SENATE COMMITTEE LOOKS AT ARMED PERSONNEL ON CAMPUS
(AUSTIN) — The Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Safety held its second hearing on preventing and responding to school shootings following the attack at Santa Fe High School in May. Monday the panel considered how to change the way schools are built to increase security, and today they heard testimony about two programs which allow armed civilians on school campuses and the role of police officers at schools. Committee Chair and Friendswood Senator Larry Taylor said that the goal should be preventing these events, but when that fails, the response should be immediate. "Everyone agrees that prevention is the best," he said. "But when it happens, the quicker someone can respond with force, the quicker the shooting stops."
Under current law, there are two major programs providing for armed teachers or staff on campus. Both were passed in the 83rd Session following the Sandy Hook shooting, though the level of state oversight over the programs differs sharply. The first is the school marshal program, which permits administrators to designate an individual to access a firearm and respond to an active shooter event. Firearms remain locked up until needed, and marshals don't carry weapons on their person.
Marshals are licensed by the state through the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. According to agency Executive Director Kim Vickers, marshals must be licensed to carry a handgun in the state, must be employees of the school and must complete an 80-hour training course and pass a psychological evaluation. Marshal licenses last for two years, and renewals require a 16-hour refresher course and another psychological evaluation. For security reasons, schools which use the marshal program are kept confidential, as are the marshal's names. Parents can submit a written request to administrators to inquire whether their child's campus has a marshal.
The second program is called the Guardianship Program. This is a much less restrictive certification, requiring only that a school board vote to allow specific teachers or staff to be armed. Vickers said there is no state oversight over this program, so he could not say how many districts use this program.
The committee also heard testimony related to police presence on campus. Texas has the largest on-campus police presence in the country, said Texas School Safety Center Director Kathy Martinez-Prather, with more than 240 districts forming their own police departments. Many more use school resource officers, who are local police assigned to the school.
State police are also getting involved, said Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw. He said one thing that troopers can do to increase their visibility on campus is spending downtime on school campuses. "If we gotta take breaks, let's do it someplace where it matters," he said. "We believe that will deter or mitigate some instances and also give us an opportunity to spot suspicious activity." DPS has also rolled out an app called iWatch Texas, which allows citizens themselves to report suspicious activity to state officials. That app is available to the public at no cost. McCraw also touted the use of state fusion centers to identify potential shooters. These facilities are designed to improve cooperation and intelligence sharing between local, state and federal authorities.
The committee has two charges remaining on its interim agenda, relating to mental health services and the role of violent media and other cultural factors in the rise of active shooting events. Hearings on those charges will be held later in the interim.