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12 Days of Voting: School Safety

Early voting is underway NOW for the November 6 elections, so we’re taking a look at some of the reasons why it’s so important that educators vote TODAY! In this post, we’re taking a closer look at school safety.


School safety is an issue that has recently come to the forefront of public policy discussions in the wake of the deadly school shooting earlier this year in Santa Fe, Texas.

The Texas House Committee on Appropriations heard from Santa Fe ISD officials in October, and discussed funding for school safety. Chair John Zerwas (R-Richmond) called it one of the most important issues the legislature will take up next session. The meeting was one of several the House and Senate have held over the summer to discuss different aspects of school safety.

The House and Senate have each issued reports on how they intend to tackle the issue during the upcoming legislative session, and Gov. Greg Abbott has released a list of recommendations as well. More recently, the governor’s office released a list of actions that have already been taken to address school safety, including many by the Texas Education Agency (TEA).

The agency’s plans to address school safety include a $54 million exceptional item in the agency’s legislative appropriations request (LAR). Commissioner Mike Morath explained to the House committee that the actions taken to date as well as the agency’s budget request are aligned to Gov. Greg Abbott’s school safety plan. The commissioner said that federal funds would likely not help pay for school hardening efforts, which would fall instead to state and local taxpayers. Morath also suggested creating safety standards for facilities, such as new schools, that would force compliance.

The ideas discussed by legislators include adding more school counselors, incorporating telemedicine to help identify students who may be prone to violence, and adding more armed personnel on campus — including police officers and staff, such as school marshals. Legislators also contemplated adding metal detectors and asked architects for advice how to harden school campuses and make it more difficult for a shooter to penetrate campus security.

With the terror of the most recent shooting fresh on Texans’ minds, there will be a push to pass some sort of legislation aimed at school security in the upcoming session. Lawmakers will be faced with finding a balance between physical security and ensuring the mental, emotional, and psychological well-being of students, while avoiding turning schools into buildings that resemble prisons. They’ll also be faced with meeting this challenge with limited budgetary resources.

It will be a complicated discussion, and educators deserve to be part of it. But let’s not forget who will be at the center of those conversations: the legislators and statewide officeholders elected on Nov. 6. Voters who care about school security and the steps that should be taken to keep all students, staff members, and school visitors safe should keep these issues in mind when casting their votes.

 


Go to the CANDIDATES section of our Teach the Vote website to find out where officeholders and candidates in your area stand on this and other public education issues.

Remind your colleagues also about the importance of voting and making informed choices at the polls. While it is illegal to use school district resources (like your work e-mail) to communicate information that supports or opposes specific candidates or ballot measures, there is NO prohibition on sharing nonpartisan resources and general “get out of the vote” reminders about the election.

Early voting in the 2018 general election runs Monday, October 22, through Friday, November 2. Election Day is November 6, but there’s no reason to wait. Get out there and use your educator voice by casting your vote TODAY!

House committee discusses school safety funding

The Texas House Committee on Appropriations met Tuesday in Austin to discuss funding for school safety, which Chair John Zerwas (R-Richmond) called one of the most important issues the legislature will take up next session.

House Appropriations Committee meeting October 9, 2018.

Administrators from Santa Fe ISD, the site of the horrific school shooting earlier this year, were the first to testify. The district has since doubled its security staff, installed panic buttons in classrooms, and modified the design of certain instructional areas. The district indicated that funding for additional officers and counselors has come from the district’s fund balance, and leaders are concerned about long term budgeting.

State Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) called the amount of spending Santa Fe ISD has been forced to undertake “sobering,” and suggested that state lawmakers should not compound the burden on local property tax payers by leaving districts to fund school safety measures alone.

Lawmakers also heard from representatives from the Texas School Safety Center (TxSSC) and the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Center at Texas State University. Representatives indicated that while legislators have cut program budgets, demand for services has increased. Because of this, TxSSC has not been able to address 100 percent of the needs expressed by school districts. State Rep. Helen Giddings (D-DeSoto) stressed the importance of training officers in de-escalation and in how to deal with special needs children.

Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath presented the agency’s plans to address school safety, including a $54 million exceptional item in the agency’s legislative appropriations request (LAR). Morath explained that the actions taken to date as well as the agency’s budget request are aligned to Gov. Greg Abbott’s school safety plan. The commissioner said that federal funds would likely not help pay for school hardening efforts, which would fall instead to state and local taxpayers. Morath also suggested creating safety standards for facilities, such as new schools, that would force compliance.

