For the past 18 months, the British photojournalist Spike Johnson has been touring Texan high schools, talking to the armed superintendents who work there and who believe passionately that civilians have a greater role to play in protecting American children. At least 10 states across the US now allow school staff access to firearms, kept in lock boxes or inside vehicles, in a scheme known as the school marshal programme. In Texas, though, more than 170 schools go a step further, allowing employees to carry weapons under a shirt or in an ankle holster.
In the wake of the February shootings in Parkland, Florida, the push to arm more teachers has gathered momentum. Donald Trump backed proposals that were renewed two weeks ago, when a 17-year-old opened fire on an art class at Santa Fe high school, killing eight students and two teachers.
"We carry at all times, because you never know. You cannot take it off you."
Mass shootings are now so frequent in the US, and the gun debate so polarised, that the rapid-reaction political script has become depressingly familiar. (According to America’s Gun Violence Archive, there have been more than 100 shootings involving four or more people in 2018.) On the left, lawmakers and activists demand tighter gun-control laws, while the standard Republican response is to call for more guns. (The favourite mantra of Wayne LaPierre, the CEO of the National Rifle Association, is: “To stop a bad guy with a gun, it takes a good guy with a gun.”) In a school context, that could require a teacher to shoot dead a child whose homework he or she was marking only the night before. Already, a number of Texan educators arrive for work each morning knowing that scenario is a possibility, however remote.
Why does Texas lead the way when it comes to arming high schools? In part, this is due to the initiative of David Thweatt, a superintendent at Harrold independent school district (the US equivalent of a school catchment area) in north Texas, who has been arming his staff since 2007. In 2013, in response to the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in Connecticut, in which 26 people died, Thweatt stepped up campaigning for the adoption of his Guardian Plan. This plan allows individual school boards to agree the firearms and ammunition that a nominated “guardian” can carry, and the amount of training he or she must undergo. The scheme requires no federal oversight; the only rules are that guardians must have a valid licence-to-carry gun permit and do their best to remain anonymous.
Large urban school districts commonly have their own armed police force, or a contract with a police department or private security company. But in rural areas where response times may be slow, the Guardian Plan allows designated staff–anyone from a secretary to a geography teacher–to carry a gun on campus. This is partly economics, explains Spike Johnson: a school police officer costs about $50,000 (£37,000) a year in salary alone–too much for many schools. “If schools have very small budgets and there is pressure from the board and parents to put a defence plan in place, buying three or four handguns represents a very cheap solution,” he says.
Many police officers remain sceptical about the scheme, questioning the limited amount of training and the psychological ability of teachers to take a life; they also worry that teachers may be confused for active shooters when first responders arrive. “Most teachers are not ready to use deadly force against anybody,” says Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association. “And if you’re going to be armed, you need to have made up your mind that you’re ready to take a human life.”
Johnson, who is based in Houston, visited Santa Fe on the day of the shooting and talked to survivors. The school is in a highly conservative, pro-gun, semi-rural area near Houston, but it was not part of the school marshal programme. (This is more restricted than Thweatt’s Guardian Plan and generally requires staff to store guns in safes or locked vehicles. Staff also require a certain amount of training approved by law enforcement.)
But even without the school marshal programme, Santa Fe had an active-shooter plan–one that had been tested less than three months earlier in what turned out to be a false alarm. On 18 May, when the attack began, there were two armed police officers on site, who tackled him within four minutes. One of the officers was seriously injured; according to a local sheriff, two men’s actions saved many lives.
When I talked to Santa Fe high school students while reporting for the Guardian, they described scenes of panic after the fire alarm went off. Unsure if it was a drill or an emergency, they were forced to decide whether to flee or barricade themselves in classrooms, as shots echoed through the halls and teachers yelled at them to get to safety.
"If you see a sign that says, ‘Beware of the dog’, you are less likely to go into that house."
