As Texas lawmakers took their turn Monday to consider ways to prevent school shootings, they found little consensus on whether schools should be equipped with metal detectors or teachers should be allowed to carry guns.
Monday’s discussion in a select committee of state senators kicked off a series of Capitol hearings expected over the next few months as state officials continue to respond to the Santa Fe High School shooting that left 10 dead May 18.
The focus Monday was on ways to improve security through school design and the installation of metal detectors, among other things. But discussion veered to other school safety topics, with multiple Republican senators speaking in favor of arming teachers. The committee will examine the school marshal and guardian programs, which allow trained teachers and administrators to carry firearms into the classroom, in a second hearing Tuesday.
School security officials and school resource officers who were invited to testify cautioned against the program.
“Those programs are just to make people feel good,” Mike Matranga, a former U.S. Secret Service agent who now serves as head of security for the Texas City school district, told the senators. “If you’re going to designate a marshal or a guardian, why not just hire another police officer and put them in a school? They’re better trained. They’re better equipped. They have the ability to make judgments. It seems like you’re putting a Band-Aid on a hemorrhage.”
Jeff Foley, a regional director of the Texas Association of School Resource Officers, and Joe Curiel, the San Antonio school district’s police chief, said they have concerns about police accidentally shooting an armed teacher or administrator during an active shooter situation.
At least 217 of the state’s 1,024 districts have policies that allow teachers to be armed, according to the Texas Association of School Boards.
Defending the program, Republican senators said nobody was forcing teachers to carry guns and that armed staff members are meant to support, not supplant officers. Training could also help prevent armed school staffers from being caught in friendly fire, Sens. Don Huffines of Dallas and Larry Taylor of Friendswood said.
“I just don’t want us to totally throw out a program that I think has merit,” Taylor said.
Sens. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, and Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, also appeared to support using more metal detectors in schools as a way to prevent student shooters.
But several school experts were cool to the idea, citing concerns about cost (officials with metal detector companies testified that they can cost between $3,000 and $5,000 per device), the time it would take to funnel hundreds of students each morning through such detectors, and the risk of having students crowded outside school entrances in the morning who could become easy targets for shooters.
Curiel said a more effective way to prevent violence is for school resource officers to build rapport with students so they feel comfortable reporting any potential threats they might see. If he sees a student needing mental health services, he can intervene, he said.
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, shifted attention to mental health, calling the lack of mental health services in schools and communities the “most severe broken part of our system.”
“You want to talk about architecture? You want to talk about gun training?” Whitmire said. “If we don’t detect and have a place for (a troubled student) to be referred to and get meaningful help, we will end up fortifying our schools and still having tragedies.”
The committee will address mental health in a future hearing. The committee plans to release its recommendations in August.
Gov. Greg Abbott released a 40-point school safety plan last month, with recommendations ranging from increasing the number of school marshals to “hardening” campuses by improving security at entrances and exits and controlling access to schools.
Several Texas House committees will take up different topics related to school security as well, but no hearings have occurred yet.