State Rep. Armando Walle (D-Houston) questioned how far $54 million will go when spread statewide, given the testimony that Santa Fe ISD alone spent more than $30 million on safety improvements. Rep. Walle also suggested that if the state is going to gather data on students, lawmakers should also consider ways to ensure students faced with mental health emergencies do not have unfettered access to firearms.

State Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston) also emphasized the need to address students’ emotional wellbeing in order to prevent tragedies. Along with state Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-El Paso), Rep. Wu also discussed the need for access to counseling in particular in rural areas, and how telemedicine may be leveraged in some underserved locations. Morath noted that some rural schools are limited by lack of access to high-speed fiber internet. Chair Zerwas also indicated broad support for utilizing telemedicine in these settings. Zerwas credited Article III Subcommittee Chair Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin) and Rep. Howard with working to provide $25 million in matching funds last session to implement telemedicine.

The committee heard additional testimony from the governor’s Criminal Justice Division (CJD), the Department of State Health Services (DSHS), and the Legislative Budget Board (LBB). The LBB pegged the total of various agencies’ appropriations requests at around $100 million.

Finally, the committee received an update from the TEA regarding the agency’s implementation of corrective action to ensure students with special needs are being adequately served. This is a result of the U.S. Department of Education finding the state instituted a de facto cap on special education enrollment and failed to comply with federal law mandating the state provide special education services to all children who qualify.

Agency staff testified that districts are seeing an uptick in special education enrollment. As part of the corrective action plan, the agency is developing a rubric for schools seeking additional funding in order to provide special education services as they are required under federal law. Staff testified that each percentage point that special education enrollment increases will cost $342 million per year. In addition, staff said there are currently not enough trained staff in the state to evaluate all of the children who theoretically could be served.

House report focuses on school safety resources

The House Committee on Public Education released its preliminary school safety report this week, the result of several hearings on the matter held over the course of the summer.

The full report, which can be read here, joins similar reports released by the Senate and Gov. Greg Abbott. The House report is notable in that it focuses on providing state funding to ensure schools have the resources to prevent future tragedies such as the school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas.

The office of committee chairman state Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston) highlights specific funding recommendations for the following:

  • Increasing the number of counselors, psychologists and social workers available to students;
  • Increasing the amount of training received by school personnel, including threat
    assessment, Mental Health First Aid and training related to emergency operations;
  • Studying communication interoperability among schools, law enforcement and first
    responders;
  • Improving the integration of mental health services and student access to these
    services, especially in underserved areas.

“As we look for ways to improve school safety, we need to find a balance between making campuses safe but also healthy learning environments,” Chairman Huberty said in a press release. “Our students deserve to have schools where they feel safe but not imprisoned. The state can assist these efforts by providing resources for more school counselors and increased student access to mental health services, in addition to campus safety improvements and increased law enforcement or school marshals.”

“In the long run, we are better off spending resources on trying to prevent such tragedies rather than just being prepared for the next one to happen,” Chairman Huberty added.

The 14-page report includes suggestions under the topics of mental health and well-being, school mental health professionals, school safety planning and training, school security infrastructure, and law enforcement resources. You can read the full recommendations by clicking here.

Joint panel discusses student mental health services

The House Public Education Committee met jointly with the Public Health Committee Thursday at the Texas Capitol in order to discuss interim charges related to students’ mental health. The joint hearing focused on the following charge:

  • Consider testimony provided at the May 17 House Public Health Committee hearing regarding improving mental health services for children. Identify specific strategies that would enhance overall school safety. Study ways to help parents, youth and primary care providers support school personnel in their efforts to identify and intervene early when mental health problems arise. In addition to school-based trauma-informed programs and those that treat early psychosis, consider the benefits of universal screening tools and expanding the Child Psychiatry Access Program (CPAP). Make recommendations to enhance collaboration among the Health and Human Services Commission, the Texas Education Agency, local mental health authorities, and education service.

House Public Education Committee meeting in a joint hearing with the House Public Health Committee June 28, 2018.

