It wasn’t quite cold enough to need a vest on a mid-November Texas morning, but Matt Dossey was wearing one anyway. Made of heavy-weight beige canvas, the vest just might have been concealing a pistol. There was no way to tell. Perhaps that was the point.
Dossey is the superintendent at Jonesboro Independent School District, a compound of three low, pale-brick buildings sandwiched between broad oak trees in the back and a horse pasture across the road up front. Jonesboro is a tiny community nestled in the rolling Texas scrubland 110 miles north of Austin, but aside from the schools, a post office and two churches, there’s little to suggest a town.
In January, the district adopted a policy of arming a select group of staff members with concealed weapons as a deterrent and defense against a potential school shooter. Jonesboro straddles the border between Coryell and Hamilton counties, and it’s more than 15 miles to the nearest sheriff’s department. The town is unincorporated, so it has no government and no police. If someone were to attack the school, Dossey said, no one’s coming to protect the kids — not quickly, anyway.
Dossey was standing inside the complex’s cafeteria, decorated with paper cutouts of a scarecrow and a map of Texas. The district was hosting an annual pre-holiday Thanksgiving dinner, when parents join their kids for a school lunch of turkey and stuffing served on sectioned plastic trays. Elementary school students were motoring around the room, which has two sets of doors leading outside. One of them sits loose on its hinges so it doesn’t close without a nudge. While there’s no law enforcement presence to speak of, Dossey, who hadn’t taken off his vest, said the new policy adds a layer of security that most everyone in town is happy with.
“If somebody walked in that door and opened fire,” he said, “we would have a chance.”
In the year since Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last December, school districts and state governments have feverishly searched for ways to protect their students. State legislators introduced hundreds of pieces of legislation on school safety. Many called for arming more security guards or, like a law passed in Texas, for arming teachers. Others tightened laws meant to keep guns out of schools. Across the country, parents and government officials struggled with the same question — Are our schools safe enough? — but reacted with what at times seemed nearly opposite responses.
Monroe, Conn., for example, took a range of expensive measures in the months following the shooting at Sandy Hook, just nine miles down the road. The town, which spreads out from a village green set between two white-steepled churches, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars upgrading district buildings and hiring school resource officers, town police officers who are posted at the schools full-time. The move is largely in step with what’s happening across the state. The legislature passed a sweeping law in April that included gun controls, such as expanded background checks and a broader assault weapons ban, and mandates for school security. It also funded millions of dollars in infrastructure grants for schools. Any talk of arming teachers quickly fizzled, and the legislature actually tightened the state law on guns in school so that only active or retired law enforcement officers could serve as armed guards.
Texas, on the other hand, has not appropriated any money to school security and is not creating any mandates. Jonesboro is one of about 70 districts that have begun arming staff. This year, the state legislature paved the way for more to join them, passing a bill that created a state-run training program that will allow districts to designate staff members as “school marshals,” an entirely new class of law enforcement (districts must pay the costs).
At first glance, the disparate approaches appear simply to reflect a stereotypical divide between two regions of America with their own closely held views of guns and their place in daily life. But a closer look shows that what’s happened in Jonesboro and Monroe in the year since the tragedy of Sandy Hook also reflects a broader set of beliefs about the role of government, about local control, and perhaps most importantly, about taxes.