In Texas, Teachers and Students Already Pack Heat in Classrooms. Is This Where the Nation Is Headed?

(Image: andrea crisante / Shutterstock)The deep problems with Texas’ programs provide a cautionary tale. (Image: andrea crisante / Shutterstock)

President Trump’s seemingly improbable proposal to arm and train teachers to intercept school shooters actually isn’t a fantasy: In Texas, two such programs already exist — and their shortcomings provide a cautionary tale for the rest of the country.

Just after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the state passed the 2013 Protection of Texas Children Act, allowing police to deputize up to one teacher or staffer as a “school marshal,” per every 400 students. Teacher-marshals undergo 80 hours of gun safety training involving simulations of active-shooter scenarios, and psychological evaluations. Under the program, school districts can opt out of federal and state “gun-free zone” policies to allow teachers to conceal-carry firearms in school buildings.

Texas school districts can choose between that program or the 2007 “Guardian Plan,” which also allows staff to carry firearms on school grounds. According to a review of state board policies by the Texas Association of School Boards, 172 Texas school districts, about 17 percent of all independent school districts in the state, participate in one of the two programs, allowing for armed staff and/or board members.

It’s not just Texas. In 2013, state capitals across the country began introducing legislation to arm school staff in response to Sandy Hook. According to an analysis conducted by the Education Commission of the States, at least 10 states allow staff members to carry or access firearms on school property.

On Sunday night, President Trump moved closer to taking these states’ models national, promising Justice Department assistance to help fund firearms training for teachers and school staffers across the US.

Students, Teachers Warn Against Guns in Classrooms

Many on the right are touting programs like those in Texas as a model for Trump’s vision of gun-toting teachers following the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. However, there’s no concrete evidence to show that the programs have been effective in stopping school shooters.

Teachers and students in Texas told Truthout the programs set a dangerous precedent for teachers whose resources are already stretched thin. Teachers unions in the state and across the country say school districts’ money would be better spent on supplies and salaries, rather than firearms training and mental health evaluations.

The Texas affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) testified against the legislation that created the state’s school marshal program when it was first introduced.

“I realize they go through gun training, but there’s a large variety of things that could go wrong if there was unfortunately a shooting at a school,” said Texas AFT’s Rob D’Amico. “The teacher could be in danger from the police not knowing that the teacher is a teacher. The teacher might not be trained well enough to avoid hitting other students. What if the teacher was wounded and a student picked up the gun, and the student was shot?”

Student organizers pushing for gun-control reforms across the country expressed doubts that programs like those in Texas would provide a solution to the prevalence of school shootings in the US. They warn against taking Texas’ programs national.

Jami Anderson, a junior, helped lead a walkout at Anderson High School in Austin, Texas, in February to demand lawmakers act on gun reform after the Parkland massacre. She told Truthout that she wouldn’t feel safer if she knew that her teachers were armed.

“If that [program] was instated at my school, I would stop coming to school most likely,” Anderson said. “I think it’s an absurd idea, just adding more guns to the situation just adds more violence. … Like any student, I have teachers that I disagree with, or [with whom I] am not the favorite student, of course, and I just feel like that would just add tension and anxiety for students. For me, it would be hard to function in a classroom if I knew there were firearms present and just in a matter of seconds there could be a fatality in my classroom.”

Other students organizing for gun-control reforms across the country whom Truthout spoke with were similarly united against the idea of arming teachers.

Ella Hauck, a junior at Riverton High School in Wyoming, told Truthout she and her cohorts are planning to participate in the nationally coordinated walkout campaign tomorrow in remembrance of the 17 students who were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, though she says her school’s particular action is not specifically geared toward advocating for gun-control reforms. She also plans to protest against increased and intrusive security measures at schools in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting.

Like students elsewhere, Hauck also doesn’t think Trump’s proposal to arm teachers is a solution. “If someone came into the classroom, pointed a gun at [a teacher], and said ‘Give me the gun in the safe,’ what are you going to do?” she said.

Hauck, however, says she is advocating for more armed school resource officers (SROs) in her school district.

“There is a fine line. We don’t want our school to become a prison. We don’t want metal detectors and armed guards all over the place, but we do think an SRO needs to be in every school,” she said.

However, the Parkland shooting itself demonstrates the failures of even highly trained SROs, as the SRO at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School resigned after it was revealed he remained outside of the school as the shooting unfolded inside.

Youth organizers across the US will coordinate student walkouts tomorrow during the “ENOUGH! National School Walkout,” not only to condemn the national effort to arm teachers, but also to protest an expanding militarization of classrooms.