Invited witnesses representing school counselors recommended adding more counselors, social workers and licensed specialists in school psychology (LSSPs), as well as reducing the number of non-counseling duties assigned to counselors – such as bus duty and cafeteria monitoring. One expert testified that counselors and mental health professionals should be used appropriately, and warned of potential stigma associated with referrals for certain mental health services. State Reps. Joe Deshotel (D-Beaumont) and Cindy Burkett both expressed concern that stigma should not prevent students from receiving the mental health services they need.

Chair Dan Huberty (R-Houston) admonished witnesses to make specific asks and supply hard numbers along with their recommendations, rather than make vague suggestions. Vice-chair Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) noted that the issue seems to be one of capacity, with the current number of counselors lacking sufficient time and resources to achieve maximum effectiveness.

A representative from Communities in Schools (CIS) testified to the importance of wraparound services and incorporating these into emergency response plans. Several members of the committee praised CIS for its work and voiced their continuing support. Lisa Descant with CIS of Houston testified that case management services cost about $218 per student annually, which is funded by a combination of public and private money.

Billy Philips with the Texas Tech University Health Science Center testified regarding the Telemedicine Wellness, Intervention, Triage, and Referral (TWITR) Project. The program provides school-based screening, assessment and referral using telemedicine for students that come to their attention. The program also coordinates handoff to support services and follows certain kinds of outcome data. Licensed professional counselors (LPCs) screen students who are referred due to behavioral issues and connect them to the appropriate care resources, which often include getting the right medication. Students may be removed from school for therapeutic services or for security reasons.

Public testimony consisted of a mix of counselors and individuals performing similar support services. A panel of high school students who became activists following the Santa Fe school shooting impressed lawmakers by offering specific recommendations, such as making additional counselors available and offering ways to reduce the stigma attached to mental illness.

State Rep. Linda Koop (R-Dallas) polled the students whether they would use an app to anonymously report cyberbullying, which is among the ideas under consideration. The students indicated they would use an app for this purpose, provided that they could be confident reports would be acted upon and follow up.

A number of witnesses also asked to provide teachers with trauma-informed instruction training, which they believe will help teachers better identify and help students who may be experiencing trauma at home that could lead to serious academic and behavioral issues.

House committee discusses school security issues

The House Public Education Committee met Wednesday to discuss two interim charges related to school safety. Committee Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Houston) explained the significance of these charges in the wake of the tragic school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, and a list of school safety recommendations released by Gov. Greg Abbott. Rep. Huberty opened the meeting by reading the interim charges aloud:

  • Review the effectiveness of schools’ current multi-hazard emergency operation plans. Determine any areas of deficiency and make recommendations to ensure student safety. Research violence prevention strategies, such as threat assessment, that are available for school personnel to identify students who might pose a threat to themselves or others. Identify resources and training available to schools to help them develop intervention plans that address the underlying problems that caused the threatening behavior.
  • Examine current school facilities and grounds. Consider any research-based ‘best practices’ when designing a school to provide a more secure environment. Review the effectiveness of installing metal detectors, cameras, safety locks, streaming video of school security cameras, and other measures designed to improve school safety.

Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath was the first to testify, and addressed the school marshals program that allows districts to arm teachers and staff who voluntarily undergo special training. Morath noted that this is an option for districts that choose to use it. He also encouraged districts to partner with local law enforcement organizations to find innovative ways to increase police presence on campus, such as by inviting officers to take their breaks on school campuses.

House Public Education Committee meeting June 27, 2018.

State Rep. Joe Deshotel (D-Beaumont) asked whether school marshal candidates must undergo a psychological evaluation in order to ensure individuals who volunteer for the position do so for the right reasons. Morath indicated that individuals must be nominated by others, and stressed the training requirements for the program.

Much of Commissioner Morath’s testimony mirrored what he told a Senate committee earlier this month. State Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston) indicated funding is a challenge for making additional training and supports available for character education. Morath suggested that teacher certification redesign may help, but the redesign isn’t schedule until 2022.

Committee Vice-Chair Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) recommended more mental health personnel, such as trauma counselors, on school campuses. State Rep. Morgan Meyer (R-Dallas) asked the commissioner directly whether the legislature should require and fund trauma counselors. Morath punted on the question, saying needs and resources vary from district to district. On further questioning from state Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston), Morath acknowledged that mental health services could be part of a special appropriations request independent of TEA’s regular budget submission. Chair Huberty pressed the commissioner on the question – clearly indicating the committee is focused on getting more counselors into school with a potential state funding assist.

