At East Central ISD, Will Teachers and Handguns Go Hand in Hand?

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Parent and teacher Priscilla Garcia addresses the panel.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Parent and teacher Priscilla Garcia speaks during a panel on arming teachers and staff in the East Central Independent School District.

What would parents do if school district leaders sent home a letter saying the school board was drafting a policy to allow uniformed campus police to add classroom teaching duties to their workload?

Who would agree to armed peace officers – no disrespect – teaching AP government or history to college-bound high-school seniors, or reading and phonics to third-graders?

Yet the reverse of that is now well underway at East Central Independent School District, which serves 10,000-plus students in the semi-rural reaches of southeast Bexar County. It’s the least urban or suburban of the county’s 15 school districts and, not incidentally, the one closest to Sutherland Springs, site of the November 2017 mass shooting at the First Baptist Church that left 26 dead and 20 wounded, the deadliest such incident in Texas and the fifth-worst in the United States.

East Central also is the only Bexar County school district moving toward a policy of arming teachers and other adult school workers who, in theory, will remain unidentified to parents and students.

Amid a frightening increase in mass shootings nationwide, school boards and administrators everywhere are wrestling with how to best safeguard students entrusted to their care. The business of education now comes with a heavy obligation to create and maintain the safest and most secure environment possible, an expensive and vexing challenge and one that can only limit rather than eliminate the potential for violence.

Reasonable school campus security is defined differently by individuals in school leadership positions and in the communities they serve, where deeply held views on everything from funding better mental health services in schools to gun rights versus gun control divide people politically.

In East Central ISD, school board members and Superintendent Roland Toscano are leaning toward implementing a new Guardian Plan that would identify and screen willing classroom teachers and other employees to be trained and armed to respond to an active shooter.

East Central I.S.D. Superintendent Roland Toscano.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

East Central Superintendent Roland Toscano addressed the audience before the panel discussion but did not take questions.

The Texas Legislature has approved two choices for arming educators and other campus employees the Guardian Plan in 2012 and the Marshal Plan in 2013. The two most significant differences between the two plans that I see are the very low training requirements for the Guardian Plan, 15 hours, versus the 80-hour minimum for the Marshal Plan. The latter plan also includes a requirement that loaded weapons be stored in locked containers in the presence of students, while the Guardian Plan allows teachers and other employees to carry their weapon at all times.

Texas has more than 1,200 school districts, and in 200 of the mostly small, rural districts, some teachers and school employees already are armed.

Those who support East Central’s proposed Guardian Plan believe measures to augment the district’s campus police force could save lives by reducing response times to an armed intruder on campus, be it a disturbed student or outside actor.

Last week, Toscano told an audience of about 150 district residents that East Central’s 11 geographically dispersed campuses already benefit from a rapid response time of four to six minutes from armed campus police, with an officer currently assigned to each campus. Still, most active shooters inflict the most damage before law enforcement officers reach the scene, he said. Armed teachers would provide a more immediate, on-scene response and thus save lives, Toscano reasoned.

In the district’s impressive new performing arts hall on the high school campus, teachers, parents, veterans, and others attending the East Central event, a panel discussion I moderated, seemed unconvinced. Various speakers said district officials were racing ahead with a predetermined plan and only now seeking community input as opposition surfaces.

Most of the individuals in the district I have spoken with, including parents and teachers, would not give the district a passing grade for transparency or inviting all stakeholders into the conversation from the outset.

There was frustration among audience members that the panel did not include Toscano or board President Steve Bryant, both of whom addressed the audience beforehand but did not take questions. While the 990-seat hall was mostly empty on a night when Clemson and Alabama were playing the Bowl Championship Series game, those on hand were unwilling to let the program end at 8 p.m. We remained onstage for some time afterward until many more audience members could pose questions, many of which were directed at Toscano or Bryant and thus went unanswered.

The district handed out a Guardian Plan Consideration FAQ, which is also posted on its website, but the document does not address many of the “what if?” questions posed at the meeting.

The panel included Rod Ellis, a George-based school district police chief serving as an unpaid consultant with the private, nonprofit Safe Havens International to East Central; Laura Aten, a retired district teacher; David Colbath, a fencing contractor and survivor of the Sutherland Springs shooting; and Mary Beth Fisk, an East Central resident and executive director of the Ecumenical Center, which has provided counseling services to Sutherland Springs survivors.

(From left) Robert Rivard, Rod Ellis, Mary Beth Fisk, Laura Aten, and David Colbath participate in a conversation on arming school staff.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

(From left) Robert Rivard moderates a discussion among Rod Ellis, Mary Beth Fisk, Laura Aten, and David Colbath on East Central’s move toward arming school staff.

Frustration grew when Ellis, the police chief, held up his tablet and inadvertently disclosed that he was in possession of the school district’s “draft plan” for arming teachers, a plan that teachers, parents, and students were unaware existed and is not being released for public review.

