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During school safety hearing, Texas lawmakers express support for arming faculty and staff — maybe even with rifles

Following Gov. Greg Abbott's recommendations on school gun safety, members of a Senate committee on school violence debated the efficacy of expanding programs that already arm faculty and school staff.

Left to right: State Sens. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownville, and John Whitmire, D-Houston, at the second day of hearings held by the Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security on June 12, 2018.

Wylie Independent School District prepares for armed intruders in a variety of ways, from active shooter drills to safety-themed coloring books. Some school staff are trained to be armed marshals and are ready to shoot if there's a threat.

Members of the Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security disputed among themselves Tuesday whether that model is appropriate statewide, but they arrived at no concrete legislative proposals. It was the second meeting of the committee, which Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick created to address gun violence in schools. Possible solutions members pondered included allowing faculty to carry guns. One state senator raised the idea of giving faculty rifles.

In a 44-page action plan on school safety, Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, recommended recruiting more faculty and staff with military or police experience to serve as armed marshals in schools – a recommendation that drove much of the conversation Tuesday. 

School marshals are school board-appointed staff members with access to firearms on campus. They must undergo psychological exams and at least 80 hours of training. They also must be licensed by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.

Craig Bessent, assistant superintendent of Wylie ISD and one of the first school marshals in Texas, testified about the marshal program in his school district, arguing that arming faculty is the among most effective ways to protect schools from violence.

The marshals in his district must go through training at least once a month, which, with travel and fees, can be a considerable expense for them, Bessent said. Larger districts try to pay for initial training, Bessent said, but many smaller, rural districts "don't have the funds to do it."

No state senators voiced opposition to the idea of arming teachers. State Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, asked other committee members and Bessent if the state should devote funding for marshal training. The committee will look into it, he said. 

Marshals must keep guns in locked cabinets, though Abbott recommended eliminating this restriction. Bessent said keeping guns locked up is impractical in smaller school districts where faculty have multiple roles – sometimes serving simultaneously as principal and bus driver. Huffines took it further, asking the committee to look into allowing marshals to carry rifles because they are "more accurate" than handguns.

"If a bad guy's got a rifle, not exactly a fair fight," Huffines said.

Like federal air marshals, school marshals are not identified. But Bessent said it would be unwise to keep it confidential  that a school district has armed marshals.

"I just seems common sense to me that when you advertise yourself as a gun-free zone, you’re advertising yourself as a soft target," Huffines agreed.

Though he voted for the original school marshals bill in 2013, state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, questioned its applicability as a standard across Texas. He said what works in a less urban and more homogenous school district such as Wylie may not work in an urban, cosmopolitan area like Houston. Much of the success of Wylie ISD’s program, he said, also relied on Bessent’s personal leadership and initiative.

“I’ve seen your passion and commitment, and I don’t know if we’ll find that in a lot of our communities,” Whitmire said.

Under a separate state program known as the guardian plan, schools districts can create their own plans and standards for arming faculty and staff. Those armed staffers do not need to undergo training or be specially licensed aside from a license to carry.

The lack of oversight for the guardian plan was a point of concern for committee members and Kim Vickers, executive director of Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. Vickers, a 38-year law enforcement veteran, said schools are not required to alert local police that they are participating in the program, which opens the risk of friendly fire during a school shooting.

“I’m built on training and preparation,” Vickers said. “And the idea of putting somebody into a setting with our kids and having a gun without preparing them is not fair for any party.”

Whitmire asked the committee to examine how the program deals with local police.

The idea of arming faculty was met with sharp opposition from members of the public in attendance, who peppered the meeting with scoffs of disbelief.

Mitzi McEwen, a retired principal from Friendswood Independent School District, testified that the best way to prevent shootings was to focus on relationships between students and teachers. There are no limits to how many students can be assigned to secondary school teachers, which McEwen said prevents teachers from forming the meaningful relationships that could prevent school shootings.

“My job is to nurture and teach,” McEwen said. “You can’t take a teacher that has that love of their students and make them look at their kid and shoot them.”

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