This article appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of The Classroom Teacher.

Since the April 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, the threat to classrooms has become a common concern for students, educators and parents. Incidents, including the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut and the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, sparked outrage and calls for gun control and improved campus security. TCTA asked members to weigh in on school safety. Here’s what you had to say.

“Fight for your lives before it’s someone else’s job.”

Across the country, students have taken the lead, staging walkouts and marches to honor school shooting victims and protest gun laws. Demonstrations were held March 14 to mark the one-month anniversary of the Parkland, Florida, shooting that killed 17. Only a few Texas schools participated in the walkout because most districts in the state were on spring break. After some administrators threatened suspensions or other punitive action against students who walked out, many schools decided to hold assemblies or observe 17 minutes of silence in memory of the Parkland victims.

The March for Our Lives on March 24 in Washington, D.C., generated millions in donations from celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey and George and Amal Clooney. According to media reports, survivors of the Parkland shooting shared their stories of fear and loss and called on lawmakers to ban the sale of assault-style weapons. The D.C. event inspired more than 800 marches in communities across the country and around the globe. In Texas, rallies were held March 24 in Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. Tens of thousands of demonstrators clogged downtown streets. Many carried signs with slogans such as “Books not bullets” and “Am I next?”

More walkouts were held April 20 to mark the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting. That attack left 15 dead, including the shooters, and 24 wounded. Since Columbine, many schools nationwide have adopted routine active-shooter drills and other safety measures to thwart attacks and protect students and teachers.  

Kari’s Law: Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 788 in May 2015. Kari’s Law requires all multi-line telephone systems that provide/allow outbound calling to allow for direct dialing of 9-1-1 (no initial digit, prefix, or access code to reach an outbound line is permitted). Mandatory compliance with the law began Sept. 1, 2016.

“#Arm us with books, supplies and a pay raise.”

There’s no question the threat of mass violence is scary. Incidents could happen almost anywhere, at any time. How to stop shooters from targeting schools and other public places remains a complex question with no easy solution.

Some people want to arm teachers or other school employees. Others want to ban assault weapons and further restrict gun sales. Some want more mental and emotional health resources to identify risks and fix problems before a troubled person takes bold action and crosses the line. Others say the answer is a measured combination of several approaches. Lawmakers across the country are grappling with what action to take. Closer to home, parents and educators are trying to determine the best ways to keep schoolchildren and teachers safe.

Despite the media attention, school shootings are rare. The National Center for Education Statistics reported incidents at school accounted for less than 1 percent of suicides and homicides for children ages 5 to 18 in 2016, the most recent data available. School violence is a much larger issue. It encompasses physical violence, including fighting (with or without weapons) and corporal punishment; psychological violence, including verbal abuse; sexual violence, including sexual harassment; and many forms of bullying, including cyberbullying. It also includes carrying weapons in school. Statistics show bullying and fighting account for a vast majority of incidents in schools. 

In a recent poll of TCTA members, nearly 70 percent said they felt safe on their campus, and over 70 percent were more concerned with “everyday” violence than an active shooter, which was the top concern for about 24 percent of survey respondents. The other 6 percent offered a variety of responses, such as equal concern about both, with one teacher noting that bullying can escalate to physical violence if situations are not addressed.

“Teachers don’t need guns: Too many teachers could be easily overtaken by an out-of-control student. We do need trained officers, highly visible, and stronger discipline with a no-tolerance policy.”

Despite mostly feeling safe at their schools, nearly 75 percent of responding TCTA members said more security is needed to discourage mass shootings and other acts of violence.     

Most school officials in Texas seem to agree. Since the February shooting in Florida, the Texas Education Agency has stepped up efforts to improve school security. In a March 2 letter to school administrators, Education Commissioner Mike Morath wrote, “The safety of every student on every campus is a top priority for everyone in Texas. That commitment to safety throughout a district must begin at the top.” He urged school board members to examine safety measures in their districts and highlighted some of the options and resources, including local law enforcement, available to help.

Hiring professional security personnel is one option. Some districts employ school resource officers through a memorandum of understanding with a local police department or county sheriff’s office. A peace officer employed by the other entity is assigned to a school, either full or part time, and the district helps cover the officer’s salary. Some districts have their own police departments. According to Texas Education Code Section 37.081, a school district peace officer must meet all minimum standards for peace officers established by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, undergoing the same training as a municipal police officer. 

