Ahmir Johnson knows what can happen when people who look like him get in law enforcement’s crosshairs.
The senior at Round Rock High School recalled hearing stories earlier this year of a black student who was grabbed and thrown to the ground by a police officer just outside of nearby Cedar Ridge High School. He recounted another incident at his own school a few years back in which a school resource officer reportedly grabbed a student by the throat after being called to break up a fight.
District officials said the Cedar Ridge student was charged with assault and resisting arrest, but no criminal charges were filed in the Round Rock High incident. But because black students are overrepresented in all types of disciplinary referrals and are more likely to have their behavior addressed by school police officers than their white peers, Johnson worries about how law enforcement officers react to his fellow students of color.
And now, as Texas lawmakers look to expand the state’s school marshal program in the wake of last year’s deadly Santa Fe High School shooting, Johnson’s concerns extend beyond school resource officers and city police. Come fall, the high school senior’s worries will focus on younger black students at schools where educators trained as school marshals can carry their concealed handguns when students are present. He’s even more concerned that there could be no limit on how many marshals a school district can appoint — and that those marshals could have immunity in court for any “reasonable action” taken to maintain safety.
“We already get profiled based on the clothes we wear, how we look, our hair, what color our eyes are — and the main thing is the color of our skin,” Johnson said. “[Lawmakers] can’t cover up how these programs might have an unintentional impact on students of color.”
The marshal program trains school personnel, whose identities are kept secret from all but a few local officials, to act as armed security officers — or peace officers — in the absence of law enforcement. Advocates for the program say it gives schools the option to implement a last-minute line of defense if there’s an active shooter on campus. But gun control activists have decried the program because it puts more guns in Texas schools.
A spokeswoman for Round Rock ISD, where Johnson’s brother is a freshman, said the district is not considering a marshal program for this coming fall or in the future. When asked whether the district is keeping its options open, another spokeswoman for the district told The Texas Tribune she couldn’t speak to what future trustees might prioritize.
The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement has no report of a negligent discharge from any of the 170 school marshals currently appointed in the state. But lawmakers in others states with similar programs have pointed out that the proliferation of guns on campus, even in the hands of teachers, make students of color feel unsafe. As Texas lawmakers appear poised to expand the program, some fear students of color might unnecessarily be put in harm’s way.
“After the Parkland shooting, African American parents [in Florida] expressed concerns that their kids might be disproportionately affected by these programs,” said state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, who voted against bills expanding the program this year. “I think it’s understandable that parents might feel if we start having school marshals, minority students might be the ones getting harmed.
“People bring their biases and life experiences to the work setting — in this case that would be the schools — and sometimes those biases unfairly harm kids of color.”
While there’s no data saying the program so far has disproportionately hurt students of color, advocates say Johnson’s anxieties aren’t unfounded. And some criminal justice advocacy groups also note there’s no data to back up the claim that increasing the number of police or armed personnel on school campuses actually makes them safer. Some experts also warn that increasing the number of police or armed personnel in schools can have an adverse effect on students.
“I would be a little bit more cautious and keep my eyes open if I knew my teacher had a weapon on them,” said Addison Favors, a junior at Round Rock High School. “In fact, I would be more focused on that than actually learning.”
“The next best thing”
The idea of arming Texas school personnel is not new. It first emerged after a shooting in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, which left 28 dead — including 20 children and the shooter. At the time, former state Rep. Jason Villalba, a Dallas Republican, authored the bill that created Texas’ school marshal program.
“I had a kindergartner, and it was my duty at my house to drop her off at school every morning,” Villalba said in a recent interview with the Tribune. “As I dropped her off and started hearing the reports of what was happening in Newtown, I realized that this was a risk that existed not only in a place like Connecticut … but also for my own daughter here in Texas. After that, I immediately started looking at ways we could protect our children.”
When he first introduced his bill, Villalba said, the legislation was modeled after the federal air marshal program. Participants in the program would only be authorized to respond to an active shooter or other emergency situations that threatened the lives of public school students on campus and could only act before police arrived.
The bill didn’t pass without backlash. Some Democrats at the time wanted assurance that bill wouldn’t become a vehicle for other gun bills, and others expressed concerns about having more guns at Texas schools.
“Anytime you have a proliferation of guns, you increase the risk somebody is going to be harmed as a result,” said Rodríguez, who voted against the 2013 program. “Overall, I think school marshals give a false impression people are going to be safer, and I just don’t think that’s the case.”
Villalba’s bill allowed for local school districts to appoint staff members as schools marshals. Under the law, marshals have access to firearms on campus after they undergo psychological exams, take at least 80 hours of training and obtain a license from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. Under Texas’ program, schools can designate one marshal for every 200 students.
“It’s not the best or perfect fix for Texas schools — that would obviously be a uniformed officer in every classroom,” Villalba said, “but this is the next best thing we can do to protect our children and know we have the ability to see our kids at night.”
