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To beef up school security, lawmakers turn to firearms

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Austin Police Department officer Cory Ehrler monitors the entrance to Ridgetop Elementary School in Austin, Texas shortly after classes start on the Monday following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Austin Police Department officer Cory Ehrler monitors the entrance to Ridgetop Elementary School in Austin, Texas shortly after classes start on the Monday following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

by Morgan Smith

AUSTIN (THE TEXAS TRIBUNE) - While the federal government and other states ponder more rigorous gun control laws following the shootings at a Connecticut elementary school, some legislators in Texas have taken the opposite approach. They have emphasized the need to make firearms more available, and their discussions have included increasing access for teachers and other school personnel.

Ahead of the 83rd legislative session, bills have been proposed with that mission in mind. The efforts have drawn the praise of statewide elected officials including Gov. Rick Perry. But even lawmakers who support arming school personnel can disagree on how to go about it — and other critics say the debate is a distraction from addressing a more a difficult issue that would go further toward improving school security, state support for mental health.

Currently, Texas school boards can grant permission to anyone, including employees, to carry firearms on campus under the federal Gun-Free Schools Act and state law. Two Republicans, state Rep.-elect Jason Villalba of Dallas and state Rep. Debbie Riddle of Tomball want to expand those rights.

 Villalba announced last week he would file legislation modeled on the federal air marshal program that would deputize school employees with special training access to firearms as the last line of defense during an attack. He said it had been "mischaracterized" as a teacher-carry bill when it in fact provided a "narrow and tailored solution" that imposed strict restrictions on the deputy's authority to use the weapon. 

"There's a significant difference from saying anyone who has a CHL license can carry concealed in a classroom versus what I'm proposing," he said, referring to concealed handgun licenses.

A concern about how long it may take a deputized officer to respond in an emergency situation is behind Riddle's plan, which she said would allow teachers who have concealed handgun licenses to carry their weapons in the classroom. Although she did not offer details on how her bill would change current law, she said she still intended for school districts to set their own policies.

Current law allows districts "a great deal of leeway" to allow employees or others with concealed handgun licenses to bring firearms on campus, said Victoria Calder, the director of the Texas School Safety Center, but it is an option that very few have chosen to exercise.

One of those outliers is Harrold Independent School District, which enrolls about 100 students near the Texas-Oklahoma border. The district has a policy in place that allows teachers with concealed handgun licenses to bring their guns to school with school board approval after completing additional training.

But despite that example, many educators say that ideas like deputizing school employees and allowing teachers greater freedom in carrying weapons do not address the big picture of violence at schools.

Brian Woods, the superintendent of San Antonio's Northside ISD, said he was "disappointed and in general critical" of approaches that called for beefing up school security without accounting for the societal problem of poorly financed mental health services, which he said can put schools on the frontlines of dealing with mental illness.

"The notion of putting a police officer in every school no matter what is a very simplistic answer to a complex issue," said Woods, whose district is the state's fourth largest with about 94,000 students.

Both Villalba and Riddle said they recognized the need to discuss mental health policy in the state. But Riddle added that did not mean that teachers should not still be able to protect themselves.

"Are going to be able to screen and determine everyone who is going to be a threat? Of course not," she said,  "We are not a perfect society and there is no way we can create perfect laws."

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