* This article will be continually updated to include the latest in Texas gun control legislation.
Chilling words crackled through the cold January air when educators at Celina Elementary School found themselves confronted by a man claiming to be a gunman. Haunted by images of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, not everyone at the Celina school realized that Ronald Miller, whose son was a student at the school, was taking it upon himself to conduct his own active shooter security drill.
Misguided as Miller’s actions were, his concerns about school security reflect prevailing anxieties in post-Newtown America. What would happen if a deranged gunman appeared at your child’s school?
Since Sandy Hook in 2012, the nation has watched in horror as 74 more shootings have rolled through our schools. Even so, mass shootings (which the FBI defines as incidents in which four or more people are killed) accounted for fewer than 90 deaths out of a total of about 12,000 U.S. homicides during 2012, according to policymic.com.
As such, most schools around the Dallas-Fort Worth area have taken a prepared-yet-balanced approach to the threats of gunmen and bombs in schools. Such measures include state-mandated lockdown drills or the presence of a trained, armed marshal in public schools (authorized by a recently passed Texas law).
“It’s not that I’m not concerned about the shooter that’s coming,” asserts Dallas ISD Chief of Police Craig Miller. “I’m more concerned about the day-to-day safety of the campus than I am the exceptional school shooter like Adam Lanza. I’m concerned about the parent that’s upset with the counselor because they don’t feel that their kid’s getting the attention that they deserve, and they come to the unlocked portable door and confront the counselor. That’s more of a reality that happens daily in our district.”
Prevention and intervention programs, such as the Be A Hero anti-bullying program at Dallas ISD or the Kindness Matters collaboration and cooperation initiative in Burleson, lay the groundwork for preventing day-to-day violence. And indeed, it’s that same day-to-day security that concerns parents.
While most of us grouse about recently added buzzer entry systems, some schools’ routine security procedures are still coming up to speed. Denton mom Karen Wiley recalls a recent school visit. A fill-in office staffer simply jotted her arrival information on a sticky note, and then sent her around to a building where she was able to enter and wander freely — a situation she calls “scary.”
Still, too much aggressive structure can be terrifying in its own right. An early, teacher-developed program in Burleson ISD threw the community into an uproar over directives that encouraged children to physically fight back against shooters. The administration reassigned the teacher and veered away from the program, which continues to cut a high profile in the national media but has not gained traction in North Texas schools.
Today, the Burleson schools work with local police in yet another innovative approach that’s based on traditional safety strategies but gives individual teachers the authority to call a lockdown or move their students to safety. A mistaken lockdown call is considered no harm, no foul, and teachers who can ascertain a safe opportunity to evacuate their students are empowered to do so.
Guidelines released last year by the federal government (and supported by $29.7 million in grants for emergency planning efforts from the U.S. Department of Education) represent an attempt to establish best practices for campus safety and security. However, not everyone agrees the recommendations are on target.
Michael Dorn, of Atlanta-based Safe Havens International, fears that teachers who’ve been instructed to fight or disarm a shooter tend to focus on that strategy to the exclusion of simple tactics like locking classroom doors.
The school safety and emergency planning consultant also worries that emergency preparedness efforts are being focused in the wrong place. “The biggest problem we have is that the allocation of resources for active shooter training is so far out of balance with actual causes of death on school property,” he says.
Dorn also expresses concern that private schools, which are often left out of school security legislation, may consider themselves exempt from the threat of shootings.
On the other side of the coin is Dallas ISD, one of a growing number of urban school districts that wields its own dedicated police force.
Dallas ISD has just completed a comprehensive security upgrade, including door locks, buzzers, intercoms and cameras — a standard already at suburban schools, such as Allen, Plano, Burleson and others.
“If someone wants to get into your school with an assault rifle and grenades, they’re going to make entry,” Chief Miller stresses. “All you can do is hope to mitigate the amount of damage they do by having your people prepared.”
Maintaining that sense of calm preparedness requires nimble communication. Most schools rely on a combination of phone, email and website updates to let parents know what’s happening. Allen ISD has become known for lightning-fast response times on its Facebook page.
“We understand that parents want information,” says John Palm, Allen ISD director of risk management. “They’re scared when something like this happens. So we try to help coordinate that. But with students with mobile devices, it’s hard to control. So the way we have found to combat some of that wrong information is to be proactive on our own.”
In fact, it was parental anxiety that pushed Ron Miller into taking safety preparedness into his own hands. His attorney told NBC 5 after the trial that Miller had recently lost his 16-year-old daughter to cancer. In addition, he had concerns over a security incident earlier that year in which his 7-year-old son had wandered away from school. Add in Sandy Hook and the grief-stricken father had become consumed with the possibility of losing his younger child.
“It was not my intent to cause any harm or to make anybody afraid,” NBC 5 reports Miller saying after he was found not guilty. “I just wanted to make sure the kids were safe.”
