William Hardy Gest co-reported and co-wrote this piece. Holly Regan contributed research.
AUSTIN, Texas — As the country debates gun control laws in the wake of the Newtown massacre, politicians in Texas have a distinct response: Guns, guns, and more guns.
Gov. Rick Perry has advocated that school administrators and teachers be allowed to carry licensed, concealed weapons. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst wants special, state-paid weapons and tactics training for selected school employees. State Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, recently proposed legislation that would allow schools to appoint employees as armed “marshals.” Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, has a plan like Dewhurst’s. Bills have been introduced in the House and Senate here to allow college students to carry concealed weapons on campus.
By way of background: Texas state law prohibits guns in schools but individual school boards can opt to allow employees with concealed carry permits to bring their firearms to school. Currently, just three small, rural school districts—out of more than 1,200 districts and charter schools—are known to allow employees to carry guns on campus, and none of the three have their own campus cops, as bigger districts do. The state teachers’ association opposes arming its members. Fifty-six percent of Texans oppose arming teachers, according to a recent poll by national Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, and only 31 percent support the idea. And yet, the line of politicians in Austin proposing more guns in schools is long and distinguished.
And the press coverage of these proposals? Well, a lot of it has failed to consider common sense questions, or provide context, analysis, or just plain reporting beyond what politicians and interest groups say. The press in the nation’s second-largest state hasn’t mentioned published data on the gun violence rate here or questioned the political motives of ambitious politicians. But worst of all, in reporting on proposals to arm teachers, the coverage has missed that more than 1,000 educators have been reprimanded or worse, lost or surrendered their teaching license in the last five years, for everything from complaints filed by students to criminal charges by police—including some serious felonies. Nearly 200 school districts are out of compliance with the state law requiring background checks and fingerprints.
Yes, the Texas press has asked experts and police their opinions of the various guns-in-schools proposals. The San Antonio Express-News in January pointed out that any district arming its teachers could face legal liabilities. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, in a late December piece, took comment from the National Rifle Association and the Brady Campaign. Austin’s KVUE and the Texas Tribune recently quoted a police chief pointing out that even highly-trained officers can make mistakes when using deadly force.
But while news coverage has hardly championed the anti-gun control agenda, the reporting, like the political debate, has overlooked some important elements of the discussion—among them, one pretty fundamental reason why schools may not be the best place to put weapons. According to data compiled by the Texas Education Agency, over the last five years more than 1,300 teachers (out of the 324,213 in Texas) have lost or surrendered their teaching licenses, or been suspended or reprimanded, for a range of non-criminal complaints and criminal charges—up to and including violent felonies. A more detailed breakdown according to categories of offense was unavailable, but terminable offenses include homicide, assault, and sexual assault. “If a license is revoked or surrendered,” said TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson, “then they’ve committed a pretty senior offense.”
Moreover, according to the agency, 183 school districts and charter schools are not fully in compliance with a law passed in 2007 that requires new applicants for school jobs to pass a criminal background check and provide fingerprints, and requires the Department of Public Safety to notify a school when a teacher or employee is arrested on criminal charges. All of this data is readily available on a state government website, which also offers figures on investigations by the State Board for Educator Certification. The report for the second quarter of fiscal year 2010, the most recent available, shows 400 opened investigations—of which over half involved allegations of sexual misconduct, violence, sexual harassment or inappropriate relationships with a student or minor, and more than a quarter resulted in a sanction or denial of a certificate to a new teacher.