Tag Archives: school marshals

From The Texas Tribune: This session’s biggest mental health bill got killed on a technicality — then resurrected

This session’s biggest mental health bill got killed on a technicality — then resurrected” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, has tried to kill several bills this session. Photo by Juan Figueroa/The Texas Tribune

A major mental health bill prioritized by the state’s top leaders as a way to help prevent school shootings was partially revived late Tuesday night hours after it appeared to have been abruptly killed on a technicality during a dramatic night in the Texas House.

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, raised a “point of order” on Senate Bill 10, which created a Texas Mental Health Consortium aimed at bringing together psychiatric professionals from Texas medical schools and other health care providers to connect children to mental health services. Stickland’s point of order contended that an analysis of the bill provided to lawmakers was inaccurate. After the House recessed for nearly an hour and a half so parliamentarians could analyze the technicality, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, somberly announced a ruling in Stickland’s favor.

But hours later, provisions from SB 10 were added to Senate Bill 11, a school safety bill that the lower chamber passed earlier in the evening. State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, sponsored SB 10 in the House and successfully amended it to SB 11 over Stickland’s objections shortly before a midnight House deadline to advance bills from the upper chamber.

SB 10 is one of several proposals that the state’s GOP leaders championed in the wake of the deadly shooting last year at Santa Fe High School. Gov. Greg Abbott named it an emergency item in his State of the State address earlier this year, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick designated it one of his 30 legislative priorities.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, the bill’s author, told senators earlier this year that it was her “best shot” at helping students in the aftermath of school shootings. It had bipartisan backing and cleared the upper chamber unanimously more than two months ago.

“I think it was a well-intentioned bill that had some very bad unintended consequences,” Stickland told the Tribune by phone Tuesday night, an hour after his point of order initially knocked the bill out of contention. “I think it could have been stronger on parental rights to make sure our constitutional rights are protected in the bill.”

Asked if he was bracing for backlash from leadership over killing such a high-profile bill, Stickland said, “I expect it.”

Within a couple of hours, Stickland got it.

As it became clear Tuesday that Stickland’s point of order would torpedo the legislation, key players who worked on SB 10 moved quickly to figure out next steps. Zerwas, a Richmond Republican, walked across the Capitol rotunda into the Senate, where he spoke with Nelson, presumably about news of the bill’s fate.

“It’s unfortunate that there were some people who were getting some negative comments from their constituencies that felt the need to vote against this bill or somehow kill this bill,” Zerwas told the Tribune. “And one of those happened to be Jonathan Stickland, who’s pretty adept in finding points of order and calling them, and he wins some, he loses some, and unfortunately, he happened to win one with Sen. Nelson’s bill.”

Just before 11 p.m., state Rep. Greg Bonnen, a Friendswood Republican and brother of the House speaker, made a motion to revive the mental health bill by amending a sweeping school safety bill passed earlier Tuesday. He offered a cryptic message that there was “an opportunity to do some additional work” in order to “further make safe our schools in the state of Texas.”

Stickland approached the chamber’s back microphone with questions.

“Is this something we’ve seen before?” he asked.

“Absolutely,” Greg Bonnen said.

Stickland attempted to delay the motion, asking procedural questions about how the chamber was going to reconsider a portion of a bill that had already passed. He then gave a speech imploring colleagues not to reconsider SB 11, the school safety bill.

“Maybe you plan on voting for it, and that’s fine,” Stickland said. “But here’s what I can promise you: One day, there’s gonna be something that you care about where you might be in the minority. … You’re going to hope that these rules and our traditions and the way that this House operates protects you and your ability to stand up for your constituents.”

At one point, Stickland and a group of lawmakers huddled at the front dais to discuss his attempts to prevent adding the mental health provisions to the school safety bill.

“I’m sick of this shit,” Stickland could be heard telling Dennis Bonnen.

Zerwas eventually succeeded in reviving major elements of the mental health bill, despite two further attempts from Stickland to prohibit the amendment on technicalities.

Stickland has built a reputation for being a thorn in the side of House leadership, under both Bonnen and former House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. A former member of the hardline conservative Freedom Caucus, which he resigned from earlier this session, Stickland cast the lone “no” votes on several high-priority bills this year, including the House’s school finance reform proposal.