Humble ISD Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen testified regarding a number of physical security issues, such as fire alarms and building design. Fagen indicated that making the changes proposed by the governor’s office could cost between $100,000 and $250,000 per campus. Members heard from a total of nine panels, covering everything from student mental health services to how schools are designed. Representatives from groups representing school social workers and licensed specialists in school psychology emphasized the difference between their jobs and those of standard school counselors, who are primarily focused on preparing students to graduate. Public testimony consisted of a mix of school safety product vendors and advocates for students with mental health issues — the latter of whom warned against unfair discrimination.

 

Morath suggests developing school safety building standards in SBOE update

The State Board of Education (SBOE) began its Wednesday meeting with a regularly scheduled update from Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath. The commissioner touched on a lengthy list of issues, including the agency’s response to recent disasters.

SBOE hears update from TEA Commissioner Mike Morath on June 13, 2018.

The first item Morath discussed was the agency’s follow-up on the tragic school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. The agency issued letter to administrators Friday apprising them of steps that could be immediately taken to improve school safety in the near term.

“There’s no such thing as perfect safety,” said Morath, adding, “But there are reasonable steps that can be taken.”

The commissioner acknowledged the difficulty and expense of securing more than 8,600 campuses across the state, but offered a list of specific steps the agency believes may be useful. These steps include increasing law enforcement support, and using more school marshals in rural schools where hiring more officers may not be an option. Training for marshals is now freely available all summer long, and likely will be for some time. Morath noted that teachers are not the only staff members who may be marshals. The commissioner acknowledged that marshals won’t be a useful option everywhere.

In addition, the agency recommended administrators review the threat assessment report compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in response to the Columbine shootings. Furthermore, districts are advised to coordinate with local law enforcement organizations to encourage officers to use schools for their restroom and break stops in order to increase the visible presence of law enforcement on campus.

The agency’s most recent action in response to Hurricane Harvey was the release of state accountability rating adjustments for districts impacted by the historic storm. In prior storms, schools at which classes were canceled for ten or more days were subject to a “not rated” provision. Due to scope of Hurricane Harvey, the criteria were expanded to include campuses that were relocated, campuses to which relocated students were transferred, and campuses where ten percent of students or staff were forced from their homes. These campuses will be labeled as “met standard” unless they were due to receive an “improvement required” rating. In those cases, campuses will be labeled “not rated.” Similar criteria were applied for district-level ratings.

The commissioner approved four new charter school applicants, which will be subject to the board’s approval this week. The four were the only applicants to advance from a pool of 21 interested parties. Morath compared the vetting process to that commonly employed by venture capital or angel investors. Member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville) expressed concern that one of the schools up for consideration plans to subject prospective students to criminal background checks. Cortez also criticized what he characterized as misleading marketing on the part of one applicant regarding teacher-student ratios.

Regarding assessments, Morath updated the board on what has been a frustrating year after what he called a “high-water mark” for successful test administration in 2017. Nearly 42,000 students who were testing online experienced a 20-minute connectivity slowdown in April, followed by a slowdown in May that affected roughly 59,000 students. This group of students will be taken into account in this year’s campus and district ratings. Morath waived 5th and 8th Grade student success initiative (SSI) requirements for affected students, but noted the commissioner does not have waiver authority over end-of-course (EOC) exams. Morath added it’s conceivable that some students may have been attempting to pass a third EOC after multiple retakes, but probably numbered fewer than a dozen. In response to the glitches, the agency has assessed liquidated damages in the amount of $100,000 to test administrator ETS.

The agency also released accountability rules for the “A through F” ratings framework under House Bill (HB) 22 and has made some changes based upon feedback from stakeholders. The agency doubled the weighting of high school graduation rates under Domain I: Student Achievement to 20 percent of the score. Under the career, college and military readiness (CCM-R) indicators, TEA added credit for the completion of dual credit courses and added partial credit for students who complete a coherent sequence of courses aligned with industry certification. The agency also adjusted the relative performance curve under Domain II: School Progress. Districts will be rated under the A-F system this year, and campus A-F ratings will be released in 2019.

Member Pat Hardy (R-Fort Worth) praised TEA for its response to both Hurricane Harvey and the Santa Fe shooting. Member Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin) asked about adapting mental health first aid training to students and adding it to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for health. Morath said educators are asking for more mental health training after the Santa Fe incident.

