As national and statewide debate continues about the best ways to ensure student safety, one local school district is in the midst of its own discussion about potentially arming teachers.

East Central Independent School District, located in Southeast San Antonio with an enrollment of just over 10,000 students, recently floated the idea of arming staff through a program called the Guardian Plan to increase school safety.

School shootings have garnered significant media attention in recent years, with one of the most notable tragedies occurring just south of Houston at Santa Fe High School in May, claiming the lives of 10 and injuring more.

If East Central trustees choose to approve the Guardian Plan, the district would be one of the first area school districts to implement it. Both Poth ISD and Nixon-Smiley CISD in Wilson and Gonzales counties, respectively, have approved such a program.

The Guardian Plan, one of two ways Texas schools can arm staff per State law, allows school boards to authorize specific employees to carry a gun on campus. Participation is voluntary, and school boards determine training plans and vetting procedures.

In November, East Central trustees were set to consider joining the program and appointing employees as guardians, according to a board meeting agenda. Roughly eight months prior, district staff were asked to look into the program and the level of community support for the idea, a district spokeswoman said.

“Our community is very close to Sutherland Springs, and we had employees who had family members shot – family members killed – in the church shooting,” said spokeswoman Ashley Chohlis, referring to the mass shooting that claimed 26 lives in November 2017. “There was a request for us and the school board to look into [safety plans] by some community members. After that, [the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in] Parkland [Florida] happened, and that’s when they requested the superintendent to study” the potential for a Guardian Plan.

Plans changed, however, when community members packed a school board meeting and expressed varying opinions on the plan. Some asked trustees to delay their decision until more public input could be garnered.

Prior to the November meeting, the district sought input from a variety of stakeholder groups, including members of the district leadership team, educational improvement council, campus leadership team, and community-based accountability committee. All told, about 200 people were polled, Chohlis said.

Opponents of the plan have said more feedback is needed.

“I believe that community input should have been collected for a decision like this,” parent and teacher Priscilla Garcia said at the district’s November board meeting. “I’m calling for a detailed outline of this plan, specifying regulation and implementation, to be shared with this community before a vote is even done.”

In response to community and board feedback, trustees took no action on the Guardian Plan. Superintendent Roland Toscano sent a letter to families Dec. 3, outlining reasons why the district is exploring the plan and providing answers to some frequently asked questions.

“While we have always taken safety and security seriously and prepared ourselves to respond in emergency situations, in light of the active shooter events that have occurred at schools, churches, and venues over the last year, we believe it is our moral obligation to explore all options for ‘hardening’ our campuses and facilities to protect students and staff from any potential threat,” Toscano wrote.

The superintendent added the school board is “courageously exploring” the option of arming district staff, having studied the policy and procedures to vet, train, and arm qualified staff members over the past year. When the district surveyed stakeholders, it found most to be supportive of the idea, the letter states.

While the district has not made an official decision, many of the answers in Toscano’s frequently asked questions section addresses how many guardians would be approved to carry guns and how much the plan would cost.

The district also posted a two-question survey online that asked whether the survey taker agreed or disagreed with the Guardian Plan option and why.

The district initially planned to make the survey available until Thursday night, but it was still discussing keeping the survey open for more responses. By Thursday afternoon, more than 1,000 people had responded, Chohlis said.

Some parents say they don’t know how the survey will be used or what next steps will be, which has fostered confusion.

“When you read the information that the school put out … it reads amazing, and on paper and in theory it sounds like the answer,” parent and alumna Erica Fisher said. “However, when you start to think about reading in between the lines or the fine print, the entire letter that went out was very pro. It was almost like propaganda.”

While Fisher acknowledges that most of her fellow East Central community members support the plan, she says she isn’t completely for or against it. However, Fisher has some unresolved questions she wants answered before the district moves forward.

Those questions include whether those selected for the program will undergo mental health evaluations and why East Central ISD’s police department isn’t being used to bolster school safety.

Chohlis said if the plan is approved, guardians would serve a different role than and not supplant members of the police force.

When seconds matter, we want people there,” Chohlis said. “The question is, is it appropriate to have people who can respond immediately if there aren’t police officers to respond immediately?”

Parent and alumna Stephanie Salinas said she was only made aware of the program’s potential implementation after she received automated calls from the district. The calls informed her of the survey but didn’t explain what the program entailed, Salinas said.

“We haven’t been informed about why this is happening so fast, if there was an incident or why they have considered to move forward with this so quickly,” she said. I think everybody is blindsided.”

Fisher also wonders why the district is moving forward with the plan now. Citing the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, she said school shootings are nothing new.

The district plans to further the school safety debate at a panel on Jan. 7, moderated by Rivard Report Editor and Publisher Robert Rivard.

The panel will feature school safety experts and local stakeholders including retired East Central High School teacher Laura Aten, Sutherland Springs survivor David Colbath, Glynn County Public Schools Chief of Police Rod Ellis, Executive Director of the Ecumenical Center Mary Beth Fisk, and former principal and school safety software consultant Thom Jones.

Rivard and panelists will be given responses from the survey to inform questions and formulate answers for the community.

Panelists will represent different viewpoints in the debate, with some opposed to the policy, some neutral, and some in favor, Chohlis said.

The district has not scheduled a vote on the Guardian Plan at this time. The way the debate proceeds is entirely up to the board of trustees, Chohlis said.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.