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A tiny Texas school district 'in the middle of nowhere' is arming half its staff

Cody Patton, superintendent of Harrold Schools.
John Burnett/NPR
Cody Patton, superintendent of Harrold Schools.

HARROLD, Texas — The leaders of the Harrold Independent School District hope that if violence comes to their tiny town on the Texas/Oklahoma border, they'll be ready. Half of the district's 27 employees — men and women; teachers, janitors and coaches — are training to shoot to kill an intruder to protect their students.

"Our situation is a lot different," says Cody Patton, superintendent of Harrold schools. "I know some of your bigger schools and a lot of the people are against it. But they're not in our situation. We are a rural school in the middle of nowhere."

In the aftermath of the Uvalde, Texas, school massacre that killed 19 students and two teachers, conservative lawmakers in Texas are calling for more teachers to get weapons. Most teachers are emphatically against it. But the strategy is catching on with more and more isolated school districts, like Harrold, where the nearest officer is miles away.

Patton himself is a formidable obstacle for intruders. Standing 6-foot-6, at 330 pounds, he played defensive tackle for the Texas Tech Red Raiders, and he has deep roots here. The family farm and ranch is just up the highway. He says he was combining wheat until midnight before a reporter's visit. Having coached sports in the area for years, he was hired last summer as superintendent.

Since the Uvalde tragedy, Patton says he's been answering lots of calls about Harrold's very public reputation as one of Texas' most armed schools.

"I have two daughters in this school," he says. "But basically every kid who walks in that door is my child, and I'm responsible for their safety and make sure they get home to mom and dad at the end of the day. So we want to give our employees whatever they need to protect our kids."

The scenario they fear is a gunman pulling off busy U.S. 287. The century-old schoolhouse is the most prominent building in town. The nearest sheriff's deputy is 20 minutes away — an hour away if a freight train on the Burlington Northern tracks happens to block the roads into town.

There isn't much to Harrold, Texas. Surrounded by wheat, cattle and wind farms, the town consists of a water tower, a volunteer fire department, 20 or so houses, a big "Texans for Trump" sign, and the school. It has 100 to 125 students, K through 12.

"We're so small you can't really afford to pay for your security officers that are there on campus to deal with anything and everything," Patton says.

In Harrold, a teacher cannot carry a concealed handgun because a student could potentially get it; the loaded weapon has to be kept in a lockbox close by, only accessible with a code.

Patton likens the additional training that he and "my team" are undertaking to a parent learning how to swim.

"Arming our teachers is basically going ahead and signing up for those swimming lessons to give us the best chance to save that child when in need," he says. "We don't want to be the ones that have to sit there and watch that child drown."

Arming educators is hugely controversial.

The idea is strenuously opposed by the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Parent Teacher Association.

In a recent survey by the Texas American Federation of Teachers, 77 percent of respondents said they do not want to have a gun.

"Trying to arm teachers is risky and counterproductive," said Texas AFT President Zeph Capo. "Teachers can't be expected to become highly trained law enforcement officers and use guns in a crisis without endangering students or themselves."

In Texas, the decision to bear arms on a school campus is made by the local school board and individual employees.

In the abstract, though, if her superintendent told pre-K teacher Michelle Cardenas to start carrying a concealed handgun in class, "I would quit teaching. I'd step away," she says. "I don't want to be trained to shoot an intruder that comes into the school."

She works at Del Valle Independent School District on the southeastern edge of Austin.

"I went to school to teach kids," Cardenas says, "to inspire them to grow into future leaders. ... My job is not to carry a gun."

There are two programs that allow armed teachers in Texas — the Guardian Plan and the School Marshal program.

The Guardian plan is loosely regulated. Local school boards authorize employees to get training and carry guns on campus — which are normally gun-free zones. The Guardian Plan actually began at Harrold Schools in 2007 in response to a mass shooting in a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania the previous year, where a barricaded gunman killed five girls.

According to the Texas School Safety Center, 280 of 1,022 public school districts self-reported as of 2020 that they use some version of the Guardian Plan.

The School Marshal Program is more rigorous. It requires a psychological exam, weapon proficiency to fire 700 rounds of ammunition, and 80 hours of training in use of force and active shooter response. A 16-hour renewal course is required every two years.

To date, only 71 districts out of more than 1,200 total school districts in the state have school marshals. Nine more schools have signed up since the Uvalde shooting, according to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, which oversees the program. (Trained school marshals are considered peace officers, with arresting powers, but only on school property. By comparison, regular licensed police officers require 720 hours of training.)

Since the Uvalde murders, Gov. Greg Abbott — a Republican who's running for re-election with Donald Trump's backing — has refused to consider more gun restrictions. Instead, he urged school districts to hire more campus cops and train more school marshals. The state offers grants to train the marshals, which chaps Michelle Cardenas, a regional president with the Texas State Teachers Association.

"So we can find money to arm teachers, but we can't find money for curriculum?" she asks. "We can't find money for supplies, for materials, to pay our hourly employees a living wage. But yet we're gonna give them guns?"

A 2018 report by the Federal Commission on School Safety cited several instances where school-based police officers prevented gun tragedies.On Thursday, in fact, a school-based officer shot and killed a man who had tried to seize another officer's gun and attempted to force his way into an Alabama elementary school with 34 children inside. But a 2020 study by the Rand Corporation says the evidence is inconclusive about the effectiveness of arming teachers.

"This isn't for every teacher. It takes a special type of teacher to be able to do this," says Russ Ramsey, a coach and agriculture instructor at Harrold High School.

He says a lifelong love of hunting and a familiarity with firearms has prepared him to be a school marshal.

"In our training, during the shooting part they would have a cardboard cut-out of a bad guy having a kid in a headlock with a gun pointed at their head," Ramsey says. "And I've seen teachers fold right there. They could not pull the trigger on the bad guy because they were not physically or mentally ready for something like that."

But at the end of the day, even trained responders don't know if, in the heat of the moment, they'll risk their own lives to save others. In Uvalde, 19 officers stood in the school hallway for more than an hour instead of immediately confronting the shooter.

"I would like to think that I would get the problem knocked out as quick as possible," Ramsey says. "But until it happens there's no way of sayin' whether you can do it or not."

Most of the students at Harold schools are transfer students from nearby districts. Superintendent Patton says the parents have told him why. In this day and age, "they feel safer with their kids here" in a small school where the staff is locked and loaded.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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