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Republicans, reluctant to pass gun regulations, push arming teachers

Texas Highway Patrol officers stand near a memorial of flowers at the scene of a mass shooting at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. (Tannen Maury/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is running for governor. He is seeking another term as attorney general. The article has been corrected.

Just hours after a man armed with a rifle rained bullets on a classroom full of fourth-graders, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) went on the conservative Newsmax TV network to talk about what might have prevented the tragedy. His solution: better school security, and arming teachers and administrators.

“You’re going to have to do more at the school,” Paxton said. “You’re going to have to have more people trained to react.”

Lawmakers from both parties are facing pressure to respond to one of the nation’s deadliest school shootings, which occurred just a week after 10 people were slain at a Buffalo grocery store.

But Republicans, reluctant to entertain gun regulations, have already begun to focus their efforts on what schools — and the administrators, teachers and students inside them — can do to protect themselves and their students from shooters like the 18-year-old who got into Robb Elementary School. Salvador Rolando Ramos outgunned law enforcement outside the building shortly before massacring 19 fourth-graders and two teachers.

Politicians and policymakers have proposed adding police officers, arming teachers and administrators and advocating for “hardening” schools, making schools more like airports. In a news conference Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick described what the state did in the wake of a 2018 school shooting, when a student killed eight classmates and two teachers at Santa Fe High School outside Houston.

“Some of those strategies reduced the number of entrances,” Patrick said. “They involve different types of strategies that should make it more difficult for a shooter to get into a school.”

Since Columbine, schools have tried many ways to resist school shootings, including making campuses and school buildings less porous, requiring guests to sign in and wear name tags, drilling students to simulate school shootings, installing bulletproof glass and metal detectors and erecting doors without windows to make it more difficult for a shooter to see inside, or enter, a classroom.

The tactics also included increasing the presence of armed guards and law enforcement. And in rare cases, they included arming teachers and administrators to respond to threats, a strategy that some rural schools employed in thinly patrolled counties.

Texas is one of a small number of states that support districts that want to arm their teachers with training. According to the Texas Education Agency, there are 253 school employees serving as school marshals in 62 school systems.

‘You understand that you might have to shoot a student?’

Critics of these notions say it is unfair — and ineffective — to put the onus on schools to stop mass shootings when so many of the measures being pushed now have failed to stop many of them.

A Washington Post analysis of 225 school shootings between 1999 and 2018 found that 40 percent of the affected campuses had a police officer, meaning the mere presence of an officer was not enough to deter the shooter. During that period, it found only two cases where a school police officer gunned down a shooter.

Odis Johnson, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, said many of the proposals now echo those that were tried in the wake of other school shootings.

“What happened after Parkland is what happened before Parkland. We continue to believe that law enforcement within schools was the only way that we could ensure the safety of kids within U.S. schools,” Johnson said. “Data are showing that has not been an adequate response.”

He added that there’s been a steady rise in the number of people injured or killed by guns on school grounds that the growth in campus law enforcement has failed to curtail.”

The Uvalde case raises questions about just how many police officers or security officers it would take to stop a shooter like Ramos, who wore a bulletproof vest and carried a rifle so powerful it rendered those shot unrecognizable.

“Over and over - from Parkland to El Paso to Dayton to Uvalde - armed personnel on site couldn’t stop mass shooters who only needed minutes for mass slaughter,” tweeted Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). Newtown, Conn., is where 20 children were gunned down in an elementary school in 2012.

The frequency of school shootings in the United States has spawned a whole industry of school security companies, which hawk bulletproof backpacks, ballistic whiteboards, tourniquets and programs that train former Special Operations officers to guard schools, a market that had grown to $2.7 billion in 2018, the year that a gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., killing 17 people — including 14 students.

It also led to a massive expansion of school police officer programs, with the federal government pouring millions into grants to pay for armed officers. This year, the Justice Department will give $320 million to schools to hire law enforcement and improve safety.

Congress has never passed meaningful gun regulations in response to a school shooting, but there have been other policy responses.

After the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, President Donald Trump controversially suggested a federal program to arm schoolteachers, a proposal that received swift backlash from educators. Later, he formed a school safety commission that suggested that schools consider arming teachers, expand mental health services and dismantled guidance that pressed schools to eliminate racial disparities in discipline.

Mia Tretta, 17, was wounded when a classmate open fired in the courtyard of Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., killing two of her classmates. She rejected the idea that arming teachers would have made her — or any other student — safer.

“Teachers are not there to be war heroes,” said Tretta, who now advocates for stricter gun regulations. “It took eight seconds. No one can stop a shooter in eight seconds.”

Brian Harrell, who was an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security under Trump, said that no matter what is proposed, school campuses should increase security. Harrell oversaw school security initiatives.

“Would-be criminals and domestic terrorists will always use the path of least resistance, and often times soft targets and schools, are picked for this violence,” Harrell wrote in an email. “While there will be calls for restricting guns, also at play here, is the fact that schools must invest in their campus security, becoming a 'hard target.’”

Previous studies on security measures have not yielded evidence that campus police officers make a definitive difference. In rare cases, they are able to disarm a shooter, or keep them from inflicting further damage. In others, they have been outgunned by well-armed shooters. In Parkland, the school resource officer hid rather than confront the gunman. But school shootings often transpire over a matter of seconds, long before an officer has time to intervene.

According to federal data, the presence of police officers on school grounds has grown significantly since the Parkland shooting. Between 2016 and 2020, the percentage of schools with an armed police officer regularly patrolling campus grew from 43 percent to 52 percent.

But after the murder of George Floyd, student activists successfully pushed school districts to get police out of schools —- or to reduce their presence. Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, was the first school district to abolish school police officers, followed by Denver; Portland, Ore.; Oakland, Calif.; Montgomery County, Md.; and several other small districts. Some of those districts have reversed those decisions. Officials in Montgomery County, as well as Alexandria, Va., have returned police to schools. This shooting is likely to create pressure to install more school police officers.

Many critics push back against the necessity for more school police or security guards, saying they can create a new set of problems. Johnson noted that schools with police officers refer more students to law enforcement, sometimes for routine misbehavior, he said. And security guards and police officers have captured headlines for brutalizing — or even killing — young people.

Mo Canady, a former school resource officer and the director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, said he believes additional school resource officers would make students safe, but they have to be “carefully selected and specifically trained” to deal with students.

A school safety officer shot a fleeing teen. He has been fired.