On a number of occasions this session, Stickland has tried to kill legislation ranging from the controversial to the uncontested. In April, for example, he successfully knocked several measures off of that day’s local and consent calendar, which is typically reserved for uncontroversial legislation. Stickland’s reasoning? Liberties were under attack.

On Monday, he used a point of order to successfully halt a bill that would have made it illegal to leave an unattended dog tied up in an inhumane manner. And earlier Tuesday, Stickland unsuccessfully called a point of order on SB 11, the school safety bill that would later be used as the vehicle to revive SB 10.

It was one of two school safety bills that advanced in the Legislature within hours of each other. The Senate also approved a House bill that would abolish the cap on how many trained school teachers and support staff — known as school marshals — can carry guns on public school campuses.

The nonprofit Mental Health America ranks Texas last among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., for youth access to mental health care. According to its 2019 report, The State of Mental Health in America, 71.3% of youth in Texas with major depression go untreated, compared with the national average of 61.5%.

Acacia Coronado, Emily Goldstein, Alex Samuels, Patrick Svitek, Aliyya Swaby and Alexa Ura contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2019/05/21/texas-mental-health-bill-killed-over-technicality/.

 

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Senate Education Committee winds up last hearing

The Senate Education Committee met late Friday afternoon to consider another round of bills sent over from the House. The meeting was not posted in advance, with Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) instead announcing the meeting an hour and a half ahead of time from the Senate floor. Sen. Taylor said Friday would be the committee’s last meeting. The committee heard testimony on the following bills:

  • HB 637, which would eliminate a law that ties the salaries of the superintendents of the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and the Texas School for the Deaf to other administrators at their own schools. The salary is currently limited to 120 percent of the annual salary of the highest paid instructional administrator at the school. Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) explained that this created a problem when the top staffer departed one of these schools and the superintendent’s salary dropped ten percent as a result. Sen. Watson further explained that the salary would be capped in the budget instead.
  • HB 808, which would require reporting demographic and academic data in districts with more than 1,000 African-American males. Sen. Borris Miles (D-Houston) explained that this is intended to study and address academic performance within this demographic group.
  • HB 1387, which would eliminate the cap on school marshals. The current cap is one marshal per 200 students. This bill drew numerous witnesses to testify in opposition, despite the late posting.
  • HB 2195, which would require an active shooter emergency policy to be included in a school district’s multi-hazard emergency operations plan.
  • HB 2526, which is aimed at eliminating a problem arising when a boundary between two school districts passes through a single homestead, causing the owner to pay taxes to both districts.
  • HB 4270, which would allow a municipal management district to provide funding for improvement projects for public education facilities as part of the long list of improvement projects or services they can provide.

The committee voted to advance HB 637, with Sens. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) and Bob Hall (R-Edgewood) voting no; HB 808, with Sens. Bettencourt, Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), and Hall voting no; HB 1387, with Sens. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville), Beverly Powell (D-Burleson), Watson, and Royce West (D-Austin) voting no; HB 2195; and HB 2526.

House Public Education Committee hears 35 bills on school safety

On Tuesday, March 26, 2019, the House Public Education Committee heard 35 bills on various issues related to school safety. Some bills focused on student-centered measures such as mental health supports and counseling services; some focused on administrative structures such as threat assessment teams and trauma-informed care policies; some focused on school hardening and increasing the presence of law enforcement in schools; and a few focused on funding.

Those who testified during the lengthy hearing yesterday tended to fall into three camps. Those with an interest in mental health, counseling, educational equity, and disability rights overwhelmingly supported bills that focus on the care of students, citing research that shows these intervention methods work to make schools safer. Other testifiers were interested in gun rights aspects of the bills and either wanted to ensure that the Second Amendment was upheld in school safety policies or wanted to keep increased levels of firearms out of schools. Lastly, some witnesses, such as those representing school districts, expressed the long-term needs for both school-hardening structural changes and programmatic and service changes relating to counseling, mental health, and emotional health.

North East ATPE President Laura Herrera testified in support of a school safety bill during the House Public Education Committee hearing on March 26, 2019.