If a district chooses to employ private security, the Education Code requires an individual who carries a weapon to be a commissioned peace officer. Many schools have unarmed security guards that monitor the perimeter of the building and parking lots. These guards generally call local police to handle arrests and incidents involving weapons.

In TCTA’s poll, 21 percent of respondents said their district had police/professional security on every campus; another 50 percent said some campuses in their district had a regular police presence.

Another option is the school marshal program, which was established by the Texas Legislature in 2013. School marshals, whose identities are kept confidential, are school employees with special training who may exercise the authority given to peace officers, including making arrests, subject to regulations adopted by the school board or charter school governing authority. A marshal may only carry a handgun on school premises under certain regulations and may only use it in circumstances justifying the use of deadly force. The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement operates a training program available to any school employee who holds a concealed handgun license and administers a psychological exam to determine fitness to carry out the duties of a school marshal.

The Guardian Plan, also established by the Texas Legislature in 2013, gives school boards the option of designating specified employees who are authorized to carry firearms on campus. These individuals must have a state permit to carry a concealed weapon and undergo other training. This program is intended solely to offer a campus protection from an active shooter. About 170, or 14 percent, of the state’s public school districts and charters have authorized armed personnel on campus, such as teachers or administrators. Recent media reports indicate several dozen others are currently considering the option in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, shooting.

Arming teachers is the most controversial method to make schools more secure. In a nationwide Gallup poll in March, about 73 percent of teachers were against arming teachers or other school staff. In TCTA’s recent poll, 47 percent said they’d feel safer if fellow teachers were armed, 42 percent said they would not. Instead, teachers would prefer other steps be taken to secure schools and reduce the threat of violence.

Options include enhancing school security with more video surveillance, locking outside doors so visitors can only access the main office to check in during school hours, using metal detectors, and requiring students to carry clear backpacks or keep bags in their lockers. These methods are already employed in many Texas schools, and many other schools are planning to enhance their security measures since the Parkland shooting. 

Utilize the Texas School Safety Center: The Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University serves as a clearinghouse for the dissemination of safety and security information through research, training, and technical assistance for K-12 schools and junior colleges throughout Texas. In addition, the TxSSC also builds partnerships among youth, adults, schools, law enforcement officers, and community stakeholders to create safe, secure and healthy environments. Resources on the TxSSC website (https://txssc.txstate.edu/) include videos, toolkits, planning guides and more to help educators prepare for and deal with violence, severe weather, drug use and other safety issues.

“Provide counseling without all the paperwork so group and individual counseling can be provided on ALL campuses. Too many counselors are used for testing, meetings, scheduling students’ classes, etc. We need dedicated true counselors to identify and help students with emotional problems and bullying.”

Tactical measures that deal with preventing or responding to acts of violence are helpful, and 74 percent of TCTA survey respondents said schools should do more to discourage violence. But Texas teachers also want to see more done to deter violent behavior. Nearly 60 percent of respondents to TCTA’s survey on school safety said schools should focus more on the underlying reasons for violence.

Sixty-three percent of TCTA’s survey respondents thought more counseling in schools would help identify students with issues that could escalate into acts of violence. Many school counselors have other duties that limit how much time they spend talking to students. Districts also have high ratios of students to counselors that limit relationship building. Research shows that the quality of relationships among students and teachers can help prevent violence. If students feel safe and trust adults, they are more likely to open up about bullying and other fears. Knowing help is available when problems arise also can lessen the likelihood of violent incidents.

In an effort to centralize and designate someone to focus on student discipline, the Texas Legislature in 2015 passed a law initiated by TCTA that requires every public school to have a campus behavior coordinator. This person may be the principal or another campus administrator and will be the person primarily responsible for maintaining student discipline. Though district or campus policy will establish specific duties, the law states that a teacher may send a student to the CBC’s office to maintain discipline. The CBC must respond by using appropriate discipline management techniques that can reasonably be expected to improve behavior before the student may be returned to class. If the student’s behavior does not improve, alternate techniques must be used.

