The decision by a rural, one-school Texas district to allow employees to carry concealed handguns has reopened a heated debate about the appropriateness of guns on school campuses–and it has some school safety experts scratching their heads.
In an effort to keep students safe, trustees of the Harrold Independent School District adopted a policy last October that allows some employees to carry a concealed handgun. The policy was first widely reported in August.
According to the policy, Harrold school employees must be licensed by the state to carry a gun, must undergo additional training in crisis management and hostile situations, and can only use ammunition that is designed to minimize ricochets.
The district, which consists of one K-12 school and about 100 students, is nearly 30 minutes from local police and is about 500 feet from a busy highway, making the school more vulnerable to violence, Thweatt said .
"We had to ask the question: What are we going to do if we have an active shooter in the building?" he said.
Thweatt said he and the trustees decided it was in students’ best interest to provide an available line of defense if there is a shooter on school grounds–be it an outsider, a hostage situation, or even an armed student.
"We should be, as a society, ready to defend ourselves," he said.
Some school safety officials aren’t convinced that letting teachers carry guns will keep students safe.
"There are many other steps schools can take to address school violence other than arming a teacher," said William Lassiter, director of communication for the North Carolina-based Center for the Prevention of School Violence. "[Harrold’s] solution may or may not work."
He added that he was not against the idea of guns on school campuses, but that they should be in the hands of law enforcement officials. He said that if teachers carry guns, it could confuse the way students view them, mixing the two roles.
But Thweatt said his teachers have no problem balancing the two.
"There’s this idea that professionals do professional jobs, but my teachers wear many hats and can be trained in just about anything," he said. "I have a wife and two younger kids in this school, [and] I trust the people here with the lives of my family."
Thweatt noted that school security has become a national issue, as it has become clear that shootings like the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado weren’t isolated incidents.
"Over the last several years, the state has emphasized security," Thweatt said. Harrold installed a state-of-the-art magnetic entry system, lockdown buttons in administrative offices, and an extensive camera system, among other security measures, he said.
But the district felt the need to do more after the October 2006 Amish school shooting at the West Nickel Mines School in Pennsylvania.
"That school was also isolated and remote. That would be the place that was least likely on the U.S. map" to fall victim to a school shooting, Thweatt said.
While there have been instances similar to West Nickel Mines, where the shooter is an outsider, since 1993 fewer than 5 percent of shooters were outsiders, and most were students at the schools, Lassiter said.
"These students usually show warning signs. … There are things schools can do to prevent these shootings from happening in the first place," he said.
Some of the warning signs include students who have been bullied and harassed, keep themselves isolated, express signs of depression, or possess suicidal tendencies.
"Many times they want revenge for what they feel has been done to them in the past, and they don’t care if they live through it or not. They’re more concerned with harming other people," Lassiter said. "In 8 percent of cases, students told someone they were going to do it, but no one believed them."
Thweatt said that while Harrold has anti-harassment rules in place that are taken very seriously, unless it is an overt threat, there is no way school staff could know definitively that the student would be a problem.
"You can’t stop everything. There’s no way I can know what somebody’s thinking unless it’s overt," he said.
Several factors influenced the district’s decision to allow staff members to carry concealed handguns, Thweatt said. Because Harrold only has 25 employees, it would put a strain on the budget to pay for armed security–and even if the district could afford a school resource officer, that individual would be targeted first if a shooter were on school grounds, Thweatt said.
"So, we thought about an air marshal system, where the weapons are concealed and you don’t know who it is. That way, we take the target out of the situation and have [the element of surprise] on our side," he explained.
Thweatt said having gun-free school zones leaves them vulnerable to violence.
"You wouldn’t put a ‘gun-free’ sign outside your home, would you? That would just be asking for something to happen," he said.
School safety officials said another aspect of Harrold’s policy that concerns them is the chance that guns could end up in the hands of students who could harm themselves or others.
Michael S. Menchaca, south central regional director for the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officers (NASSLEO), said that while he believes each school district should decide for itself what will best keep students safe, every population has troublemakers.
"I know that it wouldn’t work in our [Fort Worth] district, with our employee pool pushing 11,000," he said. "It would be more of a concern in our district, because we have so many students that if somehow they find or take away a gun, it could cause more problems than I even want to think about."
Both Menchaca and NASSLEO Executive Director Peter Pochowski agreed that having school staff carry concealed weapons on campus could potentially work.
"We’re against it, but we do understand it’s a local decision, and some school districts are a long way from law enforcement," Pochowski said. "With the cooperation of law enforcement in that area, and with the proper safeguards and training and weapon-retention training, it might be acceptable."
But even if Harrold’s policy proves successful, Menchaca said he’s not sure it will become a trend.
"I tend to believe, maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part, but I don’t think it will catch on. I just don’t want, especially with larger districts, to add to the dilemma," he said.
Harrold Independent School District
Center for the Prevention of School Violence
National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officers
Note to readers:
Don’t forget to visit the Minimizing Classroom Distruptions resource center. Computers and the internet have become welcome instructional tools in most schools, ushering a wealth of additional resources into today’s classrooms. Unfortunately, they also bring with them the potential for unwanted distractions–such as online content that ranges from off-target, to inappropriate, material. Go to: Minimizing Classroom Disruptions