Rep. Greg Bonnen’s (R-Friendswood and the Speaker’s brother) House Bill (HB) 17 was the largest bill of the day and incorporated many of the concepts that other bills on the agenda also offered. Rep. Bonnen shared a newer version of his bill with the committee that would do the following:

  • Allow the Commissioner of Education to create rules on best practices for safe and secure facilities.
  • Require local mental health authorities (LMHAs) to employ a non-physician mental health professional as a resource for school districts.
  • Require that a trauma-informed care policy be included in school district improvement plans and address awareness and implementation of trauma-informed practices through TEA-approved training for new employees (which may also be incorporated into staff development).
  • Create an exception for minimum minutes of operation so that educators can attend a school safety training course.
  • Require multi-hazard emergency operations plans to incorporate the work of the Texas School Safety Center (TxSSC) and follow stringent preparedness guidelines. District multi-hazard plans would be reviewed and districts would be given a chance to make corrections. If districts fail to submit or correct the plan, they would be subject to conservatorship, just as with accountability sanctions.
  • Require a district that receives notice of noncompliance for their security and safety audit or their multi-hazard plan to hold a public hearing and provide information to the public.
  • Require that school safety and security committee participants include a variety of new individuals, including law enforcement representatives, a teacher, and parents.
  • Establish threat assessment teams for each campus, which would be responsible for determining the appropriate method of assessment and intervention, as well as identifying and reporting students who risk a serious threat of violence to others or themselves. The TxSSC must create model threat assessment team policies and procedures, including procedures for the referral of a student to an LMHA, health care provider, or special education evaluation.
  • Create a “school safety allotment” at an unspecified amount to be used to improve school safety and security through school facilities and technology, law enforcement and school marshals, and training and planning (including prevention such as mental health personnel).
  • Allow bonds to be issued for retrofitting school buses or purchasing/retrofitting other vehicles for safety or emergency purposes.

ATPE did not testify orally on any of the bills heard yesterday, but did register a position in support of the following bills:

  • HB 1312 (Moody, D-El Paso): Would allow a district to contract with a LMHA to provide mental health services. The Human Health and Services Commission (HHSC) would let school districts enroll as providers so that they can receive Medicaid reimbursements for providing the services.
  • HB 1496 (Metcalf, et al., R-Conroe): Would require law enforcement officials who learn of a school violence threat to let the superintendent know as soon as possible. The superintendent would then notify appropriate personnel.
  • HB 1754 (Bonnen, G., et al., R-Friendswood): Would create a $50 per student “school safety allotment” that can be used for school hardening and prevention and treatment programs for addressing adverse childhood experiences.
  • HB 2511 (Allen, D-Houston): Would require campus improvement plans to include goals and methods for bullying prevention and dropout deterrence, including providing teacher continuing education and materials or training for parents.
  • HB 2994 (Talarico, et al., D-Round Rock): Would require the commissioner to develop mental health training materials for school districts to use. The commissioner must consult with teachers and mental health professionals and make the training available through various methods.
  • HB 3411 (Allison, R-San Antonio): Would amend the list of programs created by TEA, the Department of State Health Services (DSHS), and Education Service Centers (ESCs) to include programs and practices in early mental health and substance abuse prevention and intervention, positive school climate, and suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention (healing). The suicide prevention programs should include components that prepare personnel to assist students in returning to school following a mental health concern or suicide attempt. The bill would require districts to develop practices and procedures regarding the programs on the list.

The following bills were also heard by the committee:

