After a Monday evening vote, Westwood ISD became one of the most recent districts in East Texas to enact a gun policy in the wake of a December school shooting in Connecticut, which led to the death of 20 children and six employees.
Last month, the school board approved a first reading of what's called the “guardian policy,” which would allow certain employees the authorization to carry weapons on campus. On Monday, after a second reading of the policy, it passed with a vote of 5-1, Lyman said. Board member Theresa Bambeck voted against the measure and Joni Baron was absent because of illness, he said.
The measure would be voluntary, but those interested will have to have concealed handgun licenses and would have to fill out paperwork and go through additional training, Lyman said. He said it could take anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months for the security measure to be seen on campus, depending on how long the training and paperwork take.
“We have to be prudent, careful, cautious and strive not to make a huge problem even bigger,” Lyman said. “That's why we are very careful about our training and screening process.”
The district is one of many in East Texas addressing safety and security. Some have considered allowing employees to carry firearms on campus, while at least one other has created a police department to address safety issues. Others aren't making significant changes but continue to discuss the issue.
Attorney John Hardy, who represents various districts, including Tyler ISD, said he attended multiple board meetings last week about safety and security issues. He said the districts looking at different security measures tend to be rural districts, where law enforcement response time is a consideration.
“If they feel they've got a 15- to 30-minute response time, they feel that is too long,” he said. “They feel they need to have some internal force.”
Hardy said employees who carry on campus must be concealed gun license holders and go through crisis training.
In Van ISD, Superintendent Don Dunn the campuses are spread out across the town, making police response time a concern. The district made a decision last month to allow some employees to carry guns on campus.
“What concerns us is from the time an armed intruder walks into a building to when police can arrive on scene is anywhere from a three- to five-minute window, and in that window, our students and staff are completely” susceptible, he said.
“In Connecticut, (the shooter) did all that in three minutes, then heard (law enforcement) sirens go off and committed suicide, so what we're trying to do is protect students and staff until police arrive. We just want our personnel to be guardians.”
Dunn said the district considered additional school resource officers and the associated cost, but even if more officers were in place, the district still believes its plan is more effective because a potential shooter would not know who had guns when they came on campus. The policy doesn't mean that every teacher who wants to carry can, he said.
The district provides the school board with a list of potential carriers based on multiple factors — such as how long they've been in Van ISD, how well the district knows them and their personality — and the school board must give approval, he said. The district is not saying how many will be allowed to carry.
KYTX CBS19 reported in January that Union Grove ISD in Upshur County also will allow select licensed and trained staff members to have firearms in their possession on campus.
In Cayuga ISD, a district northwest of Palestine, officials also could give the go-ahead for licensed employees to carry on school property.
Superintendent Rick Webb said the district hasn't ironed out all the specifics of the policy but is leaning toward allowing some employees to carry if they are approved by the board.
Cayuga ISD has scheduled a public hearing for 7 p.m. Feb. 25 in the high school library. At that time, Webb said, the community can give their input.
Additionally, in Alba-Golden ISD, northwest of Mineola, officials also are considering the issue.
Superintendent Dwayne Ellis said the Connecticut tragedy spearheaded things, and this was something that the school board wanted the district to look into. He said any employee the board approved would undergo extensive training. The board is scheduled to consider the matter next Monday, but policy likely would not be implemented until the beginning of next school year, Ellis said.
In the meantime, he said Alba-Golden is in the process of other security and safety measures such as moving its offices to main entryways.
After discussions with New London Police Chief Paul Thompson, he decided that creating a police department and hiring Thompson as the police chief was the best option.
“You can contract it out and go the (school resource officer) route or have your own police department, and the one that makes most sense (for the district) is to hire someone in law enforcement who has done it and knows how to deal with confrontations and everything else,” Alexander said.
Thompson will have a 12-month contract with West Rusk County Consolidated ISD, and is scheduled to start as police chief on March 4.
Thompson attended West Rusk County Consolidated ISD and has three children who are graduates, according to biographical information from the district.
“I'm very excited. I think I can contribute to the schools' educational process by providing at least the ideas and security that will help everyone from the administrators to the staff to the students to the parents. I want everyone with the school district to feel safer,” Thompson said Thursday morning.
Alexander said Thompson will go with school buses for out-of-town trips such as athletic games, move between campuses during the school day and be heavily involved in the district's discipline management plan.
“He will be visible and will be seen. He'll be on the equal schedule to an assistant principal. He'll be working with the principal and assistant principals as far as truancy. He will go to homes of students who have a hard time getting here at times. Instead of the principal and assistant principals calling them, the chief will show up at their house …” he said.
For now, the district's police department will consist of Thompson, Alexander said, but during the next two to four years, the district likely will have the opportunity to add part-time or full-time staff members.
This “will be a learning curve for all of us as we look at every different scenario and educate students where they feel comfortable with a policeman around … Anytime you do something to help safety, you can't go wrong,” Alexander said.
Whitehouse ISD Assistant Superintendent Richard Peacock said the district recently discussed safety and security, but taking the same steps as some other districts has not been a topic of conversation.
He said Whitehouse ISD has two school resource officers, and all campuses are within city limits. Therefore, the response time of the Whitehouse Police Department on any emergency call is “absolutely tremendous,” probably less than a minute or two, Peacock said.
“We feel very comfortable and very confident that our schools are safe and have done things over the … years to increase security (such as ID checks on campuses and adding the school resource officers) …” he said. “We feel comfortable with (school resource officers), and Whitehouse police can respond to any other situation.”
Still, he said the district always is looking at safety and security.
“We're always aware of things we need to be doing differently and looking at ways continually to make campuses safe …” he said. “I've tried to read about (the Connecticut shooting) and how the guy got into the building. You look at your own buildings to see if that could happen here.”
He added, “You can't ever be 100 percent safe and secure unless you fortify buildings like Fort Knox, (and) sometimes you have to replace convenience with security and try to look at ways and different things we can do to always increase safety and security and do what we can to have all measures in place to try to prevent those things.”
Jacksonville ISD Superintendent Dr. Joe Wardell said the district has no plans to do what Van ISD did but wants to consider some measures taken by other districts.
He said Jacksonville ISD already has four police officers on campuses, and safety measures were designed into it two newly constructed elementary schools.
“We already had a security, safety person we had contracted with come in and look at all of our policies and had him look at plans as we built the schools…” Wardell said. “We've tried to be proactive all along the way.”
Staff Writers Faith Harper and Betty Waters contributed to this report.