With midterm elections in November, and Parkland students mobilising to keep gun control in the media spotlight, politicians in Texas and beyond are feeling the pressure to take action, however limited. Leading lawmakers in Texas have rushed to Santa Fe for prayer vigils and church services. Meanwhile, the state’s lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, gave his diagnosis of the problem: schools have “too many entrances and too many exits”. Shootings, he said later on television, are “not about guns”. Instead, Patrick blamed violent video games and a culture that he says lacks respect for life, because it allows abortions and devalues religious education.
Meanwhile, Texas governor Greg Abbott has worked to loosen gun regulations, making it easier for licensed Texans to openly carry weapons in most public places. Last week, he held roundtable meetings in Austin, where attendees discussed installing more metal detectors in schools, enlarging the school marshal scheme, as well as devoting more resources to mental health and threat assessment.
Within three days of the Santa Fe high school shooting, Abbott did deliver one concrete change: he withdrew the prize in a random draw on his website, where he is campaigning for a second term as governor. A Texas-made shotgun was replaced with a certificate for $250.
‘People are glad to see armed staff’
Superintendent Telena Wright, Argyle independent school district, near Fort Worth
Extreme concern was voiced after Sandy Hook, when one of the school district board members stepped forward and said: “I don’t believe I could go to 20 funerals and look those parents in the eye unless I could answer the question, ‘Did you do everything you possibly could to protect my child?’”
We decided to do an extra security audit of all the campuses and started talking about armed staff. This led to a big community forum in the high school auditorium, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. There weren’t people who were against it. There are more than 300 employees at Argyle and the only people who know which individuals are carrying guns are members of the board.
Some of the things that cause shootings are rejection – either from the institution or by other students–bullying and traumatic events. Working towards an inclusive culture and trying to prevent bullying doesn’t mean we are able to prevent it from going on, but we make a big effort, by being aware of who is angry, upset or depressed.
You don’t always know who is struggling. There was one incident with a student who had a loaded gun in the library. It was very unlike him, but he was very upset that particular day. He didn’t shoot anybody, but he was arrested and expelled for a year. I have never had anybody choose not to move into this school district because of armed staff; people are glad to see them. The signs we have up, to say that staff are armed and will protect students, are a deterrent. If you see a sign that says, “Beware of the dog”, you are less likely to go into that house.
‘We have good kids we want to protect’
Chief Ronny Potts, Keene independent school district police department, near Dallas
I have 30 years of experience: I was a federal agent for 10 years after 9/11 and prior to that I was a Swat (special weapons and tactics officer) for 10 years. I wanted to bring those kind of resources to the district. I am in the process of getting everybody from kindergarten to high school trained in [following] Alice: alert, lock down, inform, counter, evacuate.
In the event of a shooting, if an evacuation is available to the students and staff, I want them out of the school. I don’t want them in lockdown, which came from the LAPD and is more for external threats (eg a drive-by shooting). Turn off the lights and no one will know you are there? I don’t want to risk that if they are inside. Our ultimate goal is to make the school a harder target for anyone who may pull in off the highway. This school district is like a family. We don’t have bad problems; we have good kids we want to protect.
Guardians are a temporary solution until law enforcement arrives. We have protocols in place – if one campus is being attacked, the other campuses are looking at it on the cameras and notifying us. Confidentiality [about the identity of guardians] is paramount. You don’t want to know who that person is, because it needs to be a surprise.
Keene is no different from any other school I have worked with; they are very determined to take care of their kids and will be the first to say: “How dare you come on to my campus–pencil or pistol, which one do you want?” We need to focus on the survivors and the heroes that play a role in preventing further death, so there is no glamour about the person shooting. Every story has a hidden hero, if we choose to talk about the person who put a stop to it.
‘Guns mix with everything and always have. A gun is just a tool’
Superintendent David Thweatt, Harrold independent school district, near Wichita Falls. He has been arming his staff since 2007 and launched the Guardian Plan in response to the Sandy Hook shootings
We carry at all times, because you never know. You cannot take it off you.
