Guns in schools: What will Texas Legislature do?

Armed police officers aren't an unusual sight in North Texas secondary schools.

The Dallas school district has its own police force, as does at least one Tarrant County district, Mansfield.

But even in Texas, where guns are practically a birthright, plenty of people struggle with the thought of armed security officers walking past walls covered in finger-painted artwork and among laughing wee ones squirming in crooked hallway lines.

When the 83rd Texas Legislature opens Tuesday, the question of guns in schools -- particularly elementary schools -- will take on a new urgency as lawmakers and educators grapple with how to make campuses safer after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

"It's anyone's guess what lawmakers will ever do, but I would bet security legislation gets filed," said Joe Tison, a former Weatherford school superintendent and one of several area school leaders who spoke with the Star-Telegram about campus security.The shooting deaths of 20 children in Newtown, Conn., shook communities like no other recent event.

Proposed reactions are quickly turning into debate points, from arming principals to posting armed officers at elementary schools to adding more mental health programs for teens.

The National Rifle Association raised the stakes when Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre called for armed officers at every school in America.

The cost alone, many say, would be staggering. In Fort Worth, estimates put the elementary school price tag at more than $5 million.

"The NRA has taken an absurd position in advocating a huge additional expense for our school districts," said Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, who is considering filing a law to tax ammunition as a way to pay for mental health services for teens.

Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, said school and campus security will be top themes in the legislative session, especially as lawmakers and school leaders gain a better idea of what happened in Newtown.

The answers, she said, will steer any action: "What happened? What went right? What worked and what didn't."

School security will mostly be handled by local districts, which must submit and maintain emergency plans.

"There is a lot of local control when it comes to those issues in Texas already," said state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills.

Klick agreed: "People need to pay attention to what their local boards are doing."

'When evil comes'

North Texas school and law enforcement leaders said they are continually updating security plans. But the Sandy Hook shootings prompted more review.

"I think we learned by looking at Newtown [that] it could be any town in the United States. When evil comes, you have to be as prepared as you can for it," Keller Police Chief Mark Hafner told city leaders recently. "Though you will never be ready, you can be prepared."

People are already accustomed to armed police officers at high schools or middle schools, where calls for tighter security followed the 1998 shootings at Westside Middle School near Jonesboro, Ark., and the 1999 massacre at Colorado's Columbine High School.

School districts mandate rapid-response training for teachers and security that includes cameras and lockdown systems. Texas schools file security plans and sign contracts with cities for armed police officers.

In Fort Worth, 48 Fort Worth law enforcement officers and three from the Benbrook Police Department are available to the schools.

In Arlington, 20 city-employed school resource officers work with junior and high schools and assist elementary schools as needed.

In the Northwest district, seven school resource officers work at high schools and middle schools and are available to elementary schools.

Northwest also has an agreement with Denton County law enforcement to provide additional officers throughout the district when issues arise.

Roanoke provides support at the district's Steele Accelerated High School and Roanoke Elementary, said Lesley Weaver, the district spokeswoman.

But until now, Texans have generally drawn the line at posting armed officers at elementary schools.

"The kids are going to think something is wrong," said Juan Zamudio, whose 4-year-old attends Birdville Elementary School in Haltom City.

Zamudio was shaken when his daughter's elementary school went into lockdown recently.

The idea isn't new.

"It was discussed after Columbine. It was discussed after Jonesboro," said Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association in Austin. "It's not the entire fix. It might be part of the fix."

Posting armed police at elementary schools might ease worries.

Tison said: "Peace of mind and freedom to use their talent to teach children without undue stress are reasons to consider armed officers at campuses. It is a much better alternative than the idea of allowing licensed administrators and teachers at local campuses to carry guns."

Steven Poole, executive director of the United Educators Association, said he worries that communities may overact.

"These are neighborhood schools, and we want to be welcome and inviting for our parents and students," Poole said.

Who will pay?

The biggest roadblock, however, could be money.

Can cash-strapped schools and communities realistically pay for armed officers in every elementary school? In Texas, that is 4,600 campuses.

Sgt. Steve Hall, president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association, estimates that it would cost $5.5 million just to place one armed peace officer at 81 elementary schools in the Fort Worth district.

Fort Worth schools pay for half the security services in the district.

This year, that comes to about $3 million for Fort Worth police and $154,400 for Benbrook police.

But security dollars compete with other needs -- like reading, writing and math.

"At the state level, cuts to local districts have already hampered their ability to provide an adequate level of instruction," Tison said. "If national and state government is willing to provide financial support to districts for instruction and security, the local districts will find appropriate solutions."

Tobi Jackson, a Fort Worth school trustee, said money is needed for threat assessment and mental health support for schools and communities.

"If we educate our community members and students to recognize and report those individuals embroiled in severe personal conflict or who are deeply troubled, we will be more successful at preventing horrific acts of violence," Jackson said.

"In many instances of school violence, what seemed to be appropriate stopgaps were in place: You had a controlled-access school [Newtown], two armed police officers on campus [Columbine] and campus police on the ground [Virginia Tech], and we still had the tragic loss of human life."

Staff writers Jessamy Brown, Sandra Engelland, Shirley Jinkins, Susan McFarland and Patrick M. Walker contributed to this report.

Diane Smith, 817-390-7675

Twitter: @dianeasmith1