1. Student supervision When you visit the school, do you see unaccompanied students in the halls? Are teachers leading groups of students rather than following them, watching for stragglers? Are staff members chatting on the playground rather than spreading out to keep watch? “If we would put 10 percent of the energy toward improving student supervision that we are putting toward active shooters, we could cut the death rate in our schools probably by 50 percent,” Dorn says.
2. Access control Every adult in a K–12 school should be wearing a plainly displayed photo ID badge; visitors should all wear time-sensitive visitor badges that show at a glance they were issued that same day.
3. Key protocols The schools with the best safety and security performance, Dorn says, use procedures to move students quickly and safely via two separate protocols:
Room clear Can staff members move students away from a dangerous situation in a classroom or communal space, like the school gym, quickly and effectively?
Don’t Let Lockdowns Lock Up Kids’ Feelings
Some children react to lockdown drills with uncertainty and fear, while others adopt on a blustery, devil-may-care swagger. Either way, experts caution parents not to dismiss children’s misgivings.
“What we actually find is that [ignoring their reservations] only enhances that child’s anger, fear, anxiety,” says Dr. Jackie Nelson, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Dallas. “In a way, we’re not really validating or respecting that child’s feelings — which you know, as an adult, if someone close to you told you ‘Oh shake it off, it’s no big deal’ when you’re upset with something, that would be kind of hurtful.”
When you talk with kids about their school day, use mentions of lockdowns as a chance to explain why drills are important and how they help keep students safe. “You want to let children know that this is important and that it’s serious, but at the same time you don’t want to induce more anxiety or fear in a child,” Nelson said.
The Latest on Gun Control Legislation in the Lone Star State
These preparedness measures are crucial considering the fast-changing gun control laws in the Lone Star state, which is home to over one million active gun license holders—among the largest demographics in the country.
As of September 2017, several gun laws have passed in Texas. Senate Bill 16 reduces the cost of a License To Carry (LTC) by $100, from $140 to $40. The cost of an LTC renewal was also reduced, from $70 to $40. Senate Bill 1566 applies directly to school districts, as it allows employees of school districts, open-enrollment charter schools, and private elementary and secondary schools to store firearms in a locked vehicle, as long as the guns and ammo aren’t in view. And House Bill 3784 allows people to take an online course instead of an in-person classroom course to cover the training required for an LTC.
Recent years have also seen massive revisions to statewide open carry laws. On Jan. 1, 2016, an open carry law came into effect that overturned regulations dating back to the Civil War era. The new law stipulates that licensed residents can legally carry firearms either openly or concealed in most public places.
June 1, 2015, saw Governor Greg Abbott sign Senate Bill 11, aka the “campus carry” law. The law, which came into effect on August 1, 2016, permits public university students with gun licenses to carry concealed firearms on school grounds. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Texas became the eighth state in the U.S. to pass campus carry legislation. As of 2017, ten states allow students to carry concealed weapons on college campuses.
A year later, it became legal for students at community and junior colleges to carry concealed weapons on campus in Texas. S.B. 11 allows some leeway for university officials to regulate where on campus the law extends—”gun-free zones” like sporting arenas or special event locations—but does not allow professors to ban guns from their classrooms.
Younger Dallasites have championed gun control measures on a local level. Despite the statewide campus carry law, the Southern Methodist University student body voted for their campus to remain weapons-free. The University of Dallas similarly followed suit.
Hobson Wildenthal, at the time president ad interim of University of Texas at Dallas, said in a statement shortly after the campus carry bill was passed, “Our goal was to develop policies that would comply with the law while maintaining the maximum safety and security of UT Dallas students, faculty, and guests.” To assist with a smooth and safe implementation of the gun law, the UT Dallas administration installed a Campus Carry Implementation Group led by professor Alex R. Piquero, PhD, Ashbel Smith professor of criminology and associate dean of graduate programs. “It is our collective desire that UT Dallas looks and feels the same after August 1, 2016, as it always has” Wildenthal continued. “A community […] all striving to make important contributions to the community, state, nation, and the world through research, education, and service.”
In view of the November 2017 shooting in Sutherland Springs—the deadliest mass shooting in Texas history—it is clear that gun laws are far from perfectly implemented in the Lone Star state. But lawmakers are hopeful that increased attention to mental health in the country will address the mass shooting epidemic. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Texas is an active participant in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). So although there is no wait period to buy a gun in Texas, the state requires that all gun dealers run an FBI background check. Further good news: A new bill titled the Fix NICS Act, led by Senator John Cornyn, seeks to improve the shortcomings in the federal background check system.
Until this bill and other legal measures are enacted, Dallas-Fort Worth schools have been vigilant in their application of precautionary measures to ensure their students’ safety. On February 15, 2018, one day after the shooting at a Florida high school that killed 17 people, five DFW teens were arrested in separate incidents: three on charges of gun possession, and two for threats of violence.