Armed employees or a police force: Which is better for schools?

A cross honored Santa Fe High School substitute teacher Cynthia Tisdale who was killed during a shooting at the school in Santa Fe, Texas.
A cross honored Santa Fe High School substitute teacher Cynthia Tisdale who was killed during a shooting at the school in Santa Fe, Texas. Houston Chronicle

When students head back to school in Joshua in August, they'll find a new system in place to protect them.

In the wake of mass school shootings in Texas and across the country, they will see a police force solely geared to protect them.

This is one of the latest moves by communities, educators and lawmakers to increase school safety following deadly shootings at schools stretching from Santa Fe, Texas, to Parkland, Fla.

"If a student doesn't feel safe coming to school, it is going to be pretty hard for them to learn," said Rick Edwards, assistant superintendent for Joshua schools, which is south of Fort Worth in Johnson County.

Plans were already underway for this department when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently released a 40-point school safety plan that touches on proposals ranging from increasing social media monitoring to boosting law enforcement presence at schools.

And it's just one of the ways leaders across the state are trying to protect campuses.

School safety has been at the forefront of many discussions — even roundtables held at the Texas Capitol with the governor — in the wake of school shooting.

Southlake Mayor Laura Hill recently announced a $500,000 investment for school safety. And Fort Worth school officials approved sharing school security video in-real-time to Fort Worth police.

Abbott proposed a slew of ideas, including adding more school marshals — school employees who are trained in several areas and are prepared and ready to respond to active shooters — and providing grants up to $10,000 for any campus that wants to boost the number of marshals at their schools.

“A lot of schools were built with teaching and learning in mind, not security,” said state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth. “We are going to have to rethink all of that.”

License to carry

The school marshal program was created by state lawmakers in 2013, letting teachers or employees at public, private or charter schools arm themselves and respond to shootings or other dangers on campus.

Around 170 school districts, many in rural parts of the state, have school marshals, state estimates show.

School marshals must be certified by the state and trained in areas such as weapon proficiency, responding to active shooters and improving campus security. And they must have their License To Carry a handgun in Texas.

With this program, lawmakers said they wanted to give students and teachers as much protection as possible, no matter where they are in Texas.

“We recognized that the more trained people we could have in these kinds of situations, the more protection our students, teachers and staff will have,” said state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, one of several local lawmakers who signed the bill creating the program. “I think it was a good idea, a good framework.

“You see these terrible shootings but you see schools where it could be worse if not for a resource officer or a marshal,” he said. “I hope more schools will take advantage of it.”

But it's a plan some Texans still criticize.

“Teachers are trained to teach and to nurture, not double up as security guards,” a recent statement from The Texas State Teachers Association read.

The association also points out that current law requires guns on campus carried by marshals who directly interact with students to be locked up unless there's an emergency. And members note that Abbott's new school safety plan calls for those locks to be removed.

"The governor apparently believes that if you are going to arm teachers or principals to confront armed intruders, it makes no sense to require those teachers or principals or whoever to waste precious minutes trying to unlock a drawer or safe after mayhem already has erupted," according to a TSTA statement.

"How many parents really want to send their children to a school where there may be a pistol — either loaded or with ammunition stored nearby — in an unlocked classroom drawer?"

Dakota Rudzik, a graduate of Keller Central, is among those who don't support arming educators.

He fears that there's an ongoing "trend of expecting more from teachers than education." And while that is helpful for mentoring and tutoring, school security is another matter.

"Now we expect our average everyday teachers to carry firearms and shoot their own students, all while we still scoff at the idea of increasing their wages," Rudzik told the Star-Telegram after the governor announced his school safety plan. "Abbott seems to be leaning in the right direction on some details of the gun violence epidemic, but is still strongly influenced by campaign donations from the NRA."

After Sandy Hook

Texas lawmakers passed the marshal bill after the deadly 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which led to some school districts, such as Southlake Carroll, beginning their next school year — in August 2013 — with armed police officers on campus.

State lawmakers say their primary goal was to give school officials a way to feel they were making their schools safer.

For Klick, the marshal program helped ensure that rural schools far from law enforcement had some sort of protection.

“They have a big need because law enforcement may be great distances from them, maybe 20 or 30 minutes away,” Klick said.

But the program isn't just limited to teachers.

It allows any school employees, or others such as retired military members, to protect the school.

And in the upcoming 86th Legislative Session, which begins in January 2019, lawmakers say all options for keeping schools safe are back on the table — no matter what the cost.

“There’s no question we have an obligation to make these schools safer than they are today,” state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth. “This is not the time for the state to put a bunch more unfunded mandates on school districts and then tell them to lower their tax rates."

“The state needs to step up.”

School police force

In the past, the 5,500-student Joshua school district has contracted with the Johnson County Sheriff's Office for school resource officers to protect campuses. This shift signals an effort to streamline safety by making licensed peace officers school employees.

Edwards said the district will hire three police officers and a police chief at a cost of about $260,000 to start up. The district has an application pending with the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement and once that's approved, the district's police department will be up and running.

With this department, Joshua joins several other districts that have their own police force, including Dallas and Mansfield.

"I think it is great," said Amanda Warren, a mother with two students in Joshua schools. "Any added protection for our children is great."

The Fort Worth school district doesn't have plans to create a district police force nor does it rely on school marshals.

At Keene schools, another school district in Johnson County, a police force is part of the safety layers aimed at protecting four campuses and about 1,200 staff and students. The program was created during the 2015-2016 school year.

Chief Ronny Potts, a former air marshal, patrols schools with the help of three reserve officers. There is also a "guardian program," made up of armed district personnel. These guardians are civilians who are licensed to carry a handgun and participated in training.

"They carry the weapon on them all the time," Potts said. "None of the students or staff members know who they are."

Potts said his district sent Abbott information about their program, which is different from school marshals.

Potts said schools and communities need to be pro-active about how they protect students from mass shootings. That means addressing needs from the entry points to counselors who can identify troubled youth, he said.

"We have to be more dynamic," Potts said.

Some lawmakers say police presence would be preferable to marshals.

But safety options all depend on what each district can do.

“If you put real on-duty police in these buildings, they have a lot more training,” said Geren, who was also one of the co-authors of the 2013 law. “Shooting at a target is a whole lot different than shooting at a person. The better trained you are, the better you’ll handle that type of situation.

“The marshal program is a good program but trained police is a better program.”

This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley

Dispatch audio of the first dispatch call and when police officers enter Santa Fe High School during the school shooting. Audio source: Broadcastify

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