When he looks inside his “policy toolbox,” Superintendent Marty Crawford says he wants exactly what he needs to implement new initiatives within Tyler Independent School District without delay.
That’s the premise, he said, behind a proposed policy change authorizing trained employees to carry firearms on school property. Trustees approved the new policy during an Aug. 4 workshop, but the measure still faces a final vote before the full board at the end of the month.
Adopting the policy, Dr. Crawford said, is just the first step to have in place “if” the district decides to implement it.
“It’s sad that schools have to consider this stuff to protect themselves,” Crawford said. “We’re all educators and this job has turned into a whole lot more than just instruction of kids academically.”
Safety: a long-term issue
In a 1999 interview, a Tyler Independent School District law official expressed concern about campus safety, characterizing the situation then as “a disaster waiting to happen.”
The assessment came within months of a school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, claiming the lives of 12 students and one teacher.
Since then, district construction projects have eliminated most of the major safety questions raised by portable classrooms, open campuses and outdated buildings. Yet recent events — the fatal shooting of 19 students and two teachers at a Uvalde elementary school — is forcing school officials to consider even more preventive measures.
“It’s a raw feeling right now after what happened last May, and I think we all felt it,” Crawford said. “After what happened … I just think every school system is looking at every policy and every statutory opportunity for safety and security. Unfortunately, we are at that place.”
In 2013, Texas legislators passed the Protective of Children Act Program expanding authority to have armed personnel. Under the School Marshal Program, schools may designate one staff member per 200 students to have access to a secured gun.
Another option — the Guardian Plan — allows a district to authorize employees to carry a handgun after being trained.
As of 2020, 84 school districts have at least one designated marshal and 280 districts have adopted the guardian plan, according to a Texas Tribune article about audits conducted by the Texas School Safety Center.
Whitehouse ISD trustees approved the Guardian Plan, which was implemented during the 2020-21 school year. Pine Tree ISD trustees in Longview approved the plan in 2020.
Crawford said implementing the Guardian Plan in Tyler ISD is only an option officials may consider.
“It’s not a done deal,” he said. “Certainly, if we were ever to enact that, we would announce that and let folks know about it.”
Crawford said approving the policy now allows the district to be prepared if trustees decide to implement it. He estimated it would take at least three to six months to conduct background checks, psychological evaluations and training for selected employees.
Crawford said he also wants input from parents, teachers, law enforcement officers and the public before moving on in the process. Having a policy in place is an essential first step, he said.
“We don’t want to be caught in a six-month lag if we don’t have enough police officers to staff our police force,” he explained.
It may be too early to determine how teachers and parents may react to having armed personnel on campus.
“I think it will be a split,” said Camille Buie, a former teacher whose daughter is a junior at Legacy High School. “I go back and forth about it. It might come in handy in certain situations … in other cases, it could turn into a huge disaster.”
TISD’s police force is the third largest law enforcement agency in the county. In a meeting earlier this month, trustees approved hiring at least 13 additional officer positions and additional patrol cars.
But Crawford said he isn’t certain the district can fill all those positions considering the current workforce environment.
“It’s getting harder and harder to find trained peace officers,” he said. “Everyone is looking for them now.”
Crawford said the district already relies upon a safety and security advisory committee to help decide what preventive measures might be necessary. The committee, which meets three times a year, includes representatives from the FBI, ATF, Smith County Sheriff’s Department, Tyler Police Department and others.
“They can give feedback on where we can improve,” Crawford said.
Approving the policy is just part of the district’s “long game plan” being considered.
“There is a lot of easing into this, methodical preparation and selection,” he said. “You want to communicate that with everyone … what’s coming.”
Editor’s note: As a graduate student at The University of Texas at Tyler, Vanessa Curry conducted a safety survey of the Tyler Independent School District and wrote about her findings in a research paper.
Vanessa E. Curry is a journalist with nearly 35 years of experience as a writer, editor and instructor. She earned a B.S. degree in Mass Communication from Illinois State University and a MSIS degree from The University of Texas at Tyler with emphasis on journalism, political science and criminal justice. She has worked newspaper in Marlin, Henderson, Tyler and Jacksonville, Texas as well as in Columbia Tennessee. Vanessa also was a journalism instructor at the UT-Tyler and Tennessee Tech University. Her writing has been recognized by the State Bar of Texas, Texas Associated Press Managing Editors, Dallas Press Club, and Tennessee Press Association. She currently is working on publishing two books: “Lies and Consequences: The Trials of Kerry Max Cook,” and “A Gold Medal Man, A biography of Kenneth L. “Tug” Wilson.
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