June 15, 2022 633 PM
MARFA — School safety was a major topic of discussion this week at the Marfa school board and city council meetings, with community leaders looking to act fast to bolster campus security in the wake of the mass elementary school shooting in Uvalde this May.
“I just encourage you all to consider options for us so that we’re no longer sitting ducks. In a utopian world, we would be full of law enforcement 24/7. But that’s not reality,” said MISD junior high and high school principal Luanne Porter at a school board meeting Monday night.
School board trustees at that meeting discussed the possibility of allowing trained teachers and staff to carry weapons on campus for student protection, while city council on Tuesday approved a grant application, with a letter of support from Superintendent Oscar Aguero, which would fund the placement of a full-time armed school resource officer (SRO) on campus.
Porter, previous councilor for the district, led the campus security discussion at the school board meeting. She introduced the board to two options — the school marshal and guardian plans, outlined by Texas education and penal codes — that would allow for designated staff to carry firearms on campus for the purpose of protecting students.
The district currently employs the Avoid, Deny, Defend civilian response strategy in the case of an active shooter, a method of survival tactics to use during an active shooter event developed by Texas State’s Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Program. But Porter said the strategy could only do so much, and having armed staff on campus might be the logical next step.
“We’re not being realistic if we’re asking our teachers to defend in an unarmed situation. It’s just not realistic. What are we going to defend with?” said Porter. “It’s our responsibility to keep our kids and our staff safe.”
Of the 1,200 school districts in Texas, Porter said 280 utilize the guardian plan, which offers more flexibility for school districts, allowing boards to set their own training requirements and limits to the number of staff carrying, and 71 employ the marshal plan, which requires more rigorous training and gives school marshals a higher status of a law enforcement officer with arresting capabilities. The identities of staff who are permitted through either of the programs to have firearms on campus would not be disclosed to the students and general public, said Porter.
Marshals are considered peace officers, must undergo a psychological evaluation and can only use frangible ammunition, said Porter. In order to obtain a school marshal license, 80 hours of training with the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement is required in addition to 16 hours of training every two years for license renewal.
Under the guardian program, the school district can determine the type and amount of training but must meet a minimum requirement of 16 hours of training with a Department of Public Safety instructor.
In addition to other school safety measures the district could take in the coming months, having a school marshal or guardian could offer an added layer of protection, she said. Fort Davis has utilized the school marshall program for a number of years, said Aguero. Board president Teresa Nuñez inquired as to whether or not Porter had heard if any staff members were interested in participating in either of the programs, to which Porter assured her there were.
“We’re not asking staff who are not comfortable with firearms to carry a weapon,” said Porter.
“It’s people who are already proficient and comfortable that want to do it.”
Porter said she recently hosted a walk through of the junior and high school campus with law enforcement officers from the city, county and Texas Department of Public Safety and they were set to return soon to familiarize themselves with the elementary campus as well. She said it was important to maintain strong relationships with the local law enforcement community.
When asked if it would be possible to have both a hired SRO and school marshals or guardians, and whether or not they would be able to train alongside one another, Porter said it was and that would be the preferred option. The concept of multiple layers of security was brought up again, with Porter commenting on something as mundane as signage playing a role.
“Having signs at the front of each entrance. It makes people think twice. If you have a sign that says ‘staff on this campus are armed and trained’,” said Porter.
The discussion concluded with board members to do more research on the topic, weighing pros and cons of each plan. Aguero said it was unlikely a decision would be reached at the next board meeting as they would need to involve the public in the dialogue before proceeding.
“That way we’re not forcing something on our community,” said Aguero.
Aguero said he was in discussions with the city and Marfa Mayor Manny Baeza to hire a school resource officer and that at this point they didn’t want to rule out any options regarding school safety.
“We’re trying to look at all the different avenues we could have for protecting our kids,” said Aguero. “That’s the number one thing we’re supposed to do.”
At City Council’s regular meeting the following day, City Manager Mandy Roane took the floor to ask for council’s approval to apply for a grant that would help fund a full-time school resource officer. The grant, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2022 Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Hiring Program, would allow for the city to hire a police officer under the umbrella of the Marfa Police Department, with 75% of the officer’s salary being paid by the grant, and the other 25% by the school district.
Roane said while it would have been ideal to have a formal discussion with school representatives before submitting the grant application, the timing in which they became aware of the funding and impending grant deadline required a decision sooner rather than later. At the next regularly scheduled city council meeting school representatives will be present to discuss the idea and, if needed, the city could always turn the grant down, she said.
The COPS Hiring Program would allow for the city to pay up to 75% or $125,000 for three years for a full-time school resource officer whose sole responsibility is to be present at the school. MISD would reimburse the city for the remaining 25% of the officer’s salary for the first three years and would be solely responsible for funding the officer’s salary in the final year of their four-year appointment. Roane said the job would include health and life insurance and the standard city employee benefits.
Roane, who is working on the grant with Police Chief Steve Marquez, said the program seemed like a good fit for the Marfa community.
“There are a couple of different things that the Department of Justice asks for a school resource officer to do, but it’s things that our officers do anyway. It’s community policing, it’s reaching out to families,” said Roane.
Chief Marquez added Marfa P.D. would still have a presence at the school. While their department is currently unable to spare officers to travel with the school, which has been a request, he said, the school resource officer would be able to provide that service.
After some back and forth in which council showed support for the initiative and welcomed further discussion with the school district, council unanimously approved the authorization to submit the grant proposal to the Department of Justice, with all non-grant expenses to be reimbursed to the city by MISD.
The discussions come on the heels of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, in which a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers. The police response to the shooting, in which officers waited to confront the gunman despite knowledge of injuries in the classrooms, is currently the subject of intense scrutiny and multiple investigations.