  • HB 366 (González, M., D-Clint): Would direct the State Board of Education (SBOE) to adopt age-appropriate and accurate Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) related to relationship, communication, and decision-making skills.
  • HB 567 (Capriglione, R-Southlake): Would adjust a district’s wealth per student by deducting revenue spent on campus security during the previous year.
  • HB 734 (Huberty, R-Humble): Would allow board members and superintendents to carry a concealed or open handgun to a board meeting.
  • HB 876 (Allen, et al., D-Houston): Would require ALL districts with district police or school resource officers (SROs) to adopt a training policy. Current law only applies to districts with 30,000 or more students.
  • HB 973 (Metcalf, et al., R-Conroe): Would require that the TxSSC report to TEA on district non-compliance with certain safety requirements and allow TEA to impose a penalty up to the amount of the superintendent’s salary.
  • HB 974 (Metcalf, et al., R-Conroe): Would change the cycle of the safety and security audit from three to two years and require districts to check the ID of a person who is coming to the school for a non-public event. Current law leaves checking IDs for non-public events up to districts.
  • HB 975 (Metcalf, et al., R-Conroe): Would require trustees to complete school safety training, as developed by the SBOE and the Texas School Safety Center.
  • HB 976 (Metcalf, et al., R-Conroe): Would require trustees and charter school governing board members to complete school safety training and make charters subject to certain safety requirements. The bill also establishes an emergency management coordinator for each district to lead the security and safety committee and creates threat assessment teams.
  • HB 1026 (Bohac, R-Houston): Would require the SBOE to incorporate character trait instruction  into the K-12 TEKS. Adds “gratitude” to the existing list of character traits under current law and requires each school district and charter to adopt a character education program and submit it to TEA. The agency would collect data and designate “Character Plus Schools” that demonstrate a correlation between the program and increase in attendance and decrease in discipline.
  • HB 1106 (Swanson, R-Spring): Would eliminate the current cap on school marshals (not more than the greater of one per 200 students or one per building on each campus) for public and private schools.
  • HB 1143 (Hefner, R-Mount Pleasant): Would prevent districts and charters from regulating the manner in which guns or ammunition are stored in vehicles on school property for those who hold a license to carry.
  • HB 1387 (Hefner, R-Mount Pleasant): Would allow an increase in school marshals by changing the ratio from one marshal per 200 students down to one marshal per 100 students for public and private schools.
  • HB 1467 (Talarico, et al., D-Round Rock): Would mandate ratios of mental health professionals to law enforcement based on school district size, decreasing the ratio for smaller districts, and allow districts to request a TEA waiver if they can’t comply. The waiver would require districts to document that they tried to hire mental health professionals and require that law enforcement complete training.
  • HB 1471 (Darby, R-San Angelo): Would allow, under an optional board policy, veterans and retired law enforcement to volunteer to provide security services and carry a handgun at schools. The program would be included in the district’s multi-hazard emergency operations plan and include training for each volunteer.
  • HB 1623 (Coleman, D-Houston): Would update staff development to require training on trauma-informed practices, which, in addition to suicide prevention training, would have to take place at least once every five years. The bill would update the list of programs that DSHS, TEA, and ESCs create to specify that trauma-informed practices must include training on recognizing trauma in students; recognizing warning signs such as lowered academic performance, depression, isolation; and, learning to intervene effectively. It would make charters subject to the new requirements, require reporting to TEA on the number of personnel trained, and withhold funds for mental health supports if a district or charter doesn’t report.
  • HB 1640 (Martinez, D-Weslaco): Would create a life skills pilot program on each high school campus in certain counties.
  • HB 1825 (Cortez, D-San Antonio): Would require information shared by law enforcement with a superintendent on student offenses to include whether it is necessary to conduct a threat assessment or prepare a safety plan related to the student.
  • HB 1959 (Hefner, R-Mount Pleasant): Would allow those with a license to carry to have their firearm/ammunition in the parking lot for a private school.
  • HB 2195 (Meyer, R-Dallas): Would require an active shooter emergency policy to be included in a school district’s multi-hazard emergency operations plan.
  • HB 2653 (Rosenthal, D-Houston): Would require the establishment of threat assessment teams in charter schools and public school districts.
  • HB 2654 (Rosenthal, D-Houston): For new construction, would require a school district to follow building standards that include a key-less lock on each entrance, narrow classroom door windows, window coverings, a PA system, and security cameras. Charters would also be subject to the regulations for new buildings. The bill would require live feed from the cameras to be available to police, testing the PA system regularly, and storing an active shooter medical kit. School districts wouldn’t be able to seek bond guarantees without following the standards.
  • HB 2655 (Rosenthal, D-Houston): Would require an active shooter protocol to be included in the multi-hazard emergency operations plan and that school law enforcement complete an active shooter training.
  • HB 2997 (Talarico, et al., D-Round Rock): A newer version of the bill offered by its author in yesterday’s hearing would extend suicide prevention training to all school employees and require districts and charters to provide the training once every four years.
  • HB 3018 (Allison, R-San Antonio): Calls for the SBOE to require districts to incorporate digital citizenship instruction into its curriculum, which includes healthy online behavior.
  • HB 3235 (Ramos, D-Richardson): Would require suicide prevention training at least once every two years. Current law leaves the frequency of the training up to TEA, which has determined that employees only have to complete it once.
  • HB 3290 (Toth, R-Woodlands): Would require districts to include a special threat response policy in their multi-hazard emergency operations plan, as coordinated with an emergency services agency. The policy must use “standard nomenclature,” conduct annual drills, be submitted to the commissioner and director of public safety, include protocols for law enforcement, and be consented to by each emergency services agency.
  • HB 3470 (Allen, D-Houston): Would allow the Texas School for the Deaf and school districts to engage with law enforcement for the provision of school resource officers. Outlines that school boards must determine the duties of the school law enforcement and include these in certain documents. The bill would prohibit these individuals from engaging in routine student discipline duties, school administrative tasks, or contact with students not related to law enforcement.
  • HB 3718 (Parker, et al., R-Flower Mound): Would require a trauma-informed care policy to be included in the district improvement plan. The policy should increase staff and parent awareness of trauma-informed care, implement trauma-informed practices, and address available counseling options for students. The training used to implement the policy should be provided through evidence-based programs for new and existing employees. Districts must maintain the names of those who complete the training and make a reasonable effort to partner with a community organization to provide free training if they don’t have the resources.

