Easdon said, the main appeal of arming teachers instead of hiring professional guards is budgetary. He estimated that adding an additional peace officer to each of the district's 10 campuses would cost between $500,000 and $600,000.

“We’re not taking it lightly or having a knee-jerk reaction to the problem,” he said. “I don’t think the district is all of a sudden going to change. This would take a few weeks and a few months to come up with a plan and implement it.”

Maurice Chammah and Elena Schneider contributed reporting.

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