Under the school marshal plan, guns have to be locked up in the presence of kids. Well, that sounds very similar to the anti-gun policies of Washington DC: “You can have a gun but it must be taken apart.” That is like saying you can have a car, but the wheels must be off and the engine out.
If it doesn’t work, then you have lost the effectiveness. There are too many scenarios–kids on the playground, kids outside, kids on the football field–where you are not going to be near that gun. Seconds count.
I was talking to someone at my church the other day and they said: “Well, I guess we’re going to have to do something to protect our church.” And I said: “We did, in the 1800s and 1700s – I’m sure we took guns to protect ourselves.” It’s not new.
Are the police supportive of the Guardian Plan? Well, it depends who you talk to. Our local sheriff is all for it, but everyone has a different idea when it comes to being prepared. I have never had a flat tyre, but I still carry a spare.
“Guns and children don’t mix”: that is the aphorism they love to say. But guns mix with everything and always have. It’s just a tool. That is like saying hammers and kids don’t mix; well, they don’t if you’re aiming it at their thumbs.
‘It’s a disgrace that humanity is at this level’
Superintendent Jeff Harvey, Fayetteville independent school district, near La Grange
Our closest police department is a 20-minute drive through back roads. There is no telling how many sheriffs are on duty at any time and they cover the entire county, which is 45 miles south-west and up to 20 miles north-east of here: it’s a very large area. Even with sirens blaring, they might get here in 30 minutes. With an active shooter, the entire situation is usually less than three minutes. So even if they could respond in five, it’s over. That’s why we decided to take the action we did.
Take Parkland, Florida, an absolutely horrible tragedy. A coach was killed, a man who decided to shield his students. Yet he is unarmed–he has no way of defending himself or those behind him. If we are not going to be prepared to defend, then we are sitting ducks.
Do I like being in a situation where we have to even consider being guardians of our kids, that the world has come to this? Absolutely not. It’s a disgrace that humanity is at this level. But I also know that I am going to treat these kids like they are my own. And that means we are going to protect them like they are our own. I have not heard a negative thing from parents, whatsoever.
But I was at the local club, full of retired gentlemen–I go over every couple of weeks. I had one man say to me: “I completely disagree with the policy of allowing teachers to carry guns.” I said: “I respect your right to feel that way.” And he said: “I trust you and the school board–I trust you are doing it for a reason. Therefore I will support it. But I disagree with the premise.”
Do I worry about one of my kids being a school shooter? No: I see these kids every day. I know who is having issues. We pay attention, we counsel our kids, we talk to them on a daily basis. We tell them that they are loved. What I worry about is what happened about five years ago: a local store was robbed and the perpetrator was on school property, trying to get away. If someone is brazen enough to rob a store at gunpoint, they are brazen enough to do anything to get away. Those are the things I am worried about.
‘He said “Surprise!” and started shooting. I called my mum and told her that I loved her’
Isabelle Laymance, 15, student at Santa Fe high school
At first he said, “Surprise, MF!” and started shooting. He shot a kid and people were running out of the classroom and he was chasing after them. He was cheering himself on. Then he went to my room, and phones were ringing–I guess people had already heard about it–and he kept like looking around, like, “This is annoying”, because he knew we were in the closet. He was like, “Whose phone is this? Do y’all wanna pick it up?”
I called my mum and told her that I loved her, and then I called [the police] again. I said I was in the art room, and they said [officers] were in the building and to stay on the line and just be quiet.
Then the officer came, and he [the shooter] was like, “I’ll surrender but I need you all to talk to me.” And then he was like, “Give me a second–I’m thinking,” and you could hear him reloading his gun. Then the cop would step closer, and he would shoot and say, “Don’t get closer to me.” For about five or 10 minutes, they were just talking back and forth, and he finally put his gun down. He went into the hallway and they got him and told him to put his hands up and get on the ground.
They were like, “Put your gun down and step out into the hallway.” They weren’t saying anything else–it was just that, constantly. Then the shooter was asking if they were going to kill him when he gets out and I never heard a response like, “No.”