Member Ken Mercer (R-San Antonio) asked about schools using a single point of entry like airports, though acknowledging that strategy may not be effective in high schools, where students are often spread across multiple buildings. Morath told the board there is no one approach that can fix everything and solutions will depend heavily on local context. The commissioner expressed interest in convening architects and school administrators to develop recommended practices for the construction of safe school buildings, much like architects have developed for designating the environmental friendliness of buildings.

The board’s Wednesday agenda includes a review of the long-term strategic asset allocation plan for the permanent school fund (PSF).

Police, architects testify in Senate school safety hearing

The Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security began its first hearing Monday with a moment of silence for the victims of school shootings. Chaired by Senate Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), the select committee was assigned by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick after Gov. Greg Abbott released a list of school safety proposals, many of which would require legislative action.

The select committee is composed of six Republicans and three Democrats, and is scheduled to meet Monday and Tuesday to discuss potential ways to prevent future school shootings like the one in Santa Fe, Texas. Monday’s agenda included considering testimony on the following:

“Improve the infrastructure and design of Texas schools to reduce security threats, and discuss various proposals to harden school facilities, including limiting access points, improving screening and detecting of weapons, retrofitting school facilities with improved locks, emergency alarm systems, and monitoring cameras.”

Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath was the first witness invited to testify, and briefed members on steps the agency has taken to improve school safety. Morath noted that Santa Fe ISD was in fact one of 186 districts that received a special designation for going above and beyond school safety requirements. The commissioner added the agency has secured $62 million in additional federal funding under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which it is directing toward school safety. Morath noted that TEA lacks the authority to implement many of the governor’s proposals without specific instructions from the legislature. The state will also compete for a fraction of $75 million available through a nationally competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) discussed legislation he passed during the 2017 legislative session to provide training for school staff to identify students who may be experiencing or at risk of a mental health crisis. Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) expressed interest in this idea, albeit while expressing a concern that students’ private mental health records remain confidential. Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) asked members to evaluate the current state of mental health services in Texas and consider whether adequate resources are in place.

Asked by Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) whether the legislature should expand the agency’s authority to implement some of the governor’s proposals, Morath hesitated to offer an opinion. The commissioner ultimately stated that TEA is weak both in terms of capacity and regulatory authority when it comes to school safety. Morath testified TEA has only one quarter of one full-time equivalent staff member dedicated to school safety.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville) suggested that local school boards are too fractious to make many school safety decisions, and suggested that TEA study the cost of implementing airport-style checkpoints in schools statewide.

The next invited witness was Christopher Huckabee, who chairs the Texas Society of Architects School Safety Workgroup. Huckabee explained how campus architecture has changed in response to school shootings going back to Columbine, such as efforts to push the public back from campus buildings and direct visitors through a single entrance. Huckabee testified that fire codes are very specific when it comes to having multiple entrances and exits for students and staff. He explained, “Even the best hardened campus are not perfect scenarios in this regard.” Chairman Taylor suggested that fire codes may need to be revisited, and the focus may need to shift away from fire safety. Sen. West asked about distinguishing between fire alarms and lockdown alarms, and Huckabee suggested schools could use an app to communicate emergency alerts via mobile devices.

Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) contended that implementing metal detectors is the only surefire way to prevent guns from being brought into schools in the first place. Huckabee stated the challenge to districts would primarily be one of resources, and warned students may still find ways to get around metal detectors. Chair Taylor pointed out that congestion resulting from metal detectors may create a new potential target in a large group of students awaiting entry.

San Antonio ISD Police Chief Joe Curiel led off a panel of law enforcement officers, and testified with regard to training and procedures currently in place. Chief Curiel mandated child crisis intervention training (CCIT) for all SAISD officers, which involves talking with students and building relationships in order to identify potential issues early on. Chief Curiel testified he believes identifying potential shooters is all about human intelligence.

Chair Taylor asked about the ability of law enforcement to track students’ social media accounts. Chief Curiel indicated that an officer is dedicated to assessing social media posts, but not necessarily monitoring all accounts.

