By Jim Vertuno
AUSTIN — Superintendents of three small rural school districts that allow some teachers to carry guns told Texas lawmakers Monday that the practice provides a critical measure of safety for students in the event of a campus shooting, but a law enforcement expert said it also could put those teachers at “high risk” of being mistakenly shot by responding officers.
Lawmakers are grappling with the idea of allowing more non-law enforcement personnel to bring guns into classrooms in the wake of last month’s shootings at a Connecticut elementary school. The rural school officials testified during a joint hearing of the Senate education and agriculture, rural affairs and homeland security committees — the first such hearing to take public testimony on the matter.
David Thweatt, superintendent of Harrold Independent School District near the Oklahoma border, said some teachers and administrators who have concealed handgun licenses are allowed to bring their weapons to class. The goal, he said, is to minimize the damage a gunman can do inside a school in the time it takes police officers to arrive.
“If you can stop it in its inception, you have an obligation to do that,” Thweatt said.
The Van school district east of Dallas voted last week to allow concealed handguns in classrooms. Superintendent Don Dunn said it was in direct response to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in which 26 people were killed, including 20 children.
Although each of the Van district elementary, middle and high school campuses are within 2 miles of the Van police department, officials calculated it would take at least five minutes for police to respond to an emergency call of a shooter on campus.
“We are completely defenseless during that five-minute gap. At least we have a chance to protect our kids,” Dunn said. “We are not the police. We are not asking them to be the police. We are asking them to fill that gap until the police get there.”
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is pushing a plan to provide state-paid special weapons, tactics and response training for teachers and administrators if school districts ask for it. That idea has been opposed by the Texas State Teachers Association. The state’s largest teachers group said educators should not be asked to double as a professional security force.
But lawmakers heard from another expert who argued teachers with guns drawn could find themselves the targets of police answering an emergency call.
“They are at high risk of being shot. That’s the reality of the scenario and the danger police officers are in,” said Pete Blair, associate professor of criminal justice at Texas State University and researcher for the school’s Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training program.
Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw, while saying Texas should be proactive in trying to protect students, had a similar warning that armed teachers could find themselves being shot at by police. Officers are trained to “neutralize the threat,” McCraw said.
“Anytime you arrive on the scene and you as a police officer are, you are taught and trained to look for anybody with a weapon,” McCraw said.
Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, chairman of the Senate Committee on Education, which held the joint hearing with the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs and Homeland Security, suggested the teachers would likely be in a defensive position and not roaming the halls with a gun drawn to be mistakenly targeted by police.
The testimony Monday signaled a division between small, rural districts and larger urban ones on letting more guns in classrooms. Representatives from Dallas and Austin schools, which have their own police departments, said school safety should be left to school, city and county law enforcement.
Three Houston-area lawmakers want to set up special taxing districts to pay for school security. The districts could use the money for anything they want related to security, from surveillance cameras and metal detectors to armed security.
That plan has been criticized as unfair to poorer school districts, which may not be able to raise as much money as wealthier ones, and from fiscal conservatives who reject the idea of creating new taxes.
Lawmakers also are considering a measure to allow concealed weapons license holders to bring their guns into college buildings and classrooms.
A similar bill failed to pass in 2011, but supporters say gunfire last week at Houston-area community college shows the need to allow students to defend themselves. Three people were wounded and one man has been charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.