HARROLD, Texas – Along with normal first-day jitters and excitement, students in this tiny district started school Monday wondering which teachers might be toting firearms.
"It was kind of awkward knowing that some teachers were carrying guns," said Adam Lira, 17, a senior. "I don't feel like they should be, 'cause we already have locked doors and cameras. But I didn't feel threatened by it."
Several parents said they had no idea that employees of the K-12 school were allowed to carry concealed guns on campus until recent publicity about the school board's policy, approved quietly last fall. They said they were upset that the rural community near the Oklahoma border had not been able to give input.
While some parents said they felt their children were safer, others opposed the plan, which appears to be the first of its kind nationwide.
"As far as I'm concerned, teachers were trained to educate my children — not carry a gun. Even police officers need years of training in hostage situations," said Traci McKay, whose three children are among the 110 students in the red-brick Harrold school. "I don't want my child looking over her shoulder wondering who's carrying a gun."
But Harrold Superintendent David Thweatt said the board approved the policy in an October open meeting that had been publicized. He said the decision was made after nearly two years of researching the best school security options at the school, which is just off a busy highway and 30 minutes away from the sheriff's office.
"When you outlaw guns in a certain area, the only people who follow that are law-abiding citizens, and everybody else ignores it," Thweatt said.
The superintendent said some of the school's 50 employees are carrying weapons, but he wouldn't say how many. When pressed further, he first said that revealing that number might jeopardize school security. He then added that he considered it to be personnel information and not a matter of public record.
Each employee who wants to carry a weapon first must be approved by the board based on his or her personality and reaction to a crisis, Thweatt said. In addition to training required for a state concealed weapons license, they also must be trained to handle crisis intervention and hostage situations.
State education officials said they did not know of any other Texas schools allowing teachers to carry guns. National security experts and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence said they did not know of other U.S. schools with such a policy.
School districts in some states, including Florida and Arizona, have closed loopholes that allowed guns on K-12 campuses. Utah allows concealed weapons at public universities but not at primary or secondary schools.
Thweatt said the board took extra precautions, such as requiring employees to use bullets that will minimize the risk of ricochet, similar to those used by air marshals on planes.
"I can lead them from a fire, tornado and toxic spill; we have plans in place for that. I cannot lead them from an active shooter," Thweatt said. "There are people who are going to think this is extreme, but it's easy to defend."
Judy Priz, who has a third-grade daughter, said that "everyone I've talked to thinks it's great." She said she trusts the teachers with her child's life.
"Look how long it takes the police or anybody else to get here," she told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for a story in its Monday online edition. "If someone wants to come here and harm someone, at least we would have sort of defense."
Gov. Rick Perry has said he supports the policy because "there's a lot of incidents where that would have saved a number of lives."
The Brady Center has spoken out against the plan, saying it may not comply with Texas law, which bans firearms at schools unless carriers have given written permission. If the school board authorizes an employee to carry a gun, then that person must be a peace officer, according to the center.
"It's unfair of us to ask teachers to take on the additional job of being police officers," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign.
Cheryl Mehl, an attorney for the Harrold school district, said the statute the Brady Center cites applies only to security guards, not teachers and other employees. The district has no security guards.