Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Questions abounded at the end of a Monday night panel pertaining to East Central Independent School District's proposal to arm teachers and staff.
But none of the four panelists could speak authoritatively about the school district's plans, adding to uncertainty among community members.
"I think [the district] should take all those questions, and they need to answer them," parent and teacher Priscilla Garcia said. "It completely seemed like the panel of experts weren't experts in what needed to be addressed."
Amid a national debate about school safety, the district organized the panel after community members requested more opportunities for input and further information about a proposal that would permit teachers and staff to carry firearms on campus. Under the proposal, based on a state-approved program called the Guardian Plan, school board trustees would approve training and vetting processes for the staff who volunteered to be "guardians" and carry firearms at work.
East Central, which serves around 10,000 students, began studying the possibility of arming teachers in early 2018, but first put up the plan for discussion at a public meeting in November. As a result of community pushback at that meeting, the district issued a community survey and planned the discussion.
Moderated by Rivard Report Editor and Publisher Robert Rivard, Monday's panel featured a school police chief and security consultant who worked with Broward County Public Schools after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida; a survivor of the 2017 mass shooting in Sutherland Springs; a former district teacher; and the executive director of the Ecumenical Center. Throughout nearly two hours of discussion, the more than 140 attendees had plenty of questions for the district.
What if a teacher accidentally shoots a student? How much would the plan cost? What is the emotional impact on a student who sees his teacher shoot a classmate? What are the training standards?
To these and many other questions, panelists were unable to give clear answers.
Of the close to 1,400 community members who responded to the district's December survey, 46 percent agreed with the Guardian Plan, 48 percent disagreed, and 6 percent were neutral. Of the 599 ECISD faculty members who responded, 56 percent were in favor of the proposal, and 44 percent were against the plan.
On Monday, opponents and supporters alike wondered how exactly the plan would be implemented.
James Chatham, a member of East Central's transportation department, said he would "definitely" volunteer to participate, but wondered how police responding to an active shooter situation would know he was allowed to carry a firearm.
"I want to make sure I'm identifiable ... as the good guy so they don’t come in behind me and shoot me," Chatham said.
The Guardian Plan releases few details about its implementation to the public, including who is approved to participate, meaning students and families would not know which district staff are carrying a weapon on campus.
Former ECISD teacher and panelist Laura Aten said student uncertainty over whether their teacher is carrying a weapon or not could compromise the student-teacher relationship and trust.
"Even if [the student] doesn’t know who's got the gun, there’s that does he, does she?" Aten said.
The school board plans to discuss the proposed Guardian Plan at its next meeting on Jan. 17, District spokeswoman Ashley Chohlis said, but it remains unknown whether trustees will take action that day.
Chohlis told the Rivard Report that while the district has drafted a policy, it wouldn't make it public without board approval.
"If they don't decide to vote on it, they might not ever make it public," she said.
However, if trustees did approve the plan, Chohlis said, they would likely release certain training protocol so the community could feel comfortable knowing guardians have the necessary background prior to being armed on campus.
Some of the community's questions Monday focused on how the role of an armed teacher would differ from the role of an East Central ISD police officer. At the beginning of the panel, Superintendent Roland Toscano said the district's police department places officers on each campus.
"We feel like within a few minutes we can be at any school or any building," Toscano said. However, he acknowledged that school shootings can happen within seconds, which might not allow for the few minutes law enforcement might take to respond.
"So the question becomes, is there anything that we need to consider if everything failed? ... It's not a matter of will [a security threat] ever happen in East Central ISD, but we have to prepare ourselves for when it happens," Toscano said.
Panelist and Sutherland Springs survivor David Colbath underscored that point, saying until someone is involved in an active shooter situation, they won't realize how crucial an immediate response is.
Still, some parents had concerns about the plan.
Several of Gina Cartwright's children and grandchildren have been enrolled at East Central. She said she wished this discussion would have occurred last January before the district even started considering the Guardian Plan.
"I want [teachers] to teach. I want students to feel like they can come and learn," Cartwright said. "It doesn't sound like we have an answer – it sounds like we have a draft policy. And I beg [the district] to share."
Some parents remained uncertain. One woman at the end of the panel described herself as "totally on the fence," saying while she and her husband both carry firearms, she has questions about the training that would be required.
Beyond that, she wondered how teachers should and would respond in an active shooter situation.
"Are they to shut the door, protect the kids and stay, or are they go to after the bad guy?" she asked.