Oct 21, 2013

Guns and Fences: After Sandy Hook, Schools Tighten Security

The Huntington school district has posted signs noting that some staff are armed at buildings across the district, including this one in front of Huntington Middle School. Photo courtesy of Andy Adams and The Lufkin News.

The Huntington school district has posted signs noting that some staff are armed at buildings across the district, including this one in front of Huntington Middle School. Photo courtesy of Andy Adams and The Lufkin News. 


By Ian Floyd
For Reporting Texas

Nearly a year has passed since a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school. In response, Texas public schools have geared up and locked down in a variety of ways, including allowing some faculty to carry concealed guns and encircling some schools with security fences.

At least 67 school districts already allow faculty and staff to carry concealed weapons on campus under programs that grew up after the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, according to the Texas Association of School Boards. More districts are expected to arm faculty and staff under a new state law that allows schools to designate campus marshals starting in January.

In West Lake Hills, Eanes Elementary School recently completed a $1.1 million security fence at its campus on Bee Cave Road.

The Hutto district, north of Austin, bumped its school police staff from three to four full-time officers.

School security is not a new concern, but the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., added a sense of urgency for some districts. Recent responses have focused on protecting elementary students against armed intruders. Even as schools set up new defenses, though, critics locally and nationally say that too visible or extreme security measures can create fear among students that works against the educational mission.

“One of the biggest things we are seeing overall is that people want to limit the ways into their buildings,” said Curtis Clay, associate director for the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University in San Marcos. The center provides information and training on security to districts and colleges across Texas. “Schools are tightening up and making sure they are not as accessible.”

Humble, a district of 38,000 students in suburban Houston, already had its own police department and more than 2,000 security cameras before Sandy Hook. In the aftermath of that shooting, Humble beefed up security at older elementary schools, said Jamie Mount, the district’s director of public information.

Front entrances now include security vestibules with controlled access doors where visitors must sign in and be screened, she said.

“When it comes to school security, you want to operate with an abundance of caution and have multiple measures in place,” Mount said.

After the Sandy Hook shootings last December, the Eanes school district resurrected a plan for a fence around the elementary school of the same name.

District leaders said it was important to secure the multi-building campus, which sits on a busy road.

Colleen Jones, the lone Eanes school board member to vote against the fence, said “it was elevated a bit and rushed a bit because of” Sandy Hook. Jones said she was speaking as an individual, not for the board: “I fear that oftentimes we can put something like this in place, and it gives you a sense of security, and it doesn’t actually secure the campus.”

The board approved the project after a four-hour discussion at which some parents – including Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo — said it was important, while others raised questions.

“No one ever said the fence was a bad idea, but what a lot of people reacted to was the price tag,” said Ryan Keathley, a real estate developer and the father of two students at the school. “Most parents call it a cage. It looks like a Band-Aid. At the end of the day, more people came out on the side of, ‘Really, a million dollars to feel good?’”

Smaller and more rural school districts that may lack the resources to provide a police presence have responded in different ways to concerns about potential danger.

In the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting that killed 32 people, the Harrold district, on the Oklahoma border in North Central Texas, set up a “guardian plan,” in which an anonymous group of teachers and staff is trained to carry guns, much as armed marshals do on airplanes.

“Virginia Tech was proof for us’’ that schools must prepare for the possibility of a mass shooting, said David Thweatt, the Harrold superintendent.

The guardians carry concealed guns that must remain holstered unless someone threatens a human life.

It could take police 30 minutes to reach the district’s lone school in an emergency. “Sandy Hook took four or five minutes,” Thweatt said. “Virginia Tech took three to four minutes. So, what’s your acceptable death toll?”

For this small-town school district, the acceptable death toll is nil.

“’Oh no, he had a rough childhood,’” Thweatt said mockingly. “I don’t care. And I don’t care if he didn’t take his medication. He did something wrong. He needed to pay the price. I am somewhere right of Genghis Khan when it comes to conservativism, but if anyone tries to hurt my kid, they deserve to die.”

In June, the Texas Legislature passed a bill allowing teachers and staff to act as armed marshals in schools, under the same premise as the guardian plan but with a few key requirements.

The legislation gives the marshal all the powers of a peace officer — including making arrests — to stop or prevent a violent crime on campus. The weapon must remain behind lock and key when the marshal’s primary responsibility is dealing with students, and the weapon must contain frangible bullets, which disintegrate on impact, “for maximum safety and minimal danger to others.”

The law requires marshals to undergo 80 hours of training, a condition that deterred the Van and Westwood districts in Northeast Texas and pushed them to adopt Harrold ISD’s guardian plan.

“We have to give teachers quite a bit of training each year for their academic subject,” said Ed Lyman, Westwood superintendent. “It becomes problematic to send them away for a couple more weeks somewhere to train for this marshal plan. It’s a little impractical, given the budget and time constraints we have on people.”

The Legislature also passed a bill mandating that schools practice safety drills at least once a year for various emergencies, including lockdowns, evacuations and severe weather. Experts call it the “all hazards approach.”

“Teachers, children and visitors to the building should know how to lock down, should know how to evacuate before their lives depend on it,” said Victoria Calder, director of the Texas School Safety Center. “If the first time they do a lockdown or evacuation is the day that lives may depend on doing that well, then they will lose survivability.”

Cathy Paine, chair of the National Association for School Psychologist’s National Emergency Assistance Team, said the organization cautions against extreme security measures such as arming staff and building campus-encompassing fences.

“The research we have shows no significant impact on violence by having an armed guard in schools,” Paine said. “At the same time, some students feel less safe because they feel like they are in a dangerous school.”

Schools overall, she said, are safe.

“When things like Sandy Hook happen, we feel like schools are not safe,” she said. “The likelihood of a school shooting is one in 2.5 million.”