Tag Archives: shootings

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.

 

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.