united states project

A few bad apples

Texas and the NRA's proposal to arm teachers
February 18, 2013

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.

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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.

This unsettling terrain has been covered in the past. Back in 2008, Austin’s KVUE reported that within the Austin Independent School District alone, 637 employees had criminal records, with 36 having faced felony charges. That same year WFAA in Dallas-Fort Worth reported a similar story about the Dallas Independent School District; according to a local blog, the station reported that 1,300 employees–fully 13 percent–had criminal histories of one sort or another, and twenty had disqualifying histories. But the TV stations appear not to have checked their own archives. We found no mention this pertinent information in recent coverage of the assorted guns-in-schools proposals.

What other bits of context have generally gone missing? A closer look at public opinion, for one thing. It’s widely known that guns are a part of life in Texas: though the state’s 26 million people reside mostly in its sprawling cities, rural tradition still runs deep, and last year the Texas Department of Public Safety issued 149,105 concealed carry licenses. (Full disclosure: We both keep guns at home.) But the aforementioned January poll by Public Policy Polling found that Texans actually favor a ban on assault weapons, 49 to 41 percent. It’s a single survey, to be sure, but that’s a striking finding that warrants a closer look. But only a Houston Chronicle blog post and the alternative weekly, The Dallas Observer, have noted the poll findings, according to a recent Google search.

The coverage has also tended to ignore political motives among, well, politicians. It’s common knowledge that Attorney General Greg Abbott is interested in the governor’s mansion; he produced an advertising campaign last month that ran on media web sites in Manhattan and Albany and urged New York gun owners to move to Texas. The San Antonio Express-News didn’t mention Abbott’s ambitions in its initial coverage of his ads, though the paper did in a later article. The Austin American-Statesman noted the ads were paid for by Abbott’s campaign, but seemed to accept that they were aimed at New York lawmakers, not Texas primary voters.

Recent press coverage–like state legislators–hasn’t really examined gun violence in Texas, either. In 2011, Texas had 2.9 gun murders per 100,000 residents, according to The Guardian. That’s lower than, say, New York’s gun murder rate, but assaults and robberies using a gun here are more than double the rate in New York, which has far stricter gun control, and even higher than California’s rate. There are more gun-related murders, assaults and robberies in Texas than the national average, too, according the UK-based Guardian. Oddly, these statistics have not made it into coverage of the gun debate here.

Of course, some reporters have connected (some of) the dots. The liberal Texas Observer, for one, did recently make the point that day-to-day gun violence takes more lives than high profile-rampages. And when the governor said he favored improved mental health service to head off mass shootings, Dallas Morning News reporter Robert Garrett pointed out that Texas ranks 49th out of 50 states in spending on mental health care. But a Feb. 2 article in the Austin American-Statesman discusses ways in which proposed regulations could fall short in stopping mass killings, without noting, again, that most firearm deaths do not result from high-profile rampages. In San Antonio, the Express-News has editorialized against arming teachers as just a bad idea, but its news coverage is similar to the rest.

Editors and reporters need to see beyond the narrow gun debate as defined by what legislators say on any given day or propose in Austin, and ask big-picture, common sense questions. There’s a lot of ground to cover, but on the particular subject of the guns-for-teachers proposals, these questions include: How safe are schools, really, as a place to put weapons? Are teachers really qualified to defend 30 people? How do you safeguard guns on campus from a few bad apples? Why not hire more cops? Is the teacher screening program working well if some districts are not compliant? Is the Legislature overlooking obvious concerns or inconvenient data?

Or how about this one: Teachers with guns. Really?

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Richard Parker is an award-winning journalist and the author of Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America, from Pegasus Books. Follow him on Twitter @Richard85Parker.