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Texas wanted armed officers in every school after Uvalde. Many cannot meet this standard.

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A vision of armed officers at every Texas school is clashing with the reality that there isn’t enough money or police as a new mandate went into effect Friday, showing what more states are aiming for engage in response America’s cycle of mass murder is proving impractical in many communities.

Dozens of Texas’ largest school districts, which educate many of the state’s 5 million students, are reopening their classrooms without meeting the state’s new requirements for armed officers on each campus. The mandate is a pillar of a security law signed into law by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who this year rejected calls for gun control despite angry pleas from parents of the children killed the massacre at the Uvalde school.

Texas has nearly 9,000 public school campuses after California, making the requirement the largest of its kind in the United States

“We all support the idea,” said Stephanie Elizalde, director of the Dallas Independent School District, which has more than 140,000 students. “The biggest challenge for all superintendents is that this is again an unfunded mandate.”

The difficulties clearly limit calls for armed guards at every school, more than a decade after the National Rifle Association championed the idea, in the face of vigorous efforts for tougher gun laws that followed Massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

Southside Independent School District police officer Ruben Cardenas keeps watch as students arrive at Freedom Elementary School August 23, 2023 in San Antonio.
Southside Independent School District police officer Ruben Cardenas keeps watch as students arrive at Freedom Elementary School August 23, 2023 in San Antonio.

The new Texas law allows exceptions but also doesn’t require counties to report compliance, so it’s unclear how many schools meet the standard.

But by all accounts, that’s not the case for many.

The Associated Press contacted 60 of the largest school districts in Texas to see if they were able to start the school year compliantly. The counties, which stretch across much of Texas from fast-growing suburbs to the US-Mexico border, collectively enroll more than 2.7 million students.

Not all counties responded and some declined to discuss staffing, citing safety concerns. But testimonies to the AP, as well as a review of actions at school board meetings and statements made to local media, show that at least half were unable to meet the law’s highest standards.

A major problem is the staffing of elementary schools, where civil servants are traditionally deployed less frequently. But those locations were given increased protection after a gunman killed 19 fourth-graders and two teachers at Robb Elementary School last year – a tragedy where the failures were not due to a lack of police, who were on the scene within minutes, but on the omissions the inaction of hundreds of officers once they arrived.

A spokesman for Abbott did not respond to questions about the introduction of the law. The Texas Education Agency did not address questions about the concerns raised by schools, instead providing criteria for counties to request an exception.

“What these on-site exceptions are will be determined by the school district board, and they must develop an alternative safety standard that the district can comply with,” said spokesman Jake Kobersky.

But local school officials say the additional funding Texas has given to counties under the new law, about $15,000 per campus, is barely enough. In Dallas, Elizalde said an additional $75,000 would be needed for each additional officer in Texas’ second-largest county.

Students are screened as they pass through a metal defector upon arrival at Freedom Elementary School in San Antonio on August 23, 2023.
Students are screened as they pass through a metal defector upon arrival at Freedom Elementary School in San Antonio on August 23, 2023.

In the fight to comply with Texas’ new standards, there are now options on the table that some counties had never considered before: some turn to private security firms or others arm more staff and teachers.

“This is probably new to everyone at this stage of the game. It’s expensive,” said Charles Hollis, chief of operations at L&P Global Security in Dallas, which as of this year had not deployed guards to public schools. The company now has contracts with four booming districts and is in talks with four more.

The combination of not enough money for civil servants and not enough of it to fill thousands of jobs across the US is an ongoing struggle in cities across the country. Last month, a small town in Minnesota lost his police agency entirely after officers resigned over low pay and sought better opportunities elsewhere.

Statewide shortages of officers have hampered attempts by other states to patrol all schools. Florida had problems in 2018 when, following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, the state became the first state in the country to mandate an armed officer on every campus.

In Tennessee after one Primary school shooting in March, the state offered police departments additional funding for each school’s staff. But police in Nashville, Tennessee’s largest city, turned down most of the money.

“With our staffing levels, we can’t pull 70 cops off the streets of Nashville,” Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake told reporters in July.

Joy Baskin, education adviser for the Texas Association of School Boards, said all mandates come with a price tag. “But I think that’s the biggest I can recall in the more than 25 years that I’ve spoken to districts,” she said.

In San Antonio, the Southside Independent School District was able to start the year with enough officers earning between $23 and $30 an hour. Don Tijerina, the district police chief, said it wouldn’t be long before none of them found jobs elsewhere.

“Conclusion: The demand is currently so high,” he said.

LaFleur reported from Dallas. Associated Press writer Jonathan Mattise of Nashville, Tennessee contributed to this report.

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