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Texas leader's new plan calls for armed guards in all school cafeterias

The Texas agriculture commissioner's idea comes after the Uvalde school shooting that killed 19 students and two teachers.

AUSTIN, Texas — Editor's note: See this full report Monday during KVUE Midday and KVUE News at 6 p.m.

A new plan aimed at protecting students from school shootings is raising questions and a few eyebrows.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller wants to hire armed guards for school cafeterias. The idea came about a month after the Uvalde school shooting that took the lives of 19 students and two teachers.

The KVUE Defenders talked to school safety experts and Miller about his unusual proposal.

Over a Zoom interview, Miller said what many are thinking: "What's the farm boss doing sticking his nose in this?" 

To which he answered, "So, cafeterias, something that's always on my mind. And safety in those cafeterias, always on my mind."

That concern prompted his announcement in June to hire armed guards for school cafeterias. 

"If you'll remember, when these mass shootings started, they started in a place called Columbine in Colorado, and it was in the school cafeteria," Miller said.

In 1999, two teenagers killed 13 people and wounded more than 20 others at Columbine High School in Colorado. The following school year, 2000 to 2001, saw 30 school shootings nationwide. 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of school shootings fluctuated over the next several years, until 2018 to 2019, when school shootings hit triple digits for the first time at 113. We've stayed in the triple digits ever since. 

In the 2019 to 2020 school year, there were 114. And for the 2020-21 school year, we hit the highest number of school shootings at 145. That's about a 20% increase from the year before.     

But after the incident at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Miller decided to take action.

"I think Uvalde is really close to home because ... it hasn't been these little babies, these young ones, the one[s] so small and so vulnerable," Miller said.

Miller is using federal law to back up his idea.

He said in the National School Lunch Act of 1946, the phrase "as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation's children" allows him to authorize what he calls "school cafeteria safety officers." And he thinks he can pay for them with state and federal funds.

"Nutrition and health and well-being and safety of the schoolchildren should be of utmost importance. So, I believe from that position, I should be able to work with USDA, receive funding for it," Miller said.

Miller said his team is looking into that funding. He also pointed to cafeterias as "worst-case scenarios," quoting school safety consultant Dennis Lewis. 

But Lewis provided more context when he spoke with KVUE.

"It doesn't apply just to school cafeterias," Lewis said.

Lewis spent nearly 17 years in law enforcement. He now co-owns a school safety consulting company and trains school districts on how to keep students and staff safer during all types of emergencies.

Lewis believes armed security officers in cafeterias are not a good idea.

"And so, targeting one specific area that, statistically, cafeterias are a fairly low-frequency incident of active shooter events ... But I can name you far many more that occurred in classrooms, hallways, playgrounds and so forth," Lewis said.

Lewis is not alone. Ovidia Molina is the president of the Texas State Teachers Association, which represents public school employees.

"You know, if they can come up with money for guards, then they should have thrown the money at us before for four different programs instead of us always having to beg to have the bare minimum for our students and any less than that ... Somebody is trying to get into the conversation that everybody's talking about now and again, somebody is not talking to educators. It's just one more politician thinking that they know what happens in our schools," Molina said.

Instead, Lewis pointed to the Secret Service's most recent study, called "Averting Targeted School Violence." 

The agency's National Threat Assessment Center has studied how to prevent school violence for the past 20 years. It examined 67 disrupted plots against K-12 schools from 2006 to 2018.

The key findings were that "individuals contemplating violence often exhibit observable behaviors, and when community members report these behaviors, the next tragedy can be averted."    

After the Robb Elementary School shooting, Gov. Greg Abbott issued several orders. One authorized $7 million to the Texas School Safety Center for "on-site campus assessments to evaluate access control measures."

Those audits are expected to start in September.

"There is an urgency about this," said Miller, who also wants his plan in place by September.

He said three school districts in northeast Texas are interested in his program, but he's not naming them right now. Miller also said he doesn't have a dollar amount for how much his program will cost, as he's waiting for all interested school districts to sign up first.

The Texas School Safety Center's director is scheduled to testify before the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday. A spokesperson said the center is developing and finalizing the intruder assessments process over the next two weeks.

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