Sen. Lucio asked Chief Curiel his position on whether teachers should carry guns, and how officers would respond if they encountered an armed teacher during an active shooting. Chief Curiel indicated he is neutral on the issue, but warned that “things could go wrong” if officers encountered someone who is armed when the shooter had not been identified yet. The chief also cautioned against viewing metal detectors as the sole solution, and repeated that human intelligence is the key.

“We can fortify our campuses all we want, but that does not guarantee a weapon will not be carried in,” said Chief Curiel.

Sen. Creighton pushed Chief Curiel for a firmer answer on whether adding armed teachers to the mix would save lives, providing that they were well-trained and potentially from a military or law enforcement background. Chief Curiel repeated his concern that responding officers, in particular those who don’t work at the school, would not immediately know the difference between the teacher and the active shooter.

“Having people armed within the campus would have to require a lot of training and the coordination effort that takes place when a situation like that takes place,” said Chief Curiel.

Pressed by Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills) to take a position on whether the potential of facing armed staff would be more of a deterrent than the baseline prohibition against firearms other than those carried by law enforcement officers, Chief Curiel stated that an individual who has determined to carry out a school shooting is not in a rational mental state and would likely make their decision without regard to district firearm policy. Chief Curiel emphasized that the department is neutral on the issue of arming teachers, and would adjust their policies and procedures to accommodate any decision the local board of trustees decides to take.

Midway ISD School Resource Officer Jeff Foley testified on the behalf of the Texas Association of School Resource Officers, and told members that programs to arm teachers, such as the school marshals program, may be beneficial to rural districts where law enforcement may not be able to quickly respond. On the other hand, he expressed concern over such programs in urban and suburban schools that have law enforcement personnel assigned to the campus.

Mike Matranga, Executive Director for Security and School Safety at Texas City ISD, said no school can be 100 percent secured. More importantly, he said, is addressing students’ mental health needs. Matranga indicated he believes the larger issue is one of weakening social values, a lack of personal responsibility and children lacking appropriate avenues to channel their frustration. Matranga suggested that many civilian school boards lack the expertise to make the most informed decisions regarding school security, and opined that hiring an additional police officer would be better than a school marshal. Matranga contended teachers play a different, albeit equally important, role.

“Our teachers are our first line of defense,” said Matranga, emphasizing the role of teachers in identifying kids who are having problems. Yet pointing to the state of school funding, Matranga acknowledged that the state is asking teachers to do more each year without adequate compensation.

Public testimony began with metal detector industry respresentatives. Their testimony focused on the real and perceived benefits of metal detectors, such as their potential to discourage potential criminals. One witness argued that x-ray machines are a larger cause of congestion than metal detectors, which can come in the form of either walkthrough units or handheld wands. The speed of detection can vary depending upon sensitivity and the procedure used for checking people who set off alerts.

The committee will meet again Tuesday morning to consider the following charge:

“Improve the infrastructure and design of Texas schools to reduce security threats, and discuss various proposals to harden school facilities, including limiting access points, improving screening and detecting of weapons, retrofitting school facilities with improved locks, emergency alarm systems, and monitoring cameras.”

Members will hear invited testimony on these topics, and members of the public will be limited to two minutes of testimony.

Abbott outlines school shooting response plan

Texas Governor Greg Abbott unveiled his school safety action plan Wednesday in response to the deadly school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. The 40-page plan, which can be read in its entirety on the governor’s website, is the end product of three roundtable discussions held last week in Austin which included shooting survivors, school administrators and activists on both sides of the gun control debate.

“No one provided a more powerful voice for those strategies than the victims themselves,” Abbott told reporters gathered in Dallas for the announcement.

“I am so proud and inspired by their strength and resiliency,” Abbott added. In summing up the roundtable discussions, the governor concluded, “There seems to be a consensus about the need to act.”

Abbott summarized the elements of his plan as ideas that could be put in place before the next school year begins. According to governor, this includes $70 million in funds to which the state already has access, as well as $40 million in federal funds from the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 for which the state can compete. Altogether, Abbott claimed this adds up to $120 million in funds that do not require a legislative appropriation.

A crisis response team consisting of counselors from the National Organization of Victim Assistance (NOVA) has been deployed to Santa Fe, and the governor’s Criminal Justice Division (CJD) has an open reimbursement application. CJD grant funding is also available for costs associated with long-term behavioral health response by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC). The state has already secured a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education for mental health services, teacher overtime, security staff and substitutes for Santa Fe ISD.

