The prospect of arming teachers and administrators to counter school shooters drew a sharp response Tuesday as a special committee of the Texas Senate held its second hearing in two days on school safety.
Opponents said the practice has not been shown to improve safety, places a massive responsibility on already overwhelmed teachers and fosters a siege mentality that damages the learning environment.
Supporters said having an armed adult on site, trained in how to respond to emergency situations, could save lives, saying that the average police response time is three minutes.
“Active shooters have become more prolific in what they do. I would say the average now is eight to nine murder attempts per minute,” said Craig Bessent, assistant superintendent for the Wylie school district east of Plano, which joined the state’s school marshal program in 2014. “I think the data showed us that the best attempt to mitigate or to stop a mass-casualty event was to have someone (armed) inside of a school building.”
Nothing was decided Tuesday. The Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Safety is still in its fact-finding stage, with two more hearings planned but not yet scheduled before the panel issues its recommendations for action, likely to come in August.
Several House committees also plan to hold similar hearings about how to address school shootings based on a 40-point action plan formed by Gov. Greg Abbott last month. Increasing the number of school marshals was among Abbott’s suggestions.
Tuesday’s hearing before the committee of six Republicans and three Democrats drew a large crowd, filling a Capitol hearing room and an overflow room, requiring a second overflow room to be opened.
Much of the attention focused on the school marshal program, which requires participants to receive 80 hours of training in how to respond to crisis situations, pass a psychological exam and pass a background check as part of the process of getting a license to carry a firearm.
During crisis situations, marshals have the same authority as police officers, including arrest powers. “Outside of that, they have no authority,” said Kim Vickers, head of the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, which certifies school marshals.
In addition, teachers who volunteer to serve as marshals must keep their weapons in a lockbox while in the classroom. Administrators certified as marshals must keep their handguns concealed while on campus.
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, complained that too much attention was being focused on school marshals during the hearing, saying the program was being presented as a “cure-all” when it was not viable for large, diverse and complex metro areas like Houston or Beaumont.
Bessent agreed, saying marshals are one part of an equation that includes early intervention and mental health treatment for troubled students. Schools might not need marshals if their halls are adequately patrolled by police officers trained to work in schools, he added.
“I wish we didn’t have to have a marshals program. I know it’s a Band-Aid. It’s to mitigate mass casualties,” Bessent said.
Senators also had questions about the school guardian program, which allows districts to designate adults who are allowed to carry a concealed weapon on campus. There is no training requirement or state oversight for school guardians, and nobody knows how many there are statewide, Vickers said.
Calling the program a “disaster waiting to happen,” Whitmire said he will press for requiring guardians to receive formal training and to work in collaboration with local law enforcement.
But Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, said he was confident that local school districts can create effective guardian policies without state mandates or interference.
Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, the committee’s chairman, said he has seen a consensus toward employing more school resource officers, police officers trained to work in schools. Vickers said school district police departments are another option, noting that 13 districts have inquired about starting a police force since 10 people were killed last month at Santa Fe High School near Houston.
Mitzi McEwen, a retired principal from Friendswood, pressed for smaller class sizes as a way to let teachers better know their students and recognize those who are troubled.
“I want you to hear this loud and clear: Teachers don’t want to carry a gun,” McEwen said. “Don’t take a shortcut or look for an easy solution.”