Next week, House Bill 3, Rep. Dan Huberty’s big school finance bill, heads to the House floor for debate. Considering the large number of legislators in the House who have signed on to the bill, it is expected to pass easily. However, floor debate opens up the bill to amendments that could change it. Follow @TeachtheVote and the ATPE lobbyists on Twitter (@ATPE_AndreaC, @ATPE_MontyE, @MarkWigginsTX, @ATPE_JenniferM) and continue reading our blog posts here for updates!

Senate committee discusses school marshal, safety bills

Senate Education Committee meeting March 5, 2019.

The Senate Education Committee met today, March 5, 2019, to discuss a school safety bill and several bills dealing with school marshals. The hearing follows Gov. Greg Abbott’s declaration of school safety as an emergency issue for this legislative session.

Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) filed Senate Bill (SB) 11 yesterday, which includes a number of enforcement provisions addressing school safety plans. The bill also includes a loan repayment assistance program for school counselors in high-needs areas. ATPE supports the bill.

Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) kicked off the meeting by introducing SB 406, which would allow school marshals to carry a concealed firearm on their person. This would eliminate a provision in current law that restricts school marshals who are in regular, direct contact with students from carrying a firearm on their person.

Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) then laid out several complementary bills, including SB 243, SB 244, and SB 477. These bills would have the effect of increasing the allowable number of school marshals, allowing greater flexibility in their ability to carry firearms, and implementing a uniform license renewal date.

Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) introduced SB 811, which would extend liability protection to districts that employ school marshals.

Sen. Taylor explained SB 11 as a work in progress and the result of Gov. Greg Abbott’s school safety report and action plan, both of which came in response to last year’s deadly school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. The bill includes requiring districts to adopt a multihazard emergency operations plan and create threat assessment teams. It would require additional grief and trauma training for school employees. The bill proposes a $50 per average daily attendance (ADA) allotment for mental health and school safety expenses and a one-time drawdown of economic stabilization fund (ESF) or “rainy day fund” dollars for school hardening.

Santa Fe ISD Board of Trustees President Rusty Norman testified that school hardening is not the only solution to school safety, and things like metal detectors require an enormous amount of ongoing funding. Norman stressed the importance of school counselors and mental health services to prevent tragedies.

The committee is expected to continue to meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays as needed, with the early focus on the emergency items declared by the governor.

 

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Sept. 28, 2018

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


Earlier this year in the Fall issue of ATPE News ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann described how educators in Oklahoma, Kentucky, and West Virginia were poised to impact the legislatures of their respective states and what Texas educators could learn from their examples. This week Kuhlmann provided an update on what educators in Oklahoma have done in their legislatures:

 Oklahoma educators joined their local community members to deliver more blows to the legislators who voted against their priorities earlier this year – ousting six more incumbents. In all, there were 19 Republican legislators who voted against the Oklahoma pay raise for teachers, and only four will remain on the general election ballot in November 2018.

