Arlington school district looks at security measures

ARLINGTON -- Arlington school board members say they have no desire for teachers to bring concealed guns to class and instead are focusing on measures such as new surveillance cameras and door buzzers to improve security at elementary schools.

School districts across the state have reviewed their security systems and how to protect employees and students since December, when a man armed with a military-style assault rifle shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and killed 20 children and six adults.

While the Arlington school board itself has not taken an official stance, individual members say they don't believe arming teachers or putting a uniformed police officer inside each of the district's 51 elementary campuses is a necessary security measure.

"Nobody on the board, nobody in the administration, nobody in the Police Department wants that," school board President Peter Baron said. "I don't see that happening in Arlington."

Only a few rural Texas school districts, including Harrold, Van and Union Grove, allow employees with concealed handgun licenses to bring firearms to campus.

Locally, the Plano school board initially backed a plan to hire armed security guards for all campuses but is now considering a less-expensive plan to add police officers at middle schools. Fort Worth will allow unarmed civilians trained by the police to patrol campuses, and the Southlake City Council approved putting armed police officers at every campus by this fall at no cost to the school district.

The Dallas school board recently approved spending about $4.65 million for security improvements, such as cameras and door buzzers, at more than 150 elementary and secondary schools campuses, according to The Dallas Morning News.

Last month, the Cleburne school district decided not to allow teachers, administrators and other staff members to carry guns onto campus, but voters will decide May 11on a $10 million bond package that includes money for more surveillance cameras, among other things.

"There has never been a thought that [police staffing] was needed in the elementaries until Sandy Hook. We don't see it as a viable option to put a police officers in every elementary in Arlington. It's expensive," said Baron, adding that such a plan would cost more than $4 million a year. "All the gun toters would say we need it and we need to arm all the teachers, but I just don't think it's needed."

'Gun-free' environment

Since the day of the Sandy Hook school shooting, Arlington Police Chief Will Johnson has assigned patrol officers at elementary school campuses during student arrival and dismissal times to increase police visibility. The Arlington police and school district also evaluated campus security plans for improvements, ultimately deciding to increase training and review the plans annually, Johnson told the Arlington City Council last month.

Arlington has 18 armed school resource officers who work at the district's high school and junior high campuses. But the Police Department has not suggested adding officers at elementary schools, nor has it recommended the district change its policy and allow concealed handgun license holders to bring their weapons to campus.

"We do not believe that providing teachers the option to carry guns while in the classroom is the best interest of children, teachers or the first responders who may respond to a campus during a critical incident," Johnson wrote Dec. 27 in an email to council members that was obtained by the Star-Telegram. The same email was sent to school Superintendent Marcelo Cavazos.

"Placing guns in an environment that has been deemed 'gun free' also creates additional security and legal issues that are yet to be resolved. The issue of staffing a police officer on every school campus is also being passionately debated on a national level. These conversations may be interesting, but neither provide a comprehensive solution for school safety and may ultimately create more problems than they solve," Johnson wrote.

Trustee Bowie Hogg said he would not support teachers and staff bringing guns to school.

"Our areas are not unguarded. Beat officers are patrolling those areas to monitor safety and security of schools," Hogg said. "We can't teach, we can't do anything else if our students, teachers and parents do not feel safe in the classroom. It's going to be priority one."

Trustee Jaime Sullins said at a candidate forum this month that she didn't believe teacher carry is the way to improve safety.

"I believe that peace officers are the people who should carry guns. Peace officers are the people who should help protect our students," Sullins said.

The Arlington school district also has 74 unarmed security guards who are assigned to all secondary campuses but also patrol the district.

District 3 Councilman Robert Rivera is pushing the city and school district to consider adopting a program similar to one in Fort Worth that allows volunteers who are trained by the Police Department to patrol inside school hallways and in the neighborhoods around campuses.

"We have a lot of citizens that want to be more proactive in their community and they simply need to be asked. This is the call to action," he said.

Meanwhile, David McElwee, who is one of the gun rights activists pushing the Arlington school district to allow teachers with concealed handgun licenses to carry weapons on campus, said it would be a more cost-effective means to reducing a campus' vulnerability to armed intruders.

"It's time for AISD to permit school employees to better protect students and school personnel -- let them be armed," Mêlée wrote in a three-part series outlining his proposal. "Licensed and armed school personnel are the last line of defense."

Prohibited weapons

According to a review of annual disciplinary reports on the Texas Education Agency website by the Star-Telegram, the number of students who have been disciplined for bringing prohibited weapons to Arlington campuses has fallen consistently over the past six school years.

In the 2006-07 school year, for example, 20 students were disciplined for prohibited weapons -- firearms, knives, clubs, brass knuckles for example -- and the numbers decreased until there none were in the 2011-12 school year, according to the website.

Statewide, however, schools have reported 403 cases of students being disciplined for bringing prohibited weapons to campuses in the 2011-12 school year, up from 390 the year before.

Baron acknowledges that the Newtown school shooting sped up the district's plans to make security upgrades, which include a new visitor-screening system and a keyless-entry system at all the elementary school campuses. The improvements will cost about $110,000, officials said.

After improvements are complete, visitors will have to press a buzzer to request entry into the building. School staff, monitoring cameras focused on the main entrance, will control the door and ask visitors to check in and undergo a background check through a screening software program. .

Baron said he would also love to add police officers to every elementary school, but it is an expensive proposition.

"If the city of Arlington wanted to do that for us, we would be glad to accept," said Baron, pointing to the Southlake City Council's recent approval to station officers at all 11 of the Carroll school district's campuses starting in the fall.

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Susan Schrock, 817-709-7578

Twitter: @susanschrock