A draft plan seems premature with so many questions and concerns still not addressed.  Isn’t arming teachers a way of expanding the campus police force on the cheap? Can parents request classes for their children with only unarmed teachers? What plans do district officials have to fund increased mental health care services to engage in more effective early intervention with troubled students who could spiral down into active shooters?

Who will screen volunteer teachers and employees to avoid putting guns in the hands of people not psychologically fit for such duty? How will the district counsel and treat students who witness a teacher or campus worker confront a hostile student with a concealed weapon?

On the long drive home on the district’s rural county roads, I thought about the different personality types that attract individuals to careers in the classroom and law enforcement. Surely there are examples of people who thrive in both cultures – military veterans come to mind – but aren’t most people drawn to one profession or the other for very different reasons that no amount of training can overcome?

How many teachers have the psychological makeup to shoot and kill a student they know personally? How many of them acting under extreme stress unlike any they’ve ever experienced will shoot the correct attacker or, perhaps, fail to pull the trigger and instead lose their own lives?

There are far more questions than answers right now in East Central ISD. Most of us understandably remain unconvinced that classroom teachers and concealed weapons can go hand in hand.

14 thoughts on “At East Central ISD, Will Teachers and Handguns Go Hand in Hand?

  1. Is there an incorrect attacker? Some of the questions you raise could be asked of law enforcement as well. Consider the response of deputies at Parkland. The importance of arming teachers, it seems, is in detrring would-be attackers by letting them know that the school is not a gun-free zone. As far as teachers having the fortitude to shoot a student who likely has made their lives a misery for years, geez I’d have to think about that.

    • The East Central schools are not gun-free zones. Few, if any, metro school districts in Texas are gun-free zones. They have their own police forces. The ECISD maintains a professional police force with at least one officer per campus. –RR

      • Many of the schools are “gun free”/”drug free” zones. The way Chief McCampbell (NEISD PD) explained it is that it is not a yes or no question. Prohibitive possessors are always against the law. If you are permitted, you are to carry in the parking lot unless class is held for some reason in the parking lot. You are not allowed to carry in the building unless expressly authorized by the district. It is considered a “gun free zone”.

  2. The solution to school shootings isn’t arming school personnel.
    History shows us that most if not all of the assailants were emotionally troubled white males.
    Perhaps making the purchase of assault weapons illegal and checking potential weapon buyers for mental stability should be implemented.
    AMERICA MUST MOVE BEYOND THE WILD WEST MENTALITY!

    • History teaches much, such as you can kill anybody.(M. Corleone). It also teaches that these shooters pick gun-free zones for their killing.

      • The East Central schools are not gun-free zones. Few, if any, metro school districts in Texas are gun-free zones. They have their own police forces. The ECISD maintains a professional police force with at least one officer per campus. –RR

    • According to the Daily Texan, 170 schools are armed in Texas. What is your solution? Assault weapons are already illegal. Most of the school, mass, and spree killings have been done by illicitly obtained weapons.

      • The Daily Texan data you cite, I believe, is dated. I have seen data stating that 200 mostly rural Texas school districts already arm some teachers or campaus personnel. That leaves 1,000 school diatricts without policies to arm teachers and campus employees. Most metro districts also have professional police forces.–RR

  3. Amidst all the angst associated with this issue at hand, I failed to commend our school board and Superintendent for the fine work they have already done to move our schools into the 21st century. They certainly have accomplished much. That being said, I do feel that this plan should have been presented last year when they knew that they were leaning on one of the 2 types of arming teachers. Why weren’t they more transparent? And now I feel that this has greatly divided our community and has led to an unfortunate “you” against “us” situation. This could have been prevented. I pray that the leaders of our community learn from this and when something this sensitive again crops up, or even still now, that they don’t take action without the input of those vested in this community. The cost to implement one plan or another, and there will be a cost, could be further analyzed on helping students in need, providing other external/internal security (ie hiring more peace officers, having a new system like Texas A&M San Antonio detect the location, purchase door stoppers that prevent entry, create “safe” closets, etc) I do not know the answer, I wasn’t given the opportunity to have input, and I don’t know the planned budget for this “draft” policy. I lean on the fact that the answer to the gun problem is more guns. What must we do to convince the school board to “put this on hold” until more options are explored and those are presented to the community. These elected officials need to be mindful that we are now aware and disappointed. Mr. Bryant called out the fact that we only had about 144 people show up to the forum and I resent that he implied that people weren’t interested and that I felt this may be a way to make the decision in their favor. If you want a rally of people, I am ready to organize!

