The Palestine Herald, Palestine, Texas

January 29, 2013

Westwood ISD holds public hearing on school safety

Palestine Herald-Press

PALESTINE — About 45 people representing different sides of the “Guardian Plan” issue attended Westwood Independent School District’s public hearing on school safety Monday at Westwood Elementary School.

At the Jan. 14 WISD board meeting, trustees approved the first reading to adopt the Guardian Plan for Policy CKC (Local) Emergency Operations, which would allow for board-designated employees with concealed handgun licenses and extensive training to be authorized to carry a concealed handgun on school property.

Monday’s public hearing was held to give members of the community the opportunity to speak their opinion on the issue and ask questions about the Guardian Plan. At the earliest, the Westwood board could vote on a second reading over the Guardian Plan at the Feb. 11 meeting.

“Our No. 1 goal is to provide a safe environment for our students,” Westwood ISD Superintendent Dr. Ed Lyman said during opening remarks of the public hearing.

Lyman explained that if the plan were approved, employees designated by the school board to carry a concealed handgun would have to be properly licensed to carry the weapon, have an extensive background check and receive extensive training.

Lyman said the school district has already been working on increasing security measures in other ways — increasing its cameras, alarm systems and fencing, for example.

Approval of the Guardian Plan would show would-be aggressors hoping to harm students and/or staff that Westwood would not be a “soft target,” Lyman said.

“Westwood is taking extra steps to protect the children,” Lyman said.

Anderson County Sheriff Greg Taylor and Palestine Police Chief Robert Herbert were asked to speak to the audience about their thoughts on the plan.

Taylor said he is not opposed to the plan as long as the employees carrying concealed weapons have extensive training, similar to what law enforcement officers receive.

“They need more than just CHL (concealed handgun license) training,” Taylor said. “I think if they have the right procedures and rules in place, it could work. But the school board should not take this lightly and there should be an extensive training curriculum. I think it’s a right step to take, but take it very slowly.”

Herbert encouraged the school board to “sit down and think about it — these are our babies we are talking about.”

Fifteen people from the audience voiced their opinion on the Guardian Plan, with the speakers divided about 50/50 on which direction to go.

Dale Coleman said “bullies can almost never be stopped without force or the threat of force.”

Coleman said the Guardian Plan in Westwood ISD would “greatly diminish” someone considering to attempt to harm toward students and/or staff.

Former WISD school board member Diane Davis, who has several grandchildren still in the school district, spoke against the implementation of the plan.

“I am not in agreement with this plan. Before we bring handguns to school, maybe we can get an officer on campus? Why can’t we try that first?” Davis asked.

Davis also raised concerns that a student could overpower a teacher or employee in possession of a concealed handgun and questioned the extensive training the designees would receive.

Dorothy Smith said schools are jumping on a bandwagon due to the school shooting in Connecticut.

“I don’t believe teachers should carry guns. Teachers already have a job to do — teach and watch our children,” Smith said, adding she didn’t think a teacher could do it all.

Westwood Primary School first-grade teacher Breanna Barnes said she was “for” the Guardian Plan. Barnes, a mother to an 18-month-old daughter, is married to a man who spent four years serving his country to protect American freedoms such as the Second Amendment.

“As a teacher of 21 students who were crying on the floor when we had a lockdown recently, when my students asked me what was going on, I told them it was nothing to worry about,” Barnes said. “But after 30 to 45 minutes, I had to keep them calm. One of them asked, ‘What if somebody tries to hurt us, what are you going to do?’ I said ‘Nobody is going to hurt you as long as I’m here to protect you.’”

Barnes said she is willing to do whatever is needed to protect her students.

Another Westwood Primary School teacher, Julie Axom, said she is against the idea of the Guardian Plan.

“It does not make me feel safe at school with concealed weapons and you can’t convince me that it will make the schools safe,” Axom, a mother of three, said. “I hope you take everything on consideration when making the decision.”

Community member James Smith told the school board he had many concerns about the Guardian Plan. He encouraged the board members to consider a taser as an alternative to a gun. He also urged them to strongly screen individuals who are approved to carry concealed weapons, noting that they would need to be trained on cultural sensitivity.

“If a child is hit (shot) accidentally or an innocent bystander, take the liability into account,” Smith said.

Denise Kennedy agreed with the school board’s decision to use measures to keep the children safe, but questioned how extensive the training would be, how often it would be given and wanted to know how the persons approved would be screened.

“How do we know these are people in their right mind?” Kennedy asked.

Another speaker whose name was not available as of press time, said he was worried about statistics that show when a gun is present in a home, there’s an increased chance a household member will be killed rather than an intruder. He encouraged the school board to check on liability issues with their insurance company.

Mindy Cretsinger, who has two children in the school district and serves as a 911 dispatcher, said she took numerous calls from concerned citizens when Westwood ISD had a lockdown due to an incident on campus in December.

“That day was really scary for me,” Cretsinger said.

Cretsinger said she didn’t feel comfortable with the Guardian Plan, but instead encouraged the board to put in better security measures such as more secured areas where identification was required.

Cretsinger questioned whether a person with a concealed weapon might misinterpret someone’s action.

“A lot of kids look suspicious, but that doesn’t mean they are,” Cretsinger said.

Longtime former school board member and county judge Carey McKinney also spoke on the issue.

“My main concern, like Sheriff Taylor, is that the person will be properly trained, not just have a CHL license,” McKinney said. “I would encourage an active shooters class. But parents and the board need to know that ‘when seconds count we’re minutes away.’”

McKinney encouraged the school district to apply for as many grants or special training the state may provide in order to improve security on school campuses.  

“What one school district does or if something happens, it will reflect on all of them in Texas, so everyone needs to be very careful,” McKinney said.

According to handout provided to attendees on the proposed plan, any school employee authorized to possess a firearm on school property would be provided additional training in crisis intervention, management of hostage situations and other training as the board or designee may determine necessary or appropriate.

After hearing the series of speakers, Lyman asked those in attendance to raise their hand if they were “for” the Guardian Plan, “against” the plan or wanted the school district to wait a year. Results from the audience were about even.

Following the public hearing, the board went into closed session to meet with the sheriff and police chief to discuss the plan further.

A second reading of the Guardian Plan is set for the Feb. 11 school board meeting.

“It’s almost 50/50,” Lyman said after the public hearing. “I’m sure after hearing from the citizens that the board also will want to talk to our insurance company and lawyer.”