Texas’ top law enforcement official proposed new efforts to arm educators after a rifle-toting gunman killed 19 children and two teachers inside a local classroom this week. State statistics suggest most teachers aren’t interested.
For more than a decade, state laws have allowed teachers to go to work empowered as armed school security — or the last line of defense against an active shooter.
Trained and armed school staff could help quickly respond to on-campus violence “because the reality is we don’t have the resources to have law enforcement at every school,” state Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton told Fox News in the aftermath of Tuesday’s mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
But Texas, a state with a fabled gun culture, has allowed teachers to sign up as campus “marshals” since 2013 through a program signed into law after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. The initiative has seen fewer than 300 educators sign up across 62 school districts, according to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, even after some restrictions around the program were loosened following a deadly 2018 mass shooting at a Houston-area high school.
A survey of more than 1,000 state school districts by the Texas School Safety Center meanwhile concluded only 280 systems participated in an older, separate and far less regulated state “guardian” program meant to deploy armed teachers as last-ditch guards against active shooters.
Plenty of risks accompany the training.
“One of the most candid conversations we have with school districts is: When an officer shows up and doesn’t know if you’re the good guy or the bad guy, he’s not gonna ask questions,” Kathy Martinez-Prather, the state school safety center’s director, said in an interview.
“The purpose of these individuals is not to engage the threat. It’s sort of a last resort,” she said. “If you can’t run and get away, and you can’t hide, sometimes you’re left in a situation where you have to defend. In no instance are we encouraging them to go and engage the threat at any point in time, as a first option.”
The idea of gun-toting teachers promises to harness renewed political urgency in the school safety debate, as a top Texas law enforcement official on Friday acknowledged failures in a plodding police response to this week’s violence. And the issue has found considerable traction in states like Florida, where law enforcement’s presence on school campuses has grown after 2018’s killings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Yet the nation’s top education official and the head of the largest teachers’ union derided the idea and portrayed it as a distraction from addressing the role firearms play in violence across the United States.
“The solution of arming teachers, in my opinion, is further disrespect to a profession that’s already beleaguered and not feeling the support of so many folks,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told lawmakers on Capitol Hill this week. “We need to make sure we’re empowering our teachers to be successful at teaching our children.”
More than 100 bills aimed at arming school personnel were introduced in 34 states and territories between 2018 and 2021, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. More than a third of that legislation was introduced in the aftermath of 2018’s shootings in Parkland, Fla. and Santa Fe, Texas. The vast majority of all those bills failed to advance.
Still, by April 2020, a RAND Corporation analysis found 28 states allowed schools to arm teachers or staff in at least some cases or as part of a specific program. That included states without laws to expressly prohibit or permit armed school personnel, and several others — Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, Tennessee and Texas among them — with laws to allow the practice in some form.
“Bringing more guns into schools makes schools more dangerous and does nothing to shield our students and educators from gun violence,” National Education Association President Becky Pringle said in a statement. “We need fewer guns in schools, not more. Teachers should be teaching, not acting as armed security guards.”
She added: “Schools need more mental health professionals, not pistols; teachers need more resources, not revolvers.”
In Florida, less than one month after the Parkland attack, state lawmakers passed wide-reaching safety and security reforms that also required schools to post at least one armed guard on campus every day.
As a result, the law enforcement presence on local campuses has grown to 4,381 safety officers spread out among 3,641 schools last fall.
Nearly two-thirds of these guards are law enforcement officers that were assigned to schools, while the other 1,384 officers are trained “guardians” that could include teachers or other staffers. It’s unclear exactly how many of the state’s guardians are teachers, though some Florida officials are standing by the guardian program in the wake of the Texas attack.
“People fear teachers irresponsibly using guns or students obtaining a teacher’s gun. But none of that has happened,” Ryan Petty, the father of Parkland student Alaina Petty, who was among the 17 killed in Parkland, tweeted on Friday. Petty also serves on the state Board of Education.
But in Texas, Martinez-Prather of the state schools safety center said schools are most likely to rely on a mix of standard security personnel and school-based police officers — in addition to the occasional armed teacher.
“We’re seeing a larger increase in districts setting up their own [police force],” she said. “When you think about having actual credentialed, licensed peace officers on your campus — some districts feel more comfortable having professionals in those positions, rather than their educators.”
Andrew Atterbury contributed to this report.