  4. As a an employee of the district and a parent, I am saddened by the lack of accountabity of our leaders. They say all the right things about maintaining and building community, but their actions do not echo this as they continously keep big decisions and plans close to their chest because they know if the community were informed these plans would not happen. Why do they act this way? So, if they pass the guardian plan, which the majority of the community voted against it in a survey, they will have to pay it from their funds, not state funds. Teachers, didn’t get a raise this year because of budget shortfalls, they cut ease of accessibility to one of their primo programs because they couldn’t afford to maintain it as is, but now there is money for arming staff? How much does this plan cost? Would it be a one time payment or a yearly one? Can we use this money to pay for more counselors or para professionals to give students more 1 on 1 attention? I hope they listen to their stakeholders. On another note, as an army veteran who left the military to educate, my son and the next generation how to NOT solve their issues through violence, I will not take up arms even though I am probably more trained than my coworkers in handling a weapon and reacting to a threat.

  5. East Central is not alone in being a partially rural area. Northside ISD has similar issues with schools outside of 1604 where help may take a while to get there.

    Consider Boldt or Los Reyes Elementary School. If the one police officer that is split between two elementary schools is not there at the time of an incident there will not be a response for a while. Both are out in the county in areas where there may not be a Sheriff’s Deputy around. Los Reyes also has the issue of being in the county but closer to Helotes, which ran their city limits just wide enough to cover HWY 16 out past where Los Reyes is located. The next closest location for Los Reyes is Helotes ES. Have you ever tried to get out of Old Town Helotes when there are only two real ways out. One through that newly designed mess at 1560 and another by Scenic Loop.

    Probably just like Northside, anything ECISD staff marks as Draft or Confidential does not have to be legally shared with the public and is done that way on purpose. Only final information is public information. Emails are can also be requested as public information but staff can be discouraged from using email for coordination for that purpose. Many staff members are directed to only discuss certain items on the phone or in person as emails are in the public domain.

    The only way to get the district to do what parents want is to pressure the elected board members to pressure the superintendent’s evaluation. Nothing else matters. The board members have to be more responsive to voting parents than vendors who pay their debt off or contribute to the educational foundation or scholarship programs like the Gerlach Stock Show.

    From a historical perspective General Scharzkopf did not share his plans for Desert Storm and even put briefed incorrect plans to the media so that Saddam Hussein did not know was coming. Remember the decision to arm or not to arm is at the discretion of the board and not parents until there is a recall or someone is up for election. There are a lot of plans that are kept with draft or confidential markings as districts and superintendents want parents to trust them without verifying.

    Why are focusing on arming with lethal weapons. Where is the conversation to arm with tasers or shotguns with rubber balls kept in a arms room like on a ship. You do not have to necessarily kill an shooter during a spree when you can incapacitate them long enough for someone with a gun and handcuffs arrives.

    Much like the walls of gated communities that politicians and superintendents live in, schools need a way to channel bodies through controlled areas. There really is not a way to enforce a controlled area and not make a school look like a prison. Especially, when the cheapest route is chain link fencing. Consider how open O’Connor High School is due to the design requirements by the City of Helotes at that time, as I understand. The two officers on duty, normal staffing, cannot physically be in all the buildings at the same time. Most of the other Northside ISD post-2000 designs are single building high schools.

    Lastly, gun free zones are defined as a place where legal conceal or open carry is prohibited. Having armed on-duty police officers or contracted armed security in an area does not prevent an area from being labeled as a gun free zone as they are there for enforcement as they are excepted by United States Code 18.

  6. I think it’s best to take your questions one at a time, because there are reasonable answers to them.

    Q: Who will screen volunteer teachers and employees to avoid putting guns in the hands of people not psychologically fit for such duty?
    A: Do we not already screen teachers for their psychological fitness? If not, perhaps we should as they already have easy access to our children.

    Q: How will the district counsel and treat students who witness a teacher or campus worker confront a hostile student with a concealed weapon?
    A: No one is talking about a teacher confronting a student with a concealed weapon over a hallway fight. We’re talking about preventing mass killings. In the event that were to occur, no one would need counseling from the teacher’s actions.

    Q: On the long drive home on the district’s rural county roads, I thought about the different personality types that attract individuals to careers in the classroom and law enforcement. Surely there are examples of people who thrive in both cultures – military veterans come to mind – but aren’t most people drawn to one profession or the other for very different reasons that no amount of training can overcome?
    A: It’s not only military or law enforcement that want to protect their own. It’s something every parent wants to do for their children and something most teachers want to do as well. To suggest you need to be “drawn to the profession” of law enforcement just to attempt to prevent disaster is akin to suggesting you won’t help open the emergency exit on an airplane because you’re not a firefighter or flight attendant.

    Q: How many teachers have the psychological makeup to shoot and kill a student they know personally? How many of them acting under extreme stress unlike any they’ve ever experienced will shoot the correct attacker or, perhaps, fail to pull the trigger and instead lose their own lives?
    A: We’ve seen two many times in these situations that teachers will lose their lives in defense of their children they educate. Most police officers have never confronted an active shooter either, as evidenced by the disastrous response at Parkland. At the same time, most people have the psychological makeup to protect the people they love at all costs. I don’t think that’s too hard to understand.

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