Dawn Poitevent’s 7-year-old son, Hayes, is deathly afraid of school now. He’s scared of getting shot.
The Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District student just finished first grade at Dalton Elementary and would have advanced to Robb Elementary next school year. But that’s not going to happen in the wake of the May 24 massacre at the school in which 19 children and two teachers were killed.
“My son’s been expressing how he’s scared to go to school, any school, right now because the bad man’s going to come shoot him, too,” Poitevent said, her voice breaking as she talked to reporters outside the district’s boardroom last week.
Hayes isn’t the only one who is afraid.
Fear is the overriding emotion driving this moment in education. Despite all the discussions and debates on how to prevent a tragedy like the Uvalde shooting from happening again and ensuring the safety of students and school personnel, no clear path on how to move forward has emerged.
While Gov. Greg Abbott has directed state agencies to ensure schools are more secure, some believe that is not enough to protect students and teachers from another tragedy. Others have suggested arming teachers, which is already permitted under the state’s Guardian Plan. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and other Republicans have called for schools to have one entry door guarded by armed police officers, which experts have called impractical.
The answer isn’t any one of those things but rather a combination of securing schools, enacting gun restrictions and providing adequate mental health care in every community, said Dan DeFrain, a retired Chicago teacher who now lives in San Marcos. He visited Uvalde last week with his wife and their friends.
“It’s going to take a multi-pronged approach,” he said. “The schools don’t have the money to do all this, and the state and the federal government are going to have to fund it. The question becomes how many children are going to die before they do that.”
In a letter, Abbott last week directed state Education Commissioner Mike Morath to do more to ensure that schools are held to “heightened safety standards,” although he did not define what those standards were, and ordered Morath to “provide ways to make schools safer.”
“In the wake of this devastating crime, we must redouble our efforts to ensure that our schools provide a safe and secure environment for the children of Texas,” Abbott wrote to Morath.
Additionally, Abbott instructed Morath to determine the costs for school districts to comply with the strengthened safety standards the commissioner adopts, with a deadline of Sept. 1, and to direct school districts to inspect exterior doors weekly to “verify they are secure during school hours.” He also told Morath to develop strategies that would lead to more police officers and school marshals on campuses.
This work would build on Senate Bill 11, which the state Legislature adopted in 2019 after a 17-year-old killed 10 classmates and injured 13 others in the Santa Fe High School shooting outside Houston.
The law provides an annual allotment per student for Texas schools to fund safety, such as staff training and new equipment. Under the law, school districts must adopt an emergency operations plan that addresses multiple threats and submit this in a safety and security audit to the Texas School Safety Center for review.
Abbott also directed the Texas School Safety Center to conduct comprehensive school safety reviews to ensure all public schools follow procedures to maximize school safety. The research center tasked with studying and training schools on safety measures must ensure districts’ safety and security committees meet before the start of the 2022-23 school year to review their emergency operations plans.
Morath is responsible for setting building standards to provide a safe environment. Another piece of legislation distributed $100 million in grants for schools to “harden” campuses, meaning make them more difficult targets for people intending violent acts and other risks.
State Sen. Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio) called that $100 million for school hardening “a piss-poor drop in the bucket.”
“Greg Abbott has spent $4 billion — 40 times more — along the border right now to have cops go up and down these streets,” he said, speaking to reporters in Uvalde’s main plaza last week.
Gutierrez called on state lawmakers to adequately fund school security and mental health resources and for voters to urge their representatives and Abbott every day to raise the age limit for purchasing firearms.
“I want to tell parents and schools, ‘do you want to have to go through what these people are going through?’ You don’t want to have to go through what these people are going through. I promise you,” he said. “You don’t want to have to bury your fourth grader. That’s not normal.”
Vincent Salazar was preparing to bury his granddaughter, Layla Salazar, who died in the May 24 shooting. Wearing a button with Layla’s photo on his shirt, he set up a table in the plaza to get people to sign a petition calling for stricter gun laws, including raising the minimum age to 21 for those purchasing any weapon and adding a 21-day waiting period before being allowed to buy a gun.
“There was no reason for this child to be taken away from us. We have to make change, and we have to make change now,” he said. “I want my granddaughter back. Can you give me that? Can the governor give me that?”
Ovidia Molina, Texas State Teachers Association president, said none of the ideas the governor is proposing in the wake of the Uvalde shooting are good ideas. Many of the actions Abbott has proposed, such as hardening schools, make it seem like schools are the problem, “not the guns that are coming into our schools.”
“We want our schools to be safe havens,” she said. “Hardening our schools, making them look like prisons, reminding our students every single day that they’re in danger to survive going to school, is not good for anybody.”
While schools should ensure they are as secure as possible, Molina said gun reform laws are also part of the solution — and that doesn’t include arming teachers.
“You can trust me with a weapon to try to protect my class and my school, but you won’t trust me to teach. You won’t trust me to pick a book. You won’t trust me to be a caring individual to my students because you think I am somehow the enemy of my students,” she said. “How can you then say that you are going to give me a weapon and you trust me enough to do that? We’re just tired of it.”
Texas school boards can authorize workers to carry guns on campus under the Guardian Plan and appoint one or more school marshals for each campus who would have access to a handgun, according to the Texas Association of School Boards. A school marshal may be any staff member, but they must be licensed by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement and undergo 80 hours of training plus a psychological exam.
“In most cases, school districts limit employee authorization to commissioned peace officers,” according to TASB. “In some districts, however, authorization has been granted to other school officials or even classroom teachers.”
DeFrain, the former teacher, said he objects to putting guns in the hands of teachers. As an Air Force veteran, he knows the training necessary to understand how to use a weapon but also, more importantly, how to handle that weapon under stress.
“They have to be able to understand how to use a weapon in times of stress, and I don’t think they would get anywhere near the weapons training that would be necessary for that. The school district couldn’t afford it,” he said. “Just think of what policemen go through in training with a weapon, and yet they still make mistakes.”
It remains unclear what it will take to make students and teachers feel safe in schools again.
“I just need to keep my baby safe, and I can’t promise him that,” Poitevent said. “Nobody can promise their children that right now.”