With the deadline to register to vote quickly approaching on Oct. 9 and with early voting beginning shortly thereafter on Oct. 22 now is the time to take the example of Oklahoma educator’s to heart, get informed about the issues and candidates in their districts, and head to the polls ready to make a difference.


On Tuesday, the Commission on Public School Finance met at the capitol to discuss

School finance commission meeting September 25, 2018.

recommendation provided to the commission by it’s working group on expenditures. The working group recommended reallocating money from the cost of education index (CEI) which uses an out of date funding formula, increasing the compensatory education allotment, and creating a new dual language allotment, among other things. The commission also discussed the ongoing issue with the General Land Office which chose to fund schools with only $600 million for the biennium meaning a $150-190 million dollar deficit from previous funding levels. The commission will have a total of six more meetings in the months of November and December to finalize it’s recommendations for the legislature. ATPEl Lobbyist Mark Wiggins provides additional insights into the meeting in this blog post. 

 

 


Federal law makers passed a spending bill on Wednesday that includes funding for the Department of Education in fiscal year 2019. The spending bill increases the overall federal education budget while singling out specific programs for funding bumps. The bill also includes the controversial provision that allows Title IV funds from the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to be used in order to arm teachers. President Trump is expected to sign the bill. Find more information in this blog post  by ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann.

 


U.S. Representative Kevin Brady (R-TX) who chairs the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, along with Ranking Member Richard Neal (D-MA), has introduced H.R. 6933 to amend Title II of the Social Security Act. The bill would replace the windfall elimination provision (WEP) with a formula equalizing benefits for certain individuals with non-covered employment. Read the full announcement here.

 

 

 


 

State leaders continue to discuss school safety measures

The office of Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued a report today on school safety, specifically highlighting actions being taken by school districts to respond to growing concerns about violence in schools and related safety measures. The “School Safety Action Plan Summary” follows an earlier School and Firearm Safety Action Plan shared by the governor’s office earlier this year. The governor also convened a group of stakeholders back in July to discuss the issue, and ATPE’s state officers were invited to weigh in.

Among the safety measures noted in the governor’s summary report out today are training programs for educators, including the Mental Health First Aid course that is available at no cost to public school employees through their local mental health authorities. The eight-hour course for which educators can earn CPE credit focuses on identifying the signs and symptoms of mental health and substance abuse problems in students. Educators can learn more about the program here.

The governor’s report out today also highlights an increase in the number of school marshals, who are school employees trained and authorized to provide an armed response to violence incidents on a school campus. The school marshal program has existed since 2013 when the legislature passed House Bill 1009 by Rep. Jason Villalba, but relatively few school districts have opted into it. As ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter noted in this article for the Dallas Morning News, “Whether it’s due to a lack of knowledge of the programs available or a lack of will to implement them, school boards have clearly not made arming educators a priority.” Money is also an ongoing issue in the debate over keeping schools safe, as school districts that are already facing deficiencies in their revenue struggle to find ample cash to pay for additional training, make building updates, or provide mental health resources.

Read the governor’s latest School Safety Action Plan Summary here. Read ATPE’s associated press statement here.

SBOE Chair Donna Bahorich addresses school safety issues as part of a federal panel on Aug. 28, 2018.

On Tuesday, Texas State Board of Education chair Donna Bahorich was a panelist in a listening session for the Federal Commission on School Safety. The event held in Montgomery, Alabama, was part of a series of listening sessions held around the country with the goal of devising strategies to improve school safety.

Bahorich talked about the mental health aspect of curbing violence in schools, including the need to remove the stigmas associated with seeking mental health treatment. “We need to do a paradigm shift around mental health,” Bahorich told the panel before sharing statistics about the prevalence of mental illness among schoolchildren. She also mentioned the concerns over expecting school counselors to fulfill both a mental health treatment function and academic counseling responsibilities, noting that Texas has been discussing whether such roles should be bifurcated. The full listening session broadcast can be viewed here. (The segment featuring Bahorich begins at 1:25:25 during the broadcast.)

Expect school safety to remain a top issue for consideration during the 2019 legislative session. A Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security held hearings on the issue this year and released an interim report of its findings earlier this month. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates on this important issue.

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.

 

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.