How Some Texas Educators Are Training To Make Tough Calls In The Classroom
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
After every school shooting in the U.S., districts across the country look for ways to make their campuses safer. One idea that stirs up a lot of debate is whether teachers or other school employees should carry guns at work. Texas expanded a program to do that after 13 people died in a shooting at Santa Fe High School outside Houston earlier this year. Now other states are looking at that as a model.
As Matt Largey of member station KUT in Austin reports, the training to become a school marshal means coming face to face with some difficult realities. And a warning that this story contains moments of simulated gunfire and shouting.
MATT LARGEY, BYLINE: It's all part of a simulation. Two people wearing black, protective face masks make their way down a school hallway.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Door on the left.
LARGEY: On their left - a classroom door. They move in guns drawn, searching a classroom for an armed intruder.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Let's go ahead and exit. Clear to your left.
LARGEY: Finding nothing, they move on, peering around the corner into the hallway to scan for threats.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: All right.
LARGEY: In the hallway, the instructor calls an end to the exercise. Soon these trainees could carry actual guns in their own schools, potentially defending students from a shooter. This is part of a recent training near Austin for the Texas School Marshal Program which has been around since 2013.
KIM VICKERS: It was slow at first, but after - especially after Santa Fe, it's just pretty much exploded.
LARGEY: Kim Vickers is the executive director of the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. He worked 38 years as a police officer. His agency runs the school marshal training program. More than 160 school employees from across the state have taken the courses.
VICKERS: And we have more people wanting to do it than we have ability to train so far.
LARGEY: Any school employee can be appointed as a marshal by their school board. It's voluntary. They need to have a license to carry a handgun. They also get a psychological exam, then 80 hours of training.
VICKERS: Intense training - that's what we've been through this week. Very stressful, stressful situations - mental and physical.
LARGEY: School marshals are supposed to be anonymous, so we're not using this Southeast Texas school board member's name or identifying his district. The training includes things like legal liability, police tactics and firearms.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Now, it's a crash course, but we're going through police training course - how to handle your weapon. I've been around weapons my whole life. I've shot my whole life. And I learned a tremendous amount this week.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: All right, make sure your masks are on - all masks on. Here we go. Stand by.
LARGEY: Of course the actual shooting part of the course might be the most important. Two marshals in training line up at the end of a long hallway, guns at the ready, loaded with simulated ammunition kind of like paint balls.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: On your go.
LARGEY: And then...
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)
LARGEY: About a dozen trainees run away from the fake gunshots. The marshals move toward them as the gunman rounds the corner. They take aim.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)
LARGEY: The pretend suspect falls.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Get his gun, his gun, his gun. We're clear. We're clear. We're clear.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Holster. Holster. Holster.
LARGEY: These simulations are in part supposed to force trainees to come to grips with something that might seem obvious. Again, Kim Vickers.
VICKERS: You've got to face this. As a person that's going to be carrying this gun, you've got to face the idea that you may have to shoot somebody.
LARGEY: Trainees have to ask themselves, can they shoot a child, a child they might know?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: That's a very difficult conversation for all educators to talk about...
LARGEY: This marshal-in-training is a school administrator in southeast Texas.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: ...Because our training and just our nature is we're nurturers. And to think about having to make that decision in one of those moments is extremely difficult.
LARGEY: And that's why, he says, this training is important.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I don't know that anybody truly knows what you would do when you're in that situation. We would all like to think that we would do what we need to do to keep everyone safe.
LARGEY: Now, the school marshal program's been controversial since it was proposed. Teachers and teachers unions have opposed the idea of bringing guns into the classroom.
NOEL CANDELARIA: We see this as a short-term fix for really a long-term issue.
LARGEY: Noel Candelaria is president of the Texas State Teachers Association. He says it might make sense in some rural places where police response times may be long. But ideally, he'd like more state funding for things like school resource officers.
CANDELARIA: Look; teachers don't want guns in the classroom. Teachers that we've talked to, that I've talked to since the day after Santa Fe - overwhelmingly, teachers don't want guns in the classroom. They want trained professionals. They don't want the responsibility of carrying guns themselves.
VICKERS: I hear people saying that's not the answer. More guns is not the answer. I agree.
LARGEY: But, Kim Vickers argues, it's part of the answer.
VICKERS: If we're going to make our schools safer, it's a layered process because the true place to really start is not putting guns on campus. The true place to really start is looking for these issues ahead of time, addressing these kids that are marginalized and working with them before it ever gets to that point.
LARGEY: The school marshal program is not the only mechanism for arming school employees in Texas. When the state legislature meets early next year, it will consider additional safety measures, things like redesigning schools and bolstering mental health and early intervention programs. For NPR News, I'm Matt Largey in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.