Less than a year after a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, state legislators are pushing to ramp up security in Texas schools during the first Legislative Session since the shooting.
Early last week, state lawmakers passed several bills through the House meant to harden schools, including requiring at least one armed security officer on every school campus and providing incentives for employees who are trained to carry a firearm.
Opinions among El Paso parents, educators and advocates are mixed. Some say the idea gave them peace of mind knowing a “good guy with a gun” would be there in a worst-case scenario, while others denounce arming teachers.
House Bill 3 authored by Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, would mandate that all Texas schools have at least one armed guard on every campus. It would also require schools to go through annual safety audits and would give grants to students to move school districts if their current one is not meeting safety standards. HB 3 passed the House on April 25, and is now heading to the Senate.
To fund the initiative, the bill was amended to give school districts $100 for each student instead of $10, plus an additional $15,000 for each school. The change would raise the cost of the bill from $300 million to about $1.6 billion.
The House also approved House Bill 13, authored by Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, which would give school employees an up to $25,000 stipend if they are certified to carry a gun on campus, also known as “school guardians.” The bill also raised school safety allotments from $9.72 per student to $100. HB13, with a $1.6 billion price tag, passed the House on April 25 by a 125-21 vote and now heads to the Senate.
Other efforts to improve school security include Senate Bill 838, authored by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, which would require schools to place silent panic alert buttons in every classroom. That bill passed through the Senate on April 11, 31-0, and passed the House on Tuesday 145-0. It is now headed to the governor’s desk for final approval.
Armed guards in every school
In response to Uvalde, school districts across El Paso have reassessed security measures and increased police presence on campuses. Still, many districts, including the El Paso Independent School District, don’t always have enough officers on staff to place them on all its 80 campuses.
EPISD American Federation of Teachers President Ross Moore said the district currently hires officers from the El Paso Police Department who rotate throughout campuses along with EPISD police. He noted that the district’s police department would likely need to double in size to ensure there is an armed officer at every school.
Moore said he also has concerns over liability if the district were to hire private guards.
“If they’re contracted out, what’s the liability and what controls does EPISD really have?” Moore said.
If HB 3 passes, school boards would be required to come up with a plan to ensure an armed guard is on every campus, which could include a peace officer, school marshal or school employee.
EPISD trustee Joshua Acevedo said the bill would need to come with adequate funding in order to make that possible.
“It just depends on what the ultimate budget will end up looking like,” Acevedo said. “Then I think the superintendent will draw up a plan and give input, the board will give input on the plan, but ultimately, I’m hoping it comes with some attached funding. I’m just completely counting on it right until I see it at the end of the session.”
Across the city, the Socorro Independent School District has already implemented a plan to have armed guards at all its 53 schools, since a day after the Uvalde shooting on May 25, 2022. Still, SISD AFT President Victoria Hernandez said the funds that come along with HB 3 are welcomed.
“The only good thing we see about this bill is that the extra monies will come to the district, which we’re hoping would be used for other things that we really want like employee raises and addressing the mental illness issues, which is what causes a lot of gun violence,” Hernandez said in an interview.
Unlike El Paso’s two other major school districts, the Ysleta Independent School District does not have its own police force, said the district’s senior communications specialist, Tracy Garcia-Ramirez. Instead, it commissions off-duty El Paso Police Department Officers to work as “school-based law enforcement” in all its high schools.
“They also respond to calls for service at our middle and elementary school and pre-K centers, providing an important and effective program in keeping our students, teachers, administrator and schools safe,” Garcia-Ramirez said in a statement.
Garcia-Ramirez declined to comment when asked if the district had a stance on HB 3.
A Texas survey conducted by the AFT found that 76% of K-12 teachers do not want to be armed in class. Still, some local advocates and parents said they felt teachers who want to carry a firearm in school should get the opportunity to do so.
“I think anything we can put in place to keep our kids safe needs to be put through,” one mom, Jessica Cedillo, whose daughter attends Howard Burnham Elementary School told El Paso Matters during an interview at an Upper Valley park. “But my sister’s a teacher and she said that she was very uncomfortable with (being armed). Some people are scared of guns, but I feel like there are some people who are comfortable, and if they have the appropriate training and wanted to be able to do that I think they should be able to.”
“I know that there’s a lot of ex-military that are teachers, so I wouldn’t mind them being the ones to protect our children,” another mom, Victoria Gardea added.
El Paso firearm instructor Ben Cheng said he had noticed a growing number of parents and teachers with similar sentiments, leading him to create the Texas School Guardian Facebook group which has more than 260 members. Cheng said the group has campaigned with school districts to allow teachers to be armed on the job.
Under current Texas law, school employees are allowed to carry a firearm on campus with school board consent if they go through an approved training program. This includes the school marshal program, which requires 80 hours of training through an academy licensed by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, or the Texas School Guardian program, which is overseen by the Texas Department of Public Safety and only takes two days to complete.
Though Cheng said he offers school guardian classes, not a single school board in El Paso has agreed to allow its teachers to be armed on school grounds.
“There’s no major metropolitan ISD that has approved it, and that’s what we’re fighting against,” Cheng told El Paso Matters in an interview. “We’ve been trying to get this approved since Uvalde. We have tried to get meetings with districts and try to do presentations but we’ve run into a wall.’
Cheng, who has more than 35 years of firearm experience, said he believes initiatives like HB 3 and HB 13 are still too limiting for school employees who are willing to arm themselves at work. Though he noted it was a step in the right direction, he hopes lawmakers in the Senate make changes to allow teachers to carry a firearm without the need for school board authorization.
On the other end of the spectrum, educators El Paso Matters spoke to vehemently opposed arming school employees and denounced the proposed incentivization.
“Teachers are not there to act as armed guards or even be carrying guns on campus. I think that even with training it can lead to an accident,” Acevedo said. “You’re adding more security concerns to the classroom by doing that and you’re adding another task a teacher has to worry about instead of just having them focus on education.”
Moore, who served in the Army for almost 27 years, said he has concerns that the required training may not be adequate and worries that armed school employees could put students and other staff in further danger during an active shooting situation. He warned of the possibility of law enforcement confusing an armed teacher for a shooter or a school employee misfiring while trying to stop a gunman.
“These are practical concerns I’ve got. They aren’t political concerns,” Moore said.
While most educators El Paso Matters spoke to were open to heightening security at schools, some felt lawmakers still weren’t doing enough to address what appears to be a growing epidemic of school shootings.
“I think the issue is that none of the things they are proposing are solutions or even preventative measures,” Acevedo said. “They are more focused on when school shootings happen, we’ll be prepared with an armed teacher and panic button instead of looking at real solutions.”
Some of those solutions include gun control measures pushed by parents whose children were killed in the Uvalde shooting, such as banning the sale of firearms to anyone under 21.
“I think it also is a big diversion to really address the real issue of keeping 18-year-olds from buying guns,” Hernandez added. “They still make it really easy for 18-year-olds to buy guns. … So I think that that really needs to be addressed, hopefully, sooner than later. But, I doubt that it’s going to happen in this session.”