Senate moves to expand controversial program
The program remained relatively untouched since its passage. But after a deadly shooting last spring at Santa Fe High School outside Houston that left 10 dead and another 13 wounded, lawmakers — with the urging of Gov. Greg Abbott — have been looking at ways to make it more accessible for Texas school districts.
In a 43-page school safety plan released days after the shooting, Abbott outlined suggestions for changing the program. Among the proposals: reducing the required 80 training hours, eliminating a requirement that teachers keep their firearms under lock and key, and increasing the number of marshals that can be appointed per school.
“This isn’t a forced issue, and it’s a totally voluntary decision by every individual school district,” said Craig Bessent, one of Texas’ first school marshals and the assistant superintendent of the Wylie school district north of Dallas.
Since the governor’s plan was released, lawmakers from both chambers have filed bills to change the program. Several have already gained traction at the Capitol.
The Senate advanced a handful of bills last month that would expand the program. One bill by state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, would remove a cap on the number of school personnel who can carry firearms at schools. Another measure by state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, would allow marshals to carry their concealed guns on campuses instead of keeping them locked up. The chamber also approved a bill by state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, that would give school marshals immunity from lawsuits for any “reasonable action” taken to maintain safety.
The measure by Birdwell, who did not respond to request for comment, is slated to go before a House committee Wednesday, and another House committee recently approved Hughes’ bill.
“We got feedback from a lot of our school board members that there was a reluctance to participate in the school marshal program because the schools were nervous about getting sued,” Hughes said. “We don’t want a fear of litigation to keep schools from putting safety measures in place.”
All three bills advanced through the Senate with little debate. Still, their passages reopened old wounds: Gun control advocates and Democrats are wary of expanding a program they already consider dangerous.
“Things like [the marshal program] have a way of showing up and having a disparate impact on children of color,” state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, told the Tribune, “but my objection to expanding it is that I don’t think adding more guns to a situation makes it any safer.”
“It’s terrifying to imagine what could happen”
Stuck in the middle of this year’s political back-and-forth are students and parents of color who fear something the Legislature hasn’t discussed at length: whether expanding the program will put students of color — who are already overrepresented in exclusionary discipline across grade levels — in an unsafe learning environment.
“If we can’t even treat black and brown students with respect when all they’re doing is walking or talking, why would parents feel safe if we’re then arming people who are not law enforcement or increasing the amount of law enforcement at schools?” said Courtney Robinson, a scholar whose research focuses on the school-to-prison pipeline.
When Robinson, who is also the black mother of two kids at Pflugerville schools, first learned about the program — and legislation to expand it — from other professionals who work in her field, she immediately considered moving her youngest daughter to a new school should her district ever implement the program.
“Even when our children are young,” she said, “in some ways they’ve been imagined as more aggressive and more dangerous. With an expansion of the marshal program, it’s terrifying to imagine what could happen.”
According to Texas Education Association data for the 2017-18 school year analyzed by the advocacy group Texas Appleseed, black students made up 25% of in-school suspensions and 33% of out-of-school suspensions even though they represent just 13% of the student body population.
Children of color are also more likely to receive harsher punishments than their peers for the same behaviors, said Ellen Stone, the director of research for Texas Appleseed. That disproportionately exists in all levels of public schooling.
“Black youth aren’t more likely to misbehave, but they’re more likely to get punished,” Stone said.
That's why black students and parents are sounding the alarm about the school marshal program and an increase of firearms on campuses.
"There’s a long history of a complicated relationship with the police in the black community,” Robinson said, “so police and guns and safety aren’t synonymous for us.”
Implicit bias and lingering hesitations
Those looking to expand the program insist that marshals would be trained to neutralize and confront an active shooter only in a situation when someone goes to campus and is actively threatening kids’ lives.
“It seems we need to work on relations between the police and the community,” Hughes said. “At the same time, we cannot keep that from taking reasonable steps for school safety. The school marshal programs exist to protect all students — regardless of their race.”
But rather than expanding the program, Robinson, Johnson and Favors said they’re pulling for legislative changes like increased mental health programs for students, putting more counselors in place, and “hardening” schools through the installation of bulletproof windows and locks on doors.
The Texas Senate overwhelmingly approved a broad school safety bill Monday that would strengthen mental health initiatives in Texas schools, among other things.
Johnson said it might help if school personnel who choose to become marshals undergo required training on cultural sensitivity and implicit bias — but he’s still hesitant.
“I have dreads, I’m African American, so as soon as people see me, they open up the book and just read me. That’s something I’m going to have to deal with my whole life,” Johnson said. “Training might help, but at the end of the day, teachers having guns at their disposal is not right in my eyes.”
Disclosure: Texas Appleseed has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.