Texas school marshals: Armed and covert, but will they help?

Texas trains its first class of school marshals in a bid to ensure a quick response to life-threatening situations in schools. Some critics question the concept, but say it's a step above letting any school employee with a permit carry a gun into a school.

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    Prospective school marshals train with law-enforcement professionals at the firing range at the Tarrant County College Criminal Justice Training Center in Fort Worth, Texas, on July 20.
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Texas just trained its first class of armed school marshals, which aims to do for classrooms what the surge of sky marshals did for commercial airliners after the 9/11 attacks.

Like air marshals, school marshals are anonymous, their identities known only to top school administrators and local police. All are school employees, covertly trained and armed to respond to a life-threatening emergency on school grounds, such as a shooter in a classroom.

In the two years since a gunman killed 20 students and six staff members at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., schools across the country have invested in tougher security measures, ranging from new perimeter fencing and bullet-resistant glass to electronic entry doors and Internet-based security cameras.

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In a controversial move, many states also opted to arm teachers. Some 18 states currently allow adults to carry a loaded gun on school grounds. 

But unlike gun-toting teachers or janitors who happen to have concealed carry permits, Texas school marshals must be screened and trained to carry guns in schools.

“If we could afford to have a police officer in every school, that would be preferable, but that’s prohibitively expensive,” Texas state Rep. Jason Villalba (R),  a Dallas-based lawyer who began drafting the legislation that created the school marshal program immediately after the shooting in Connecticut and before he was sworn in as a freshman member in January 2013.

“We think this is the right model, the right balance between providing protection for children, but also peace of mind for those parents who are uncomfortable with this kind of protection in the classroom," he added. 

The 2013 Protection of Texas Children Act allows schools to designate up to one teacher or staff member per 400 students to be a “school marshal.” The individual must already be an employee of the school, hold a license to carry a concealed handgun, undergo a psychological evaluation, and attend 80 hours of training at a state-certified police academy.

The first seven marshals – teachers and administrators from all parts of Texas – wrapped up 10 days of intensive training recently at the Tarrant County College Criminal Justice Training Center in Fort Worth.

Those who meet the qualifications and complete the training are provided a handgun loaded with non-ricocheting bullets. While the marshal is actively engaged with students, the gun must be kept locked up, but within reach. It would only be removed in the event of a life-threatening attack where deadly force is deemed the only option.

“This is a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ situation,” says Representative Villalba. “And we’re hopeful that the program is a deterrent more than anything else.”

The bill, the first of its kind, has attracted nationwide attention and Villalba’s office has received inquiries from a number of state legislatures that are interested in adopting similar school security measures.

While the measure passed overwhelmingly, indicating strong bipartisan support, gun control groups and teachers unions oppose the concept. 

“I think it’s totally misguided,” said Linda Bridges, president of Texas AFT, the Texas affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, which testified against the bill.

“We don’t think arming teachers is the answer," she added. "Our strong belief is that the teacher’s role is to teach and it’s the role of other trained professionals to do law enforcement. We should not be blurring those two jobs."

Gun control groups, such as the nonprofit Violence Policy Center in Washington, note that highly trained police officers all too often fail to use fire arms successfully. Moreover, ensuring that guns are not stolen will be a huge burden for schools, school districts and individual teachers, and a weapon being fired unintentionally is a serious threat.

“The focus should remain on preventing guns from getting into schools, rather than relying on teachers or other education professionals to prevail in a shoot-out,” the VPC said in a statement.

The main attraction of the new school marshals program is likely to be in rural school districts, which are remote from help in the case of an emergency.

Dallas Independent School District (ISD) Police Chief Craig Miller served on a task force that wrote the curriculum for the marshal training, but is generally opposed to arming teachers and has reservations about the new marshal program.

While shootings in primary and secondary schools are horrifying, they are also extremely rare, Chief Miller says. Efforts should be directed toward securing a school’s physical facilities against more common threats, like an estranged spouse wanting to come into the school or an irate parent trying to enter the school to confront a bullying student, he adds.

“In the Dallas ISD following Sandy Hook, our emphasis wasn’t on hiring more officers or training teachers to be armed,” he said. “It was on putting in more cameras, buzzers and intercoms, peep holes and card readers. These measures help us deal with the crazy stuff we face every day.”

While the Marshal Program will never be used in the Dallas ISD, which has its own police force, and is not likely to be adopted in Houston, San Antonio, or any of the state’s larger cities, it could be beneficial in small, isolated communities where local law enforcement could be as much as 30 minutes away from a school, he says.

It’s also a great improvement over the 2007 Texas Guardian Plan, which allows school employees with concealed handgun licenses to have their weapons in the classroom, he says. Under the Guardian Plan, there is no limit to the number of armed adults in a school. The plan does not require a psychological evaluation or special training, and does not require that the school districts reveal the identities of the armed employees.

Under the Texas Guardian Plan, for example, the tiny school district in Harrold, Texas, has some six armed adults in a school with only slightly more than 100 students.

“For me, the Marshal Program is the least of all evils,” Miller said. “If you don’t have the money for a full-time police officer but you want someone armed on your campus, at least have those armed employees licensed and trained in how to handle a gun, when it’s appropriate to fire a gun, and to ensure that they are psychologically fit to carry a gun.”

The Wylie ISD in Abilene, Texas, composed of 3,800 students in six schools, is hardly among the smallest or most remote of the state’s 1,000-plus school districts. Still, according to Superintendent Joey Light, administrators are concerned that it would be nearly impossible for the resource officer at the high school to respond to an emergency in one of the other schools in less than five minutes.

That’s why Wylie sent one of its administrators to go through the 80-hour school marshal training so he could report back on its quality. When all the information is gathered it will be shared with the school board, who will make a final decision.

“The training was very intense, very rigorous,” Mr. Light said. “We were impressed with what took place. I think the School Marshal Program is definitely a viable option that we want to consider.”

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