High Schoolers Graduate to Campus Carry

For Anderson in Texas, who is also working to send a contingent of students to the national March for Our Lives in Washington, DC, not only is the fact that the state already arms teachers in some districts unsettling, but the prospect of attending college in-state in a couple years is complicated by the fact that it is now legal for students to conceal-carry guns at public universities.

Texas and nine other states have passed “campus carry” legislation allowing students to conceal-carry firearms in school buildings on public university campuses. Since the law took effect August 1, 2016, a Houston Chronicle analysis has found mixed results regarding its impacts. According to the Chronicle’s review, more than a dozen universities had at least one gun-related report, including aggravated robbery and an accidental discharge in a dorm.

Texas university professors who oppose campus carry legislation point to its problems as another reason why the idea of guns in classrooms is no solution to violence nationwide.

Susan Harper, who formerly taught classes at Texas Woman’s University (TWU) and El Centro College in Dallas, told Truthout that Texas’ campus carry legislation — coupled with the pressures and poor working conditions associated with adjunct teaching — motivated her to leave academia for a job in publishing.

“I had this realization that if I got shot on adjunct wages, I would not have health insurance to cover my injuries, and if I died, my partner would not have enough money to bury me, and that was sobering,” she said.

Since the legislation passed in 2016, Harper, who taught sociology courses, said she has feared for her safety in the classroom on multiple occasions when dealing with students displaying problematic behaviors during peak stress periods in their graduate school programs — especially students, who, as she put it, “have a bunch of toxic masculinity stuff going on,” and who may “object to a queer woman” teaching their class.

In fact, she says that when she confronted her department head regarding one such student, her superior suggested that she obtain her concealed handgun license.

“I cannot imagine carrying a weapon into the classroom,” Harper said in response to the idea of armed educators. “The knowledge that there is a gun in the classroom puts such a chill on discussion, and it promotes a climate of fear. … I think about the optics of it and I, as a white woman who’s taught in a lot of classrooms with predominantly students of color, there’s already a power imbalance there — to add a deadly weapon to it all? That’s not what I signed up for.”

While the state’s law generally allows guns in university buildings, classrooms and dorms, rules differ from campus to campus. Some universities allow certain faculty to declare their offices as gun-free zones, but others do not. Harper took issue with the fact that, at TWU, she was told she could not declare her office a gun-free zone, but that such a zone has been declared with a sign on the floor of the building where the university’s board of regents meets.

Students, Teachers Walk Out for School Funding, Not Arms

As the gun debate has raged over the past few years, funding has been slipping away from vital educational priorities. Texas’ schools took an enormous hit in 2011, after the state legislature cut $5.4 billion from the public education budget. The legislature increased public education funding by $1.5 billion last year after rejecting a House proposal that would have returned $3 billion back to public schools. Texas ranks 38th in the nation for public school funding per student, according to a recent study by the National Education Association.

Public schools are facing similar budget cuts across the nation: A recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that public investment in K-12 schools has dropped off “dramatically” in a dozen states over the past decade.

Hauck in Wyoming joined three other classmates from Riverton High School last Monday, skipping class to testify before the state’s Senate Education Committee against planned cuts to education funding. The state legislature reached a deal Thursday on a two-year budget by stripping language relating to specific spending levels for Wyoming schools, which face a $660 million deficit. The House and the Senate have repeatedly deadlocked over school funding in the past couple of weeks.

Hauck called the committee’s vote “undeniably frustrating,” saying lawmakers “get so caught up in the politics of it and forget they are affecting real people, and it’s not just about numbers, and it’s not about making a name for yourself in the legislation, it’s about truly making a difference for people. We get up there, and our speech is heart wrenching, and we’re polite, and we ask for positive changes, and we’re clear about our mission, and they say ‘Thanks for coming,’ and they just start talking about money again, and I feel like we got swept to the side a little bit.”

Hauck and her classmates plan to walk out again on April 20 and march to their state representative’s office to protest against cuts to education funding.

Teachers in cash-strapped districts in states like West Virginia are joining students like Hauck in walking out of the classroom to push for more funding. That state’s grassroots wildcat strike closed K-12 classrooms across all of the state’s 55 counties for nine school days and resulted in a victory for the teachers on March 6 with the announcement of an across-the-board raise of 5 percent for all public employees.

The success of the strike has intensified the climate for education activism nationally, with momentum building in Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona for similar actions amid deepening frustration over teachers’ paltry pay.

Texas and states across the country need “more resources for public school funding overall … not some wide-scale arming of teachers,” said AFT’s D’Amico.