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‘GUARDIAN DISTRICT’ PROGRAM GOES INTO EFFECT SCHOOL SAFETY WAS PRIORITY IN DECISION, SUPERINTENDENT SAYS
The start of the school semester this month has marked the beginning of a state-approved program at Cotulla ISD, under which select numbers of teachers and other staff are now equipped with handguns.
Implementation of the Guardian District program took place this month after those employees who reported they wished to carry firearms had been screened and had undergone extensive weapons training. Responsible for much of that education was Texas Highway Patrol Sergeant Robert Ayala Jr., who is a licensed firearms instructor and a member of the Cotulla ISD Board of Trustees.
Six members of the school board voted on July 18 last year to initiate the Guardian program, making the district one of approximately 280 in Texas to begin allowing staff to be armed. Cotulla ISD Superintendent Ruben Cervantes had been hired at Cotulla a year previously from Dell City ISD in West Texas, where the Guardian program was initiated under his watch five years ago.
The school district hosted a town hall meeting at the high school last year to introduce new security measures to the public, but few attended, the superintendent said. Among the topics that day was the Guardian program.
“Cotulla is a little different from Dell City, but I had experience with the program, and I felt that I would be able to do something like that here,” the superintendent said. “I believe the board had confidence in me.”
Both Cervantes and Ayala said last week that they believe all district employees view the change in policy to allow staff to carry concealed handguns as one of several layers of security aimed at promoting a safe learning environment for the district’s children. Other measures now going into place include lobby barriers and secure entry points, complete campus fencing, bullet-resistant glass or ballistic film in all windows, improvements to the district’s student and employee identification cards, and placement of a uniformed and openly armed sheriff’s deputy on each of Cotulla’s campuses.
In partnership with the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office, Cotulla ISD now contributes to the salaries of four full-time school resource officers who are also sheriff’s deputies. When school is in session, those officers patrol their assigned campuses and provide law enforcement coverage at public entry points as well as in non-public areas. They are also trained in crisis intervention and de-escalation specific to juvenile cases.
Although the school board’s decision to launch the Guardian program at Cotulla began less than two months after a mass shooting at a school in Uvalde, both Cervantes and Ayala said they believe a consensus on enhancing Cotulla’s security measures existed before Tuesday, May 24, 2022, when a gunman entered Uvalde’s Robb Elementary and shot to death 19 children and two teachers.
The superintendent said last week that he sees a key component of the Guardian program as a valuable deterrent to a campus intruder, namely that no student or parent, teacher or community member may ever know which district employee is a licensed gun carrier.
Ayala helped introduce the prospective Guardian members to the program and says his training put an emphasis on gun safety, muzzle control, and proper handgun concealment.
“Cotulla ISD has two hundred and fifty-six employees,” the sergeant said. “When I am asked how many teachers carry guns, the only thing I am going to say is that it is any number between one and two hundred and fifty-six. You do not know who is armed.”
A multi-level screening process, interviews and background checks of prospective Guardians helped ensure that only those deemed capable of handling the responsibility of carrying a firearm on campus made it through to licensing, Ayala said.
The superintendent confirmed that not all those who applied for the training were approved.
“We have other staff members who have expressed an interest in carrying firearms, and hopefully we will have a few more every year,” Cervantes said. “We hope to have a second round of training in the summer.”
Guardian school district employees are required to pursue at least 40 hours of weapons training after their certification.
“Training is a constant thing,” the superintendent said. “Safety is the priority.” He and Ayala added that armed staff are also trained in proper weapons concealment but noted that those who are licensed will be required to carry their firearms on campus every day. When unable to do so for periods of time, such as when dressed for sports, they must secure their firearms in a biometric-lock safe provided by the district.
“People have been positive about this,” Supt. Cervantes said of the public response. “The district has always been open to the public’s input.”
“I had some folks who expressed concerns,” Ayala said of the community response. “I reassured them that bringing the Guardian program to Cotulla is only one of many dozen measures the board is taking toward keeping students and staff safe. It’s a positive thing that we are doing.
“My hope is that one day the community will look at these weapons as tools that our staff are equipped with to make our schools safe,” Ayala added.
“In effect, we already had firearms on our campuses before this,” the superintendent said. “We had sheriff’s deputies, school resource officers, and we still do. There are guns.”