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Texas School Marshal Program Interest Rises Post Uvalde

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Huffman ISD superintendent Benny Soileau speaks about the Marshal program | Image by CBS DFW

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The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE) held a School Safety Showcase primarily focused on the Texas School Marshal Program on Monday at Walsh Middle School in Round Rock.

Texas lawmakers created the program in 2013, allowing school staff to be trained and certified to carry guns on campus to protect students if needed. School districts decide whether to participate in the program and identify employees with a license to carry a firearm to volunteer as school marshals.

Those individuals undergo an 80-hour training and psychological exam by TCOLE, granting them access to carry a gun on campus. It is otherwise against federal law to possess a firearm in a school zone.

“Whoever is serving as the school marshal acts immediately,” said then-State Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) when the program was created, adding that the bill would protect Texans in active shooter situations. “The whole point of this is to reduce response times from minutes down to seconds.”

The TCOLE showcase on July 11 demonstrated part of the training educators undergo as part of the 80-hour course. It featured an officer acting as a school shooter, firing blanks into a school library as actors screamed.

Cullen Grissom, TCOLE’s deputy chief, remarked that not everyone is made to be a marshal.

“We’ve had people confronted with that level of stress curl up in a fetal position and not respond,” Grissom said.

Currently, 62 school districts participate in the school marshall program, which is only about 5% of all districts in the state. In total, there are 256 school marshals statewide.

There is no cap on the number of marshals a school district can have. Whether school marshals can keep the gun on their person or if they must store it in a lockbox is up to the discretion of each district.

Additionally, school marshals must undergo 16 hours of additional training every two years.

After the school shooting in Uvalde, Governor Greg Abbott sent a letter to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) urging the agency to “develop strategies to encourage school districts to increase the presence of trained law enforcement officers and school marshals on campuses.”

Villalba, who is no longer a member of the Legislature, said the State should allocate funding for the marshal program to help districts purchase the firearms or provide stipends to marshals. He also said the State did not properly educate districts about the available option.

“I’m heartsick that we haven’t implemented this plan in a more robust fashion,” he told The Texas Tribune on Thursday. “Unfortunately, it takes a catalyst like Uvalde and Santa Fe before action is taken. Hopefully, this will be a moment when the State decides to mandate a program and provide necessary funding to pay for it.”

To expand the program, TCOLE is holding four training sessions this year, up from two sessions last year.

Benny Soileau is the superintendent of Huffman ISD near Houston and a school marshal through the state program.

“We all have concerns about putting guns in our schools,” said Soileau. “But at the same time, we know that these events are on the rise and we have to have a way of combatting this.”

“Hopefully, we never have to activate our marshal program,” Soileau continued. “But in the event that we do, I think that we will be prepared to do so.”

Janna Atkins, the TCOLE commissioner and West Central Texas Law Enforcement Academy training coordinator, said arming staff may be just one part of a larger solution for protecting schools.

“I have not heard any yet that an actual school marshal stopped an active shooter event,” she said. “I don’t know that guns are the answer, honestly; it may be a part, but there are other things there too.”

Amy Grosso, the director of behavioral health services at Round Rock ISD, was at the school safety showcase on Monday. She acknowledged that mental health is vital to preventing another tragedy.

“We all know, those of us in the field, that the earlier we intervene, the better, so that we can prevent a crisis situation,” Grosso said. “That is not just an active shooter situation, it is a suicide crisis. So, the earlier we intervene, the more we can save students’ lives.”

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) argues that the low participation rate in the marshal program shows it has minimal appeal for school districts. AFT says 77% of educators were against being armed when asked about the subject in a recent survey.

“Nothing has changed,” said Zeph Capo, president of the Texas chapter of AFT, the state’s largest association of educators. “As a matter of fact, it continues to become a solid position that educators don’t want to take responsibility for being police officers or take on responsibility to deal with the other 364 days that they have loaded weapons in a classroom with 30 children.”

AFT’s legislative director, Patty Quinzi, claims that if the tax dollars used for the school marshal program instead went towards education, that would increase safety.

“When teachers have smaller class sizes, they can control their classrooms and they can get to know their students very well,” said Quinzi. “And [they] know what kind of problems, what kind of triggers are there before there’s a larger issue.”

TCOLE argues that the marshal program is more cost-effective for school districts because it involves training and arming someone already employed full-time at the school.

About 25% of Texas school districts have their own police departments, while other districts contract school resource officers from nearby police departments. Those options are more expensive for districts since they require hiring staff dedicated to full-time security.

Fayetteville ISD Superintendent Jeff Harvey says it is impossible to find a “one size fits all” program for all Texas school districts. Still, he feels it is essential that local leaders decide what works best for their students.

“We’re independent school districts for a reason. Because we know what’s best for our individual districts, and I think it’s imperative we have that ability,” said Harvey.     

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