9 Investigates how Texas arms its teachers

ORLANDO, Fla. — Deep in the Piney Woods of East Texas, the small city of Carthage is closer to the Louisiana state line than to the sprawling Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.

Agriculture and lumber were once king in the city, which was founded 1847, but it now draws its livelihood from the oil and gas of the Haynesville Shale, which lies beneath it.

Although oil and gas bring money to the region, Carthage remains isolated. The city, which has a population of less than 7,000, is an hour’s drive from the next comparably sized city.

After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, the rural community’s isolation became a concern. Residents asked themselves how they could prevent a similar shooting from happening at their schools. Their answer: arming teachers. Two years later, they were armed.

“This is my 40th year in education, and if you had asked me (40 years ago) if we would ever have to arm teachers or staff members, I would have thought you were out of your mind,” said Glenn Hambrick, Carthage Independent School District superintendent. “But after Sandy Hook, we looked at our schools, and we had just built a school like Sandy Hook -- all the security measure were the same as we had. They had secure doors, there was a lockdown, but by that time he had already killed a lot of kids and teachers. That’s when we really said we’ve got to do something.”

Early in Hambrick’s career, he would walk the chalked sidelines of the vaunted Friday night lights as a high school football coach. He now oversees 2,800 students at the district’s six schools.

Hambrick’s approach to arming teachers is the same as preparing for Friday night -- make a game plan and practice.

“We didn’t ask for volunteers. We selected the people ourselves. We looked at where they were located on campus,” he said. “All of the potential guardians did a psychological screening. We looked at those results, and some were eliminated.”

To train the guardians, the school district turned to a business called Combat Shooting and Tactics, which is based in Nacogdoches, Texas.

CSAT trains law enforcement officers from across the region through active-shooter drills.

The company recently held a joint active-shooter exercise with the school’s guardians and the Carthage Police Department. Guardians also receive other training, including visits to a gun range.

Guardians in Texas must qualify with their weapon four times per year. The state’s law enforcement officers are required to qualify once per year.

The school also posted signs at each entrance notifying visitors that “staff may be armed to protect students.”

Carthage police Chief Jim Vanover described the rushed decisions leaders have made after school shootings as a stopgap.

“When I went to school, we didn’t have this issue,” he said. “But this has come on us, and the legislature had to do something. Is it perfect? No. But what is?”

The agency has only 17 police officers to patrol the city’s 10½ square miles.

“If there was a shooting, we’d respond (as well as) the sheriff, highway patrol (and) county constables,” Vanover said. “Our responsibility to the school system has changed somewhat, because we have to look for armed school teachers.”

Barber-shop owner Mary Townsend said the city’s residents are familiar with firearms.

“You’re not only in the gun belt, but you’re in the Bible Belt here,” she said. “People here -- I’d say eight out of 10 -- they own a gun. They all know how to use them. People here are very serious about gun handling and having guns around children.”

Townsend said that the notion of arming teachers was the talk of the town in 2014, but residents have grown accustomed to the idea.

“They act like it’s been settled,” she said. “This is what they’re going to do.”

Of the state’s 1,247 public school districts, Carthage is one of 172 that arm teachers. The state doesn’t publicly disclose which school districts arm teachers or which teachers are armed.

“No one needs to know who they are. They just need to know they are there,” Hambrick said. “My hope is they know there are guardians on campus, and they don’t know who they are -- that this would be a deterrent.”

The state requires teachers to use frangible ammunition -- bullets that break apart upon striking a hard surface -- to minimize the risk of ricocheting. Teachers are also required to have a concealed-weapon license. Their 9 mm handguns are issued by the district, which built a gun range in a remote part of the city to facilitate training.

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“Every summer we train additional guardians, because we do have those that retire or leave for another district,” said Hambrick, who carries a concealed handgun and practices at the range.

There hasn’t been a shooting at Carthage’s schools. Although the district stands by its decision to arm teachers, it said that doing so might not be ideal for every district.

“I think everyone has to look at their own situation,” Hambrick said. “If their community and their staff is not accepting, they are going to have to do something different. This is the best option for us, but it might not be the best option for everybody.”

Listen to News 96.5 WDBO at 9 a.m. Tuesday for a discussion on arming teachers in Central Florida. The panel will feature 9 Investigates' Christopher Heath, Orange County School Board Chairman Bill Sublette and Lake County School Board member Bill Mathias.

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