Many of the governor’s plan would require legislative action. Gov. Abbott is suggesting the state consider offering a $10,000 matching grant to schools that draw down federal funds to help pay for additional law enforcement on campus. Abbott also recommends a state policy authorizing schools to prioritize retired law enforcement officers and military veterans to serve as school resource officers.

Gov. Abbott quoted one student who said during the roundtable discussion, “Arming teachers and not knowing who is armed, that is what we need.”

Accordingly, the governor’s plan calls for increasing the number of “school marshals” – armed school personnel who have completed a specialized law enforcement training program – on public school campuses. To do so, Abbott is asking the Texas Legislature to direct funding to be used for additional training this summer at no charge to districts, as well as act to double to number of marshals allowed per campus to one for every one hundred students, up from one for every two hundred students under the current law. The plan also calls for the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to issue a letter encouraging administrators to identify personnel to participate in the program. Additionally, Abbott is asking lawmakers to reduce the training required to be a marshal and to change the current requirement that marshals keep their firearms stored in a safe to instead allow them to keep firearms on their persons.

In a nod to local control, Gov. Abbott noted that the plan does not mandate school marshals, and acknowledged that some schools will not adopt the program.

“We understand that when it comes to education, one size simply does not fit all,” Abbott told reporters.

The governor’s plan recommends expanding the state’s active shooter training through the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) program, and CJD has provided a $1.25 million grant to offer the program free of charge to participating school districts and charter schools for the remainder of the calendar year.

In his remarks to media, the governor proposed reducing the number of entrances and exits in order to “harden” school campuses. This has already been incorporated into the design of many schools built following the Columbine shooting in 1999, and has significant implications regarding fire safety. The written plan recommends actions such as installing metal detectors and controlling access to campus facilities. The plan also calls for installing active shooter alarm systems separate and different from fire alarm systems.

The TEA will direct $62 million in additional federal funds under the Student Support and Academic Enrichment (SSAE) grant program to districts for improving campus safety, such as metal detectors as well as mental health programs.

Gov. Abbott spoke of the need to prevent people from becoming shooters in the first place, and recommended doing so by expanding the Telemedicine Wellness Intervention Triage and Referral (TWITR) project headed up by Texas Tech University, which current being utilized by ten different school districts to identify potential threats before they manifest. Abbott is asking lawmakers to provide $20 million to expand program further, eventually making it statewide.

In order to further prevent threats from turning into violence, Abbott recommends expanding campus crime stopper programs. The plan aims to make it easier for students to anonymously report suspicious behavior through an upgraded mobile app called iWatch Texas, which will is scheduled to launch June 7. Concomitant with this, Abbott recommends increasing the number of fusion centers that identify threats that appear on social media in order to allow law enforcement to intervene before an event occurs.

Abbott further suggested allowing educators to remove threatening students from the classroom through a zero-tolerance policy for students who commit assault. Noting that the 85th Texas Legislature passed a law removing teachers who assault students, the governor is now asking legislators for a law removing students who assault teachers.

The governor also outline a number of steps aimed to enhance gun safety.

“I can assure you, I will never allow second amendment rights to be infringed, but I will always promote responsible gun ownership,” said Abbott.

The governor pointed to current law requiring gun owners to safely store firearms from children under the age of 17. Because the Santa Fe shooter was 17 years old, his parents cannot be criminally charged under this statute. Gov. Abbott suggested lawmakers change the law to apply to “children 17 years of age and younger.”

Furthermore, the governor advocates requiring gun owners report lost or stolen firearms to police, and requiring courts report mental health adjudications within 48 hours, instead of the current 30 days, in order to prevent mentally ill people from purchasing firearms. Gov. Abbott is asking lawmakers to consider mental health protective order procedures that would allow family or law enforcement to remove firearms from the home of someone who has proven to be a danger to themselves and others. This would be accomplished in a manner respectful of due process, and for a specified period of time.

Gov. Abbott concluded by listing his top recommendation as greater investment in mental health, especially in crisis intervention counselors. Abbott called the plan outlined Wednesday “a starting point, not an ending place.”

The governor disclosed he will soon be participating in a program to educate the public about safe storage and use of gun locks, as well as pursuing a grant program to provide $1 million for 100,000 free gun locks.