While a CBC could help identify students that need intervention, many campuses may not be using the position to its full advantage. Nearly 65 percent of TCTA’s survey respondents said they were unaware of the law, and nearly 70 percent said they did not know who their campus behavior coordinator is. Several others said their district claimed an exemption to the CBC law through their District of Innovation plan.

Want more training? Log in at members.tcta.org and watch “Be Prepared: Learning Proactive Strategies for Handling Threats” and “Lessons Learned from Responding to a School Crisis” in TCTA’s online CPE collection.

“We all must be aware of students who are troubled and try to help. In addition, we are told repeatedly, ‘If you see something, say something.’”

Whether a campus has a behavior coordinator or not, every teacher can play a role in the overall climate at a school. Experts who study school violence say building positive relationships with students can prevent incidents. Educators, working with parents and community members, should devote resources to lowering levels of bullying and discrimination to create a climate where students feel safer and more likely to report threats. 

Experts say a focus on social and emotional learning should be paired with a proactive approach to discipline and behavior. Educators who identify troubled students can connect them with mental health counselors to respond before a tragedy occurs. Law enforcement can also be called upon to help an administrator conduct a “threat assessment” — they talk to people involved in an incident, such as bullying or a fight at school, and any witnesses to figure out if a threat is serious. When a threat is serious, educators and parents should be told.

Stopping school violence and creating safer schools requires a multipronged approach. It also takes time. There is no quick fix, but it begins with educators, parents, students and community members working together to identify problems and implement solutions.

TCTA members share their thoughts on what else should be done to keep students and teachers safe in Texas public schools:

  • Have more access to talk about issues like (school violence). Let the students’ voices and concerns be heard. Allow teachers’ voices and concerns to be heard. We all want to be safe.
  • Our local police keep our district informed when something they know of is happening in the neighborhood and they are very protective of the kids. That is why we have had lockdowns — they were initiated by the police to keep our kids inside the school and safe.
  • Limit class sizes and allow teachers more time with students to prevent/help the underlying issues.
  • Lower counselor/assistant principal to student ratio — especially at the lower ages. We have 2,700 kids and four APs / 4 counselors; 1 student support counselor. Over 675 kids per AP — no way that you can build relationships with students.
  • Students who are known to be dangerous should be monitored closely and kept separate from the general population — special ed included.
  • Live video feed of all areas with personnel monitoring those screens like in a casino and with security personnel ready to respond.
  • Get rid of high-stakes standardized testing and let teachers do real teaching and students do real learning, so that kids don’t get to a point where they hate school and their life so much that they want to shoot up a school. 
  • Honestly, I don’t think that this can be done without discipline and morals being taught at home. The students I teach now are not the students I taught 22 years ago. Many of these students are rude to adults and other children, taught that they don’t have to listen to anyone, and not taught how to deal with hurt feelings and other social situations. They react impulsively. 
  • Our portable buildings should have an intercom system, right now they do not. Also, every space, not just classrooms, should have a front office call button, even counselor and admin offices. Cafeteria and gym should also have front office call buttons.
  • More secure entrances and specific training for staff.
  • Begin a system of identifying children with dangerous tendencies so that they can be tracked throughout their school career and beyond. With this tracking system we can begin to use this information to provide interventions or ultimately remove violent students from traditional educational settings. 
  • Parents should be held accountable for instilling morals into their children, and teach them the effects of this type of violence, and how a lack of empathy affects others. I do not believe any type of further gun restrictions will alter the likelihood that a mass shooting may happen. It is a lack of morals, lack of accountability of people, and lack of enforced consequences that largely affects these unfortunate events. 
  • Make campuses only accessible by locked gate and guard plus video surveillance at the gate. Have retired personnel such as special forces, retired police working as hall monitors.
  • Faculty should be allowed to know about students with severe mental health issues and those with criminal records. The student’s right to privacy should not supersede the ability of teachers and staff to be aware of potential dangers. Gun ownership laws should be strengthened to require more complete background checks, required training by anyone purchasing a gun (similar to obtaining a driver’s license), and the legal age should be raised to 21. It is absurd that an 18-year-old can buy a gun.
  • Better/faster way to identify and work with kids who feel alienated or have mental health issues. 
  • Reinstate tougher disciplinary procedures from years past, REDUCE the paper trail that has to follow a student before they can be sent to alternative campus, give more disciplinary authority back to teachers.