After high school shooting, Texas campuses could soon have more armed marshals

Texas Tribune Blue Government News

Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, on July 26, 2017.
Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, on July 26, 2017.
 Marjorie Kamys Cotera

In the first legislative session after a deadly shooting at Santa Fe High School that left 10 dead and 13 others wounded, the Texas Senate on Monday advanced a bill that would abolish the limit on how many trained school employees — known as school marshals — can carry guns on campus.

Under the marshal program, school personnel whose identities are kept secret from all but a few local officials, are trained to act as armed peace officers in the absence of law enforcement. Currently, schools that participate in the program can only designate one marshal per 200 student or one marshal per building.

“School districts need to be able to tailor the school marshal program for their unique needs,” State Sen. Brandon Creighton, a Conroe Republican who authored Senate Bill 244, said about the legislation last week. “SB 244 removes those limitations in statute on the school marshal program to accommodate the unique needs of districts across the state.

“Each individual district would be able to make those choices on what’s best for them.”

But advocacy groups such as Moms Demand Action immediately decried the legislation.

“I’m very concerned for the safety of our schoolchildren as lawmakers continue to pass bills that would aggressively increase how many of our children’s teachers are armed,” Hilary Whitfield, a volunteer leader with the Texas chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said in a statement. “We all want to keep our schools safer, but adding guns to the problem is not the solution.”

The bill passed 20 to 10, with only Democrats opposed. But State Sens. Royce West, D-Dallas, and José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, both sided with the upper chambers’ Republicans and voted in favor of the measure. The bill can now be sent to the Texas House for debate.

Former state Rep. Jason Villalba, a Dallas-area Republican who authored the bill that created the Texas school marshal program, told The Texas Tribune that the cap on how many marshals can be on each campus was proposed by police groups that helped to create the legislation.

“The risk of having five officers in a single building and police coming to the scene is you begin to lose track of the good guys versus the bad guys,” he said. “The police were saying, ‘If we go to a scene and there are four non-uniformed individuals carrying guns and one bad guy, it’s very difficult for us to determine at the time in the heat of that moment the good guy from the bad guy.’”

“I’d be very careful,” about that proposal, Villalba said. “When you have multiple [marshals] in a single building, that could create some risks that are difficult.”

Villalba emphasized that he wasn’t against Creighton’s bill since he hadn’t read its full text, but said, “there’s a reason we had that number.”

Creighton’s bill is the latest piece of legislation relating to the marshal program the Texas Senate has advanced this session. Last week, it approved another measure by Republican state Sen. Brian Birdwell of Granbury that would allow local school boards to let their marshals carry their concealed guns on campuses instead of being required to keep them locked up.

While both bills have drawn ire from gun control advocates, they were among many suggestions Gov. Greg Abbott outlined for the Legislature in a 43-page plan released weeks after the Santa Fe shooting.

Creighton told lawmakers that his bill would not force school districts to implement a marshal program. It would just give them the flexibility to decide how many marshals they want to appoint should they choose to participate.

“It’s up to the school district to determine how much implementation of the marshal plan they would like to have,” he said.