Asked what must change over the summer, Gov. Abbott answered that schools must ramp up personnel and strategies to show a greater law enforcement presence. Additionally, the governor said schools should focus on active shooter training, going back over school safety plans and look into implementing TWITR program.

Questioned about calls from a handful of lawmakers for a special session this summer focused on school shootings, Gov. Abbott told reporters he remains open to calling one if there is a consensus of legislators in favor of passing specific legislation. Abbott also correctly noted the constraints of the legislative process would make any laws passed in a special session unlikely to take effect before the next school year begins.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: May 25, 2018

Here’s your weekly wrap-up of education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


You did it! Tuesday, May 22nd turned out to be a great night for pro-public education candidates in our state, and it’s all because of the concerned educators and members of the public that turned out in the primary runoffs. The power of Texas educators was on full display as 80% of runoff candidates backed by ATPE-PAC or ATPE Direct triumphed over their opponents. A more thorough breakdown of all of the races can be found in this post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins. While these victories may be sweet, remember that the fight isn’t over just yet. The general election in November is right around the corner, and educators must stay engaged!


Despite the concerted efforts of voucher supporters in Congress, ATPE and its federal lobby team in Washington D.C. were able to quell the passage of a voucher aimed at military-connected families. Along with many other opponents of the legislation, including the Military Coalition, we were able to successfully stop the most recent attempt to advance harmful voucher legislation. This most recent attempt would have amended a voucher onto the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 (NDAA). More information on the failed amendment and ATPE’s efforts to stop it can be found in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann.


 

ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter testifying before House Public Education Committee May 24, 2018.

The Texas House Public Education (HPE) Committee met on Thursday to discuss its assigned interim charges on special education and standardized testing.TEA Commissioner Mike Morath offered testimony on the STAAR test, the effectiveness of the writing portion of the test, and how that portion is graded.Morath also spoke on the agency’s response to the tragic shooting in Santa Fe, which include providing attendance waivers and seeking federal funds for emergency response. ATPE lobbyist Monty Exter provided testimony on the specificity of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) and other topics. The committee also heard from a panel of superintendents, TEA Deputy Commissioner Penny Schwinn, and special education advocates. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins provides a thorough recap of the meeting.

 


 

Commissioner update on Santa Fe shooting, STAAR glitches

Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Houston) opened Thursday’s interim meeting of the House Committee on Public Education by acknowledging the tragic school shooting in the town of Santa Fe, south of Houston. The chairman invited Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath to update the committee on the agency’s response to date.

TEA Commissioner Mike Morath addressing House Public Education Committee May 24, 2018.

Morath indicated that the agenda is providing attendance waivers and working to secure federal school violence funds for Santa Fe ISD. The commissioner is participating in a series of roundtable discussions on school shootings hosted this week by Gov. Greg Abbott, and testified that he is evaluating ideas raised in these discussions to determine which are actionable. While some ideas could be implemented by the agency, others would require legislative action.

“The challenges are legion,” said Morath, noting that Texas is home to some 8,600 school campuses.

Elaborating on the school violence funds available from the U.S. Department of Education through Project SERV (School Emergency Response to Violence) grants, Morath said Broward County Florida, the site of the Parkland school shooting, received roughly a million dollars. Any additional federal funding would likely require a congressional appropriation.

Asked by Chair Huberty to explain the delay in information reaching Santa Fe High School parents on the day of the shooting, Morath explained medical reporting on casualties and the process of investigating and securing the premises both took time. Morath pointed out the response included 12 law enforcement agencies, and suggested more interdisciplinary drills could be helpful.

Wrapping up the discussion, Huberty indicated that he has been involved in talks with other state leaders to develop a joint effort to address school shootings next session.

Huberty also asked the commissioner to update the committee on the most recent glitch during STAAR test administration. Morath said the latest involved 29,000 mostly special education students who were taking the test online. A subcontractor for ETS, the test administrator, was performing a “bug fix” that resulted in servers dramatically slowing down. The agency is issuing a letter to administrators regarding the problem and is waiving School Success Initiative (SSI) requirements for Fifth grade students affected by the glitch. These 29,000 students will be factored out of local and district accountability unless including them would raise campus and district scores.

Huberty point out this is the second year in the past three to see problems under the ETS contract. Morath testified the agency has levied a $100,000 fine against ETS and will rebid the contract beginning in June.