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After 2018′s mass shooting, Santa Fe school officials will let some employees carry firearms at all times

Santa Fe school officials decided Friday they will use a school safety program that lets employees carry firearms without keeping them locked up. || Loren Elliott for The Texas Tribune
Santa Fe school officials decided Friday they will use a school safety program that lets employees carry firearms without keeping them locked up. || Loren Elliott for The Texas Tribune

After a gunman killed 10 people and wounded 13 others at Santa Fe High School in 2018, school district officials will allow some teachers to carry guns on campus — rather than keep them under lock and key.

Santa Fe ISD officials announced their plans Friday to implement Texas’ so-called Guardian Plan, which lets local school boards authorize specific employees to carry on campus at all times and determine their training standards.

That is different from the school marshal program that Gov. Greg Abbott has endorsed and that state lawmakers expanded last year. The expansion of that program — which lets local school boards authorize employees to carry a handgun on campus if they are specially trained and licensed by the state — came after legislators spent the entire session debating how best to prevent another school shooting like the one at Santa Fe.

School board President Rusty Norman told The Texas Tribune the district ultimately chose the Guardian Plan over the school marshal program because it allows employees to carry firearms on their person rather than in a lockbox.

“This is not some knee-jerk reaction, this is not something we are taking lightly,” said Norman, adding that more than 300 school districts across Texas have implemented the Guardian Plan. “We have a school and we have a community that suffered a mass tragedy, and we've had to respond accordingly, with things that others may or may not choose to do.”

Starting March 16, when Santa Fe students and staff return from spring break, signs will be posted around school buildings indicating that personnel on campus may be armed, Norman said. School employees will be able to volunteer to become a Guardian if they have a handgun license, though the application process has yet to formally begin, he said.

The district plans to fund the Guardian Program out of its general fund and will pay for the Guardians’ training, Superintendent Leigh Wall told The Texas Tribune.

Flo Rice, a former substitute teacher who was wounded in the May 2018 shooting, said she supports the district implementing the Guardian Plan, though she wishes it had been in place sooner. Norman said the district had been looking into both plans before the shooting.

“I understand the other side that does not want more guns in the schools, but I just know from my personal experience and what happened to me, [the Guardian Plan] could have made a difference in the outcome,” Rice said.

The district’s decision came as a surprise to Jason Villalba, the former state lawmaker who authored the bill creating Texas’ school marshal program. When it was signed into law in 2012, it was branded as a more regulated alternative to the 2007 Guardian Plan, which some parents and schools had largely dismissed as “much too lax,” Villalba said.

The Republican former representative said he was surprised by the district’s choice, adding that the lockbox requirement was included in the marshal program to satisfy parents who told lawmakers they were “nervous about having a firearm laying in a drawer or on top of a desk.”

Guardians must undergo a minimum of 15 to 20 hours of district-specific training. School marshals, on the other hand, have to receive 80 training hours from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.

Norman said he disagrees with the notion that the Guardian Plan is “too loosely regulated.” It gives school districts the flexibility they need – what works for Santa Fe does not necessarily work somewhere else, he said.

Approved applicants for Santa Fe ISD’s Guardian Program will be required to complete a minimum of 40 hours of training and meet the same marksmanship standards as a Santa Fe ISD police officer, Norman said.

The selection process will also require criminal background screening and psychological evaluations using the same process and standards as police officer applicants, according to a district press release.

“We’re not creating programs where we’re going to have people out there acting as first responders,” Norman said. “This is just another layer as a last line of defense, if something gets past all of those other layers and becomes an issue in a classroom or hallway or in one of the school facilities, that someone may be there that could protect themselves along with all the students and staff that are around them.”