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Senators Hold Hearing on Guns in Schools

Police and educators were among those who testified before senators on Monday about how to ensure school safety and whether school employees should carry concealed handguns on campus.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte D-San Antonio, asks question during a Joint Committee Hearing on School Safety in the Senate Chamber on January 28th , 2013

Educators, police officers and state officials weighed in Monday during a Senate hearing on proposals to arm teachers to prevent the kind of horror that took place last month at a Connecticut elementary school from happening in Texas.

At a hearing where witnesses on both sides of the issue emphasized the need for individual school districts to set their own policies to meet their communities' needs, the upper chamber’s education committee chairman, Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, acknowledged that state law could be “ambiguous” when it comes to firearms policies.

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.

But the law could offer conflicting guidance on enforcing security, said David Anderson, the Texas Education Agency’s general counsel.

“Obviously, some school districts read the penal code provision as saying, if some of our teachers with concealed handgun permits happen to bring them to school, that’s okay. But another provision in the educational code says here’s how you create a police force,” Anderson said. “Those two don’t mesh real well. That’s probably a good thing to clarify.”

Three superintendents from rural school districts that have embraced concealed handgun policies for their employees since the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., emphasized their support for increased security, but also said that what worked in their district might not work in others.

“Locally, it’s been 100 percent [positive feedback],” said Brian Gray, superintendent for Union Grove ISD, whose district adopted the policy this month.

Don Dunn, superintendent for Van ISD, another district that recently voted to allow employees to carry concealed weapons, said his community wholeheartedly supported the change, but stopped short of saying it was right for all districts.

“At the end of day, my responsibility is my school district,” Dunn said. “This is not comparing apples to apples.”

Dunn said his district adopted the policy because of a concern about response time, something that caught the attention of senators, several of whom questioned witnesses about how to address a potential delay police response in the event of a shooting.

“For the shooter in Connecticut, it took him three minutes to shoot through the door, kill the principal, 20 kids and five other teachers,” Dunn said. “Our police can’t get to our middle school in three minutes. We are completely defenseless during that five-minute window [before the police arrive].”

Since the December shooting, several elected officials have floated proposals to improve security at Texas schools. 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 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 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.

On Monday, some witnesses, including Dallas ISD Police Department Chief Craig Miller, cautioned lawmakers about turning to armed teachers as a solution. He said in his experience working work with police officers and the FBI, officers have “second guessed and questioned whether or not the level of force they used was appropriate,” despite their high level of training.

He advised policymakers to not have a “knee-jerk reaction” to the problem, but to address it on a local level.

“I don’t want to see a teacher put in that position,” he said.

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