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Safe Schools: First school in country to arm teachers explains ‘guardian plan’

NORTH TEXAS – About 175 miles northwest of Dallas along the sprawling Texas landscape is the town of Harrold. Between the highway and the freeway is the only school for miles, with a student body of 114. The closest sheriff is 15 miles away in Vernon.

Because of the distance, the Harrold School District was the first in the country to arm its teachers more than a decade ago.

“I think that’s the hardest thing to sell is that they think it’s outside the box. Only, it’s inside the box and it’s an improvement,” said Harrold Superintendent David Thweatt, who came up with what he calls a guardian plan to arm teachers.

Thweatt explained he first got the idea after a gunman walked into the West Nickle Mines School, a one-room Amish school in Pennsylvania back in October 2006. Five young girls died in the hostage standoff. Thweatt said that shocking act of violence in rural Pennsylvania prompted him to act.

“We had to answer the question: what would we do with an active shooter who was in the school?” asked Thweatt.

Thweatt’s guardian plan consists of arming a number of teachers, administrators or staff. The number, though, is not revealed to the public and is kept private under Texas law.

“The second thing is they’re approved by our board individually. The third component is they undergo extra training,” added Thweatt.

Add to that, those who carry must have the weapon on them at all times. It cannot be put in a desk or a purse. Some districts also outline the type of weapon, holster and situations a firearm can be used due to liability a district could incur.

“This is something that is not really out of the norm for us as Americans,” said Thweatt of guns.

Thweatt laments the 1990s era policy of designating schools gun free zones. He believes there’s a connection between that policy and the mass shootings the country is facing today.

“It’s hard to put a number on the good things guns do for us. I’m a firm believer in weaponry,” he said.

Not all administrators in Texas agree. Just drive along the two lane roads that cut through large swaths of farmland, oil derricks and windmills that lead to Holliday, Texas.

Holliday Superintendent Dr. Kevin Dyes explained that to this day, Texas schools remain gun-free zones. Bringing one on campus, he warned, “would be a serious felony.”

Yet in this tiny town that doesn’t even have its own stoplight, teachers here carry guns, too.

“If I had my choice, we would have an armed police officer or police force,” said Dyes.

The Holliday school board voted five years ago to arm some of its staff. The stark reality the district had to grapple with is cost. Hiring a school resource officer to be present on campus is too expensive.

The Holliday school district follows similar procedures as the Harrold school district. Those are now outlined clearly in Texas law.

In 2013, Texas statute designated that individuals who carry inside a school must be agreed upon by the school board. The identity is only known to the board and the superintendent. The weapon holder must obtain a conceal carry license at his or her own expense. In addition, there is psychological testing and added training with the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Holliday schools went a step further and notified the town’s police department of who was sanctioned to carry.

Holliday’s Police Chief Joe Chunn said that he also worked with the school board as it was compiling its standard operating procedures for those who carry.

Chunn said together, they came up with standard operating procedures for those who carry inside the school. The police department and school district also put a clear plan in place should there be an active shooter situation inside one of the schools.

“We’re out and they’re in,” Dyes said putting the plan in simple terms.

But, Dyes also cautioned that disarming staff immediately when law enforcement arrive on scene isn’t full proof. Chaos is inevitable in an active shooter situation.

“That’s not a 100 percent safeguard because there will be more than just our local police department responding,” said Dyes.

For Harrold schools, the strategy is more aggressive because the county sheriff is a town away in Vernon.

“They’re coming in blind. We are not,” Thweatt said of law enforcement.

Thweatt views those who are armed as the first line of defense in protecting students’ safety.

“My people know the layout of the building. They know who the good guys are and the bad guys are. They are trained in accuracy and shot placement,” he said.

According to the Texas Association of School Boards, there are 172 districts in the state that have voted to arm staff members. The vast majority of those are in rural areas, with the exception of the Highland Park Independent School District in Dallas, according to the Texas Association of Teachers.

But rural north Texas, both superintendents said there was little resistance from parents when the vote came to arming teachers.

Dr. Dyes said his board had the community’s support when it voted. And so did Harrold, according to Thweatt, who added, “We’re a tight knit community. We’ve all know each other for years.”

Because some staff are armed, parent Amanda Litteken said she’s not afraid of sending her kindergartener or first grader to school in Harrold, “I don’t ever worry my kid is not going to come home from school.”

Amy Hughes of Holliday echoed that sentiment, “I think there are so many people in Texas, especially in this area, that are conceal carriers. It’s just not a big deal.”

There hasn’t been a school shooting in Texas since teachers were cleared to carry a weapon, so there is no clear evidence if arming teachers is effective.

In addition to the magnetic lock doors, security cameras, and secure entry into schools, both superintendents said guns are a part of their security toolbox.

But, Dr. Dyes warned having just guns in school may not be a deterrent. “It’s not the end all be all. It’s not a magic bullet,” said Dyes.

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