School marshal trainees go through a simulation of an active shooting at an elementary school in Pflugerville last week. (Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT)
The number of public school staff members that are armed as part of the school marshal program in Texas is set to more than double as the new school year begins. The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, which oversees the school marshal program, says there could soon be as many as 165 appointed school marshals.
The program was created by the Texas Legislature back in 2013. It allows any school employee — teachers, administrators and support staff — to carry a concealed weapon on campus to protect students and staff in the event of an armed intruder. It requires those staff members to have a license to carry a firearm, go through 80 hours of training and pass a written test at the end of that training.
“It was slow at first, but especially after Santa Fe, it just pretty much exploded,” says Kim Vickers, executive director of the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, which conducts the training.
In the wake of the shooting at Santa Fe High School, which left 10 people dead and 13 others wounded in May, Gov. Greg Abbott’s office put more money into the school marshal program, allowing dozens more people to get trained.
Other states, including Arkansas, are now looking at Texas’ program as a model. Earlier this year, President Trump praised the program at a meeting with state governors.
So how exactly is a school marshal trained?
It All Comes Down To: Can You Shoot Someone?
At an elementary school in Pflugerville last week, 20 school employees from districts mostly in southeast Texas and around Dallas-Fort Worth went through the school marshal training. Instruction includes things like when to use force, basic firearms training, police strategies for dealing with active shooters and legal liability. Trainees also have to pass a psychological exam.
The marshals are supposed to remain anonymous, so KUT is not using their names or identifying which school district they work in.
“Intense training, that’s what we’ve been through this week. Very stressful,” said one participant, who is a school board member. “The reason I came is because I’m the one making the decision to arm teachers and administrators. And I felt like I should go through the training to make sure that I was comfortable putting guns in the school.”
He said his district had been talking about training employees to be school marshals for several years, but the shooting in Santa Fe pushed officials to do it. He said it was tough for him to vote to join the marshal program, but after taking the training he felt “extremely comfortable with it.”
Trainees go through simulations of school shootings. They learn to search and secure classrooms. In one drill, the would-be marshals hear gunshots down the hall. A group of a dozen or so fellow trainees run screaming as more shots are fired. The marshals have to find the gunman and subdue him. Sometimes that requires firing their weapon; sometimes it doesn’t. But it forces them to come to terms with the idea of using deadly force.
“There’s a fundamental question that comes into that that the school marshal training addresses,” Vickers says. “That is, 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. And can you do that?”
Some people decide that they can’t.
“We’ve had [participants] walk away from the training — which is good,” Vickers says. “They don’t need to be doing it if they don’t feel like they can do that.”
Another school marshal trainee in Pflugerville last week — an administrator from southeast Texas — said the training had given him an idea of what to expect, but that no one really knows what they’ll do in an active-shooter situation unless it happens.
“We would all like to think that we would do what we need to do to keep everyone safe. But realistically, that’s something that you’re constantly processing in your head,” the trainee said. “When your family or those that you’re responsible for at a school are presented with a danger and that danger may be somebody that you actually know, you’ve got to make a critical life or death situation. Those are decisions that are hard to fathom.”
“You can train and train and train — that’s the best way I would say,” said the school board member/trainee on facing the possibility of shooting an armed student. “But as far as protecting students? Yes, I’m willing to do that.”
There were 71 school marshals trained and appointed by their districts as of last week. Another 94 are either waiting to be appointed by their school boards or have signed up to take the training.
Their identities are shielded from public disclosure – though they can identify themselves if they wish. Parents are able to ask whether a marshal is present at their child’s school, but will not be told the marshal’s identity.
People appointed as school marshals typically carry their own weapons. Trainers here said they had not heard of districts buying guns for marshals. Employees whose main job is to manage students — like teachers — are required to keep their gun in a lockbox or safe in the classroom. Others are allowed to carry their weapon concealed.
‘A Short-Term Fix For A Really Long-Term Issue’
Many teachers, however, remain opposed to the school marshal program. During a hearing on school safety at the Texas Capitol in June, teachers and teachers’ unions told lawmakers that more guns are not the answer.
“We see this as a short-term fix for a really long-term issue,” says Noel Candelaria, a former special education teacher in El Paso who is now president of the Texas State Teachers Union. “At the end of the day, what even rural schools need, is the adequate funding for them to actually hire the trained professionals to be in their schools — in their communities — so they don’t have that lag response time.”
“I hear a lot of teachers that say, you know, ‘I want to be a teacher. I don’t want to be a policeman.'”
Candelaria says 80 percent of TSTA’s members have said they don’t want the responsibility of being school marshals.
“I hear a lot of teachers that say, you know, ‘I want to be a teacher. I don’t want to be a policeman,’” Vickers says. “I understand that — and that’s where they need to be. But there are a lot of teachers and a lot of school administrators — a lot of employees at schools — that want to do this that say, ‘I really want to be here in this capacity to help our kids and to be that mitigating factor to try to shut this down as soon as possible.’”
Beyond that, some have raised concerns about potential effects on students of color. Candelaria says a marshal’s implicit bias could lead to black or brown students being improperly identified as suspects in active shooter situations.
If “somebody walks in not knowing who the active shooter is and sees a young black man running away with maybe a cellphone in their hand because they’re trying to call their parents, are they going to be a target to get shot?” he says. “I think that’s why putting that level of responsibility on just your average citizen is not the answer.
‘A Layered Process’
Kim Vickers is the first to admit: “More guns in the schools is not the answer.”
But it is a piece of the answer, he says.
“If we’re going to make our schools safer, it’s a layered process,” Vickers says. “The true place to really start is not putting guns on campus. The place to really start is looking for these issues ahead of time. Addressing these kids that are marginalized and that are having these problems. Identifying and working with them before it ever gets to that point.”
At the same time, Vickers says simply having an armed person on campus — and advertising that fact — can head off a potential shooting.
“Make your target a little bit more difficult than the one down the road,” he says. “That’s kind of cold-blooded, but that’s the way crime prevention works.”
Candelaria isn’t so sure. He points to the armed guards on campus at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., who did not deter a former student from coming to campus and killing 17 people and wounding 17 others.
“I’m sure that student knew that there was an armed guard in there,” he says. “And that didn’t stop them.”