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Texas ag commissioner proposes armed guards at school cafeterias

FILE - In this Dec. 30, 2016, file photo, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller waves as he arrives at Mar-a-Lago to meet with President-elect Donald Trump's transition team in Palm Beach, Fla.
Evan Vucci
Associated Press
FILE - In this Dec. 30, 2016, file photo, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller waves as he arrives at Mar-a-Lago to meet with President-elect Donald Trump's transition team in Palm Beach, Fla.

Experts said the plan, announced at the state GOP convention on Saturday, is not realistic and possibly not legal.

During the Texas Republican Convention in Houston last weekend, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller criticized the law enforcement response to last month’s deadly school shooting in Uvalde and said he plans to place “highly trained” armed guards in each of the state’s school cafeterias.

“When our children are eating their meals, watching over them will be a good guy with a gun ready to take out a bad guy with a gun,” Miller said at the convention Saturday.

But political science experts say Miller, whose office oversees Texas school nutrition programs, lacks the authority to implement such a policy. And gun safety experts and school leaders say the proposal may not be the best option to prevent another mass shooting.

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said there is nothing specific in existing statutes governing the Texas Department of Agriculture that would allow Miller to pursue such a policy.

The Texas Department of Agriculture promotes consumer protection, healthy living and economic development and monitors agriculture production. The department administers the national school lunch and breakfast programs for Texas schoolchildren, according to its website. The department also partners with the Department of Defense to provide fresh produce to schools. Other school-related duties include ensuring that all schools are complying with pest management guidelines.

Rottinghaus said a lot of the department’s authority comes from what the federal government allows agriculture departments across the country to do. This means that the statutes governing the department largely focus on lunch programs, breakfast programs, milk programs and other school programs that are connected to federal laws.

“I seriously doubt that any of those federal laws allow for state-level agencies to provide armed assistance in schools, period,” Rottinghaus said.

Miller’s office did not immediately respond Wednesday to assertions that it does not have the power to require armed guards in cafeterias.

Linda Isaacks, executive director of the Dallas School Administrators Association, said Miller’s authority over school cafeteria programs may have led him to believe he can implement the placement of a guard in each cafeteria. And to her, it doesn’t make sense to have guards stationed specifically in school cafeterias.

Issacks said increased access to mental health care is critical in combating mass gun violence. She said teachers should be able to lock doors from the inside in order to keep active shooters out, and classrooms should have more reliable two-way communication modes to the principal’s office and local law enforcement.

The Uvalde shooter walked through an unlocked door of Robb Elementary. He entered a classroom without appearing to encounter a locked door, according to footage viewed by The Texas Tribune. He killed 19 students and two teachers.

“We have got to do something to make our kids safer, but I think there’s a lot that can be done before we put an armed guard in a cafeteria,” Isaacks said.

If Miller’s proposal does become a reality, she hopes that officials don’t assume that adding more armed law enforcement will solve the crisis of mass gun violence.

“It needs to be part of a bigger plan,” she said.

Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association, pointed out that House Bill 1009 already allows Texas schools to appoint their own marshals to guard school premises. Most high schools have some form of on-campus security, while most elementary schools — including Robb Elementary — do not.

“The elementary schools just simply have not, up until now, been considered primary targets,” Lawrence explained.

He said the state could instead focus on training its already existing law enforcement officers. Currently, Texas law enforcement officers are trained “about 3,500” different ways, which has proven to lead to conflicting reactions to emergency situations with officers sometimes not knowing how to respond or whose lead to follow.

In the weeks since the tragedy in Uvalde, questions have swirled around the actions of police, who took more than an hour to kill the shooter, and whether some lives could have been saved if officers confronted the barricaded gunman sooner.

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw told lawmakers this week that the law enforcement response in Uvalde was an “abject failure.” But there have been differing accounts between state and Uvalde school officials about what happened inside the school. Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin on Tuesday accused the state of leaking records to make local police look bad. On Wednesday, Uvalde schools police Chief Pete Arredondo, who has been fiercely criticized for the response to the shooting, was placed on administrative leave.

Lawrence said several of the first officers who responded to the emergency were trained by five different agencies, all of which likely had their own training materials. Refocusing attention and resources on unifying the training these agencies offer would improve law enforcement responses in times of crisis, he said.

Still, adding an armed guard to every school may serve as a deterrent to potential school shooters, Lawrence said.

Rottinghaus said the Legislature would have to turn a blind eye to Miller’s actions or would have to give specific Legislative approval for such a policy to be implemented.

“The Texas Department of Agriculture almost always stays in its own lane,” Rottinghaus said. “They almost never engage in policy-making that’s outside the framework of what they’re allowed to do.”

On the off chance that Miller would be able to instate this policy, his department likely would not have the budget to fund the program. Rottinghaus said the department likely would have local school districts fund it.

Rottinghaus said there’s plenty of research indicating that there are ways to make schools safer, but arming people inside of schools is not the most popular or efficient way to increase school safety.

Sewell Chan and Zach Despart contributed to this story.