Photo: Orangefield schools superintendent Stephen Patterson, second from left, and school board members review a presentation on how to “harden” their schools against violent outside threats.

Dave Rogers

For The Record

 

If things go the way Orangefield schools superintendent Stephen Patterson expects, up to nine OFISD employees will begin carrying concealed handguns on campus in August, working as state-certified, state-trained school marshals.

And they’ll have safer-built buildings to watch over, as all three Orangefield campuses are being “hardened” against the possibility of a school shooter.

“This is certainly not an eventuality you ever considered you’d be doing when you got into the education business,” Patterson said Tuesday about arming his employees.

“But if we’re going to make the safety of kids our top priority like we do, we have to adjust.”

Last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in which a 19-year-old ex-student killed 17 students and teachers and wounded 17 more in a six-minute shooting spree did not cause Monday’s discussions, the Orangefield school boss said.

“We’ve been concerned about school security for quite a while,” Patterson said.

At Monday night’s monthly school board meeting, Austin architect Richard Crump began with a presentation on rebuilding Orangefield’s High School and Elementary School buildings after they were flooded by Tropical Storm Harvey.

Then Crump pivoted from school construction to school security. He showed current school floor plans altered to protect students by limiting outside access to one “secure vestibule” equipped with many built-in safety measures.

Patterson outlined three possible choices for his seven board members to choose for campus security going forward.

The first is to continue the current program of hiring off-duty Orange County Sheriff’s deputies; the second is to hire a deputy full-time; and the third is to take advantage of a measure first passed in the Texas Legislature in 2013, the School Marshal Plan.

Patterson termed adding school marshals “a strong possibility.”

Schools adopting the plan can designate one marshal for each 200 students. Orangefield has approximately 1,800 students.

“The board is exploring all options right now,” Patterson said Tuesday when asked how likely the board was to adopt the school marshals program.

“Unless there’s some information that comes to light we don’t know about, I’d say there’s a strong possibility,” he said.

If they want school marshals, board members must act quickly.

“It will have to be acted on in the next 30 days,” Patterson said.

That’s because state law requires school marshals take an 80-hour course before being certified for the job. That course by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE) is offered just once a year, in June.

It trains the marshals to protect students from an active shooter prior to the arrival of law enforcement, and marshals must demonstrate shooting proficiency.

Additionally, Patterson said, once a year school marshals must pass the same psychiatric evaluation required of sheriff’s deputies.

School marshals may make arrests and exercise all other authority given to peace officers, Patterson said, “but only to the extent necessary to prevent events that threaten serious bodily injury or deaths of students or faculty on school premises.”

He was quoting the policy of an unnamed Texas school already using the Marshal Plan.

“A marshal may access a handgun only under circumstances that would justify the use of deadly force,” Patterson said, then went off book. “You’re not drawing your gun to break up a fight. You’re not drawing your gun for somebody cutting the lunch line.”

If OFISD chooses the Marshal Plan, those chosen for the job also will be trained locally by members of the Orange County SWAT team, said John Tarver, Chief Deputy for OCSO.

“If we go that route, I’d like to imbed those marshals with some of my SWAT operators to teach them how to enter and clean a room, if the situation ever arises,” Tarver said.

“The great thing with the marshal program is that my [deputies] units might be six minutes away. Once we get there, we’re going to back them [marshals] out. But a critical amount is the first six minutes.

“The bottom line is the safety of these children. There’s nothing wrong with doing it [the marshals program], but there’s not a lot of school boards taking this pro-active stance.”

Classroom teachers will not be school marshals, Patterson said.

“We’re not going to have somebody teaching kindergarten with a pistol,” Patterson said. “It’s not going to happen.”

If an OFISD marshal’s primary duties involve an activity with students, “they may not carry a handgun, but must keep it in a locked safe in a secure location within reach,” Patterson said.

If the marshal program is approved, the superintendent will have to recommend every marshal’s choice before board members vote on the appointment.

Patterson implied he plans to use current employees.

“I’m not putting a gun on anybody I haven’t spent a lot of time with,” he said. “The names I have in mind, I’ve been around them a long time.”

Names, however, are to be secret.

“If a bad guy knows who may or may not have a gun, it won’t be an effective deterrent,” Patterson said. “The strength of the program is the anonymity of the individuals carrying.

“Nobody should ever know the handgun exists unless we have a bad actor doing bad things.”