Thursday, August 28, 2008

Texas town lets teachers carry guns

International Herald Tribune

Thursday, August 28, 2008

HARROLD, Texas: Students in this tiny town of grain silos and ranch houses spent much of the first couple of days in school this week trying to guess which of their teachers were carrying pistols under their clothes.

"We made fun of them," said Eric Howard, a 16-year-old high school junior, with an adolescent sneer. "Everybody knows everybody here. We will find out."

The school board in this impoverished rural hamlet in north-central Texas has drawn national attention with its decision to let some teachers carry concealed weapons, a track no other school in the country has followed. The idea is to ward off a massacre along the lines of what happened at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999.

"Our people just don't want their children to be fish in a bowl," said David Thweatt, the superintendent and driving force behind the policy. "Country people are take-care-of-yourself people. They are not under the illusion that the police are there to protect them."

Even in Texas, with its long tradition of lenient gun laws and frontier justice, the idea of teachers taking guns to class has rattled some folks and sparked a fiery debate.

Gun-control advocates are wringing their hands, while pro-gun groups are gleeful. The leader of the giant teachers' union in Houston has expressed stunned outrage, while the conservative Republican governor, Rick Perry, has endorsed the idea.

In the center of the storm is Thweatt, a man who describes himself as "a contingency planner," who believes Americans should be less afraid of protecting themselves and who thinks that signs at schools saying "Gun-Free Zone" make them targets for armed attacks.

"That's like saying sic 'em to a dog," he said.

Thweatt maintains that having teachers carry guns is a rational response to a real threat. The county sheriff's office is 17 miles, or 27 kilometers, away, he argues, and the district cannot afford to hire police officers, as urban schools in Dallas and Houston do.

The school board decided teachers with concealed guns were a better form of security than armed peace officers, since an attacker would not know whom to target, Thweatt said. Teachers have received training from a private security consultant and will use special ammunition intended to cut down on ricochets, he adds.

Harrold is a far cry from the huge districts in major Texas cities, where gang violence is the main concern and most schools have their own police forces. Barely 100 students of all ages attend classes here in two brick buildings built more than 60 years ago. There are two dozen teachers, a handful of buses and a football field bordered by crops.

Yet the town is not isolated in rustic peace, supporters of the plan point out. A four-lane highway runs through it, bringing with it a river of humanity, including criminals. A drug-producing lab was recently found in a ramshackle house near school property. Drifters sometimes sleep under the overpass.

"I'm not exactly paranoid," Thweatt said. "I like to consider myself prepared."

Some residents and parents, however, think Thweatt may be overstating the threat. Many say they rarely lock their doors, much less worry about random drifters with pistols running amok at the school. Longtime residents were hard-pressed to recall a single violent incident at the school.

Others worry that introducing guns into the classroom might create more problems than it solves.

"I don't think there is a place in the school whatsoever for a gun unless you have a police officer in there," said Bobby Brown, a farmer and former school board chairman whose two sons were educated at the school. "I don't care how much training they have."

His wife, Diane, added: "There are too many things that could happen. They are not trained to make life-and-death-situation judgments."

Thweatt declined to say how many teachers were armed, or who they were, on the grounds that this would tip off attackers. He also declined to identify the consultant who provided teachers with about 40 hours of weapons training.

Most critics question whether teachers, even with extra training, are as qualified as a police officer to take out an armed attacker.

"We are trained to teach and to educate," said Zeph Capo, the legislative director for the Houston Association of Teachers. "We are not trained to tame the Wild West."

In general, Texas law bans guns on school property. But the legislature carved out an exception allowing school boards to permit people with concealed-handgun licenses to carry their weapons. No local district had taken advantage of the exception until the Harrold School Board acted.

Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said the state's hands were tied.

"We have really tried not to get involved in this," she said. "Frankly, it's a matter of local control."

Thweatt, a former debate coach, seems to relish the attention the district has received. He has appeared on national television to debate the issue with the head of the Houston teachers' union. He has given interviews to reporters from New Zealand, Italy and England.

As a rule, the seven school board members - a collection of farmers and oil workers led by an ambulance medic - have referred all questions from reporters to Thweatt.

One member, Coy Cato, gave a short interview. "In my opinion, it is the best way to protect our kids," he said.

Still, several residents complained that the board made little or no effort to gather public opinion on the matter. Some said they did not hear about the plan until reporters started asking questions about it in early August.

Thweatt said the board discussed the proposal for nearly two years and considered several options - tranquilizer guns, beanbag guns, tasers, mace and armed security guards - but each was found lacking in some way. "We devil-advocated it to death," he said.

That discussion went unnoticed by many parents, in part because the majority of students at the school are tranfers from the larger towns of Electra and Vernon. Those families, most of them poor, have no representation on the board.

Local residents also felt out of the loop. Traci McKay, a 34-year-old restaurant employee, lives a quarter-mile from the school and sends three children there, yet said she had not heard a word about the pistol-carrying teachers until two weeks before the start of the semester. She was stunned.

"I should have been informed in some way," she said. "If something happens, do we really want all these people shooting at each other?"

McKay said Thweatt had yet to explain to parents why a town with a zero crime rate needed to take such measures. She is afraid, however, that her children might face repercussions if she took up a petition against the idea.

"We are pretty much being told to deal with this or move," she said.

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