By David Montgomery

Craig Bessent used to be a bull rider. Now he’s an assistant superintendent who stays on top of school bus schedules and cafeteria complaints.

But the black bulletproof vest tucked in the corner of Bessent’s office is proof that he hasn’t left danger behind.

The 60-year-old administrator, who is 6 feet tall and weighs 215 pounds, is a school “marshal,” one of about 165 Texas teachers and other school employees expected to be authorized to carry firearms in public schools this fall to fend off armed intruders — a fivefold boost in less than three months.

In addition, there are scores of other gun-toting teachers and school officials in Texas who are known as “guardians.” At least 227 school districts, more than 20 percent of the state’s 1,031 districts, had authorized the guardian program by mid-August, compared to 170 districts in February, according to the Texas Association of School Boards.

Training programs surged this summer after a gunman killed eight students and two teachers in May at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas. About two-dozen states have considered similar programs in the wake of the Santa Fe massacre and last February’s shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, which killed 17 students and staff members.

“There’s a need out there,” says Bessent of the Wylie Independent School District, who, unlike other marshals, has been publicly identified so he can promote the program. “A school marshal’s responsibility is to isolate, distract and neutralize the threat. If they’re shooting at the school marshal, they’re not shooting at the kids and teachers.”

Some Texas districts have posted signs on school buildings designed to deter would-be intruders. In the North Texas town of Peaster, for example, signs warn that “the staff at Peaster ISD is armed and may use whatever force necessary to protect our students.”

But the “Don’t Mess with Texas” style of defense remains controversial. Of all the states mulling such legislation this year, only Florida approved it.

President Donald Trump endorsed the idea, but a well-organized coalition that included educators, law enforcement groups, parents and vocal Parkland students pushed back in a state-by-state counterattack.

“We just absolutely do not agree with gun lobbyists that turning janitors and librarians into sharpshooters is effective,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a nationwide nonprofit that helped block bills in 16 of 17 states. Other bills are pending in at least a half-dozen other states.

After Alabama legislators rejected a bill that would have armed teachers and school administrators, Republican Gov. Kay Ivey created the “Alabama Sentry Program” to arm administrators on campuses. Democratic lawmakers denounced her action.

The issue also flared in California after several school districts began using an exemption in the state’s Gun-Free School Zone Act to authorize gun-licensed personnel to carry concealed firearms in schools. A bill signed by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown in October closed the exemption and halted the practice.

The Florida law, while putting in place some gun control measures, created a $67 million marshal program that allows superintendents and sheriffs to arm designated school personnel, though not full-time classroom teachers.

But the Broward County school board, which oversees the high school where February’s shooting occurred, voted unanimously in April against accepting money to arm personnel, and Watts said her volunteer organization is trying to convince other districts to reject marshal funding.

Survivors from the Florida and Texas shootings differ sharply over arming teachers. Parkland survivor Emma Gonzalez called it a “stupid” idea in a “60 Minutes” segment. But Santa Fe survivor Grace Johnson told a roundtable discussion led by Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott: “Arming teachers, and not knowing who is armed, that is what we need.”

At least nine states permit the arming of school officials, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, prompted Texas to launch the marshals program. Several other states also acted in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy.

Shoot/Don’t Shoot

 

Under the Guardian Plan in Texas, created in 2007 after mass shootings at a Pennsylvania Amish schoolhouse and at Virginia Tech, school districts choose which staff members to arm and what training they will receive. Guardians can constantly carry their weapons, but marshals in direct, regular contact with students must keep theirs in a lock box until needed.

 Marshals, most of whom are men, also must hold a concealed handgun license, complete 80 hours of training, undergo a psychological exam and, after two years, complete a 16-hour license renewal course along with another psychological evaluation.

At a recent Austin-area course, 20 prospective marshals got a harrowing preview of what they could face on the job.

 Wearing protective headgear that covered their faces and clutching blue Glock training pistols that fired paintball-type markers, two of the school officials — a man and a woman — strode methodically through the halls of Windermere Elementary School in suburban Pflugerville in the hunt for an assailant.

 The drill called for a “shoot/don’t shoot” decision after the sound of gunfire — blanks from a starter pistol — sent more than a dozen “students” pouring out of a classroom. The gunman, played by a reserve deputy, rounded a corner in the hallway and was shot by the marshals-in-training.

One of them was a 46-year-old father who has two children in his southeast Texas school system. Describing himself only as a school employee, he said his district spent at least a year considering the deployment of marshals before deciding it was needed to “make our district a safe place.”

“We hope we never have to use this training,” he said. “In an event where something as dire as an active shooter were to happen, then we want to make sure we’re prepared.”

The marshal candidate said he had no prior law enforcement experience but was familiar with firearms through hunting. He said he felt confident that he could encounter a real-life bad guy after being exposed to a “tremendous amount of techniques” through his training.

Another trainee from the same district, who played a fleeing student, identified himself as one of the school board members who voted to authorize marshals for the district. “I felt like I need to know what level of training these teachers and administrators had before we actually put the guns in the school.”

Like his colleague, the board member, 55, said he has no law enforcement experience but has carried a concealed firearm for more than 20 years after Texas authorized concealed carry following a 1991 mass shooting in Killeen. It was the Santa Fe shooting, he said, that led him and fellow board members to approve the marshal program.

To preserve the element of surprise against a potential intruder, the identities of marshals and guardians are kept secret.

Working with Traditional Officers

 

Marshals and guardians complement other school security measures, including local law enforcement personnel designated as full- or part-time school resource officers and school district police departments. Texas has 221 school district police departments, with a total of more than 2,750 officers, according to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.

 Although school resource officers work alongside marshals and guardians, the National Association of School Resource Officers has opposed the arming of teachers, warning that they are unprepared for high-stress situations that could end with the taking of a life, “especially the life of a student assailant.”

 As students prepare to return to Santa Fe, the district is increasing its police department to a staff of 24 full-time and part-time officers and installing metal detectors provided by Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s office. The district does not use marshals or guardians but might consider it, said school spokeswoman Nancy Porter.

Abbott has signaled his intention to strengthen the marshal program in the 2019 legislative session that starts in January. He has called for repealing the contentious lock box requirement as well as increasing the number of marshals that can be appointed per school, to one for every 100 students, instead of one for every 200. Abbott’s office has also directed $115,000 in criminal justice grants to fund this summer’s marshal training.

Bessent was in the first class of marshals when the program was launched in July of 2014. He has logged more than 500 hours of law-enforcement based training and often serves as an instructor for other marshals. He also works closely with the governor’s office and has testified repeatedly at legislative hearings.

 “Really, the school marshal has one purpose and that’s to prevent serious bodily injury or death to students, teachers, volunteers, anybody on that campus,” he said. “And the rest of the time they just do what they normally do.”