Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
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.
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.
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.