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Texas’ new school safety law mostly addresses the Justice Department’s advice. But funding fixes is still an issue.

Texas’ new school safety law mostly addresses the Justice Department’s advice. But funding fixes is still an issue.
4 months 3 weeks 4 days ago Saturday, January 20 2024 Jan 20, 2024 January 20, 2024 3:03 PM January 20, 2024 in News - Texas news
Source: https://www.texastribune.org/
Memorial crosses outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde on Jan. 18, 2024. The now-closed school was the site of the May 2022 mass shooting that left 19 children and two teachers dead. Credit: Chris Stokes for The Texas Tribune

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A scathing federal report on the Uvalde mass shooting released Thursday highlighted the miscommunication and lack of action between the hundreds of officers who showed up to Robb Elementary School on May 24, 2022.

The Justice Department’s report also came with plenty of recommendations to improve schools safety and active shooter protocols in the state. Texas lawmakers last year passed House Bill 3 to address many of those issues, but failed to include more mental health screenings as recommended by the report. School districts believe HB 3 was a step in the right direction, but have complained the state funding allocated to pay for the changes isn’t enough to cover the expenses they’ll have to incur. There were efforts during last year’s fourth special lawmaking session to add more funding, but the fight over school vouchers sank them.

[Texas superintendents say lack of school safety funding may lead to budget cuts]

The report’s recommendations include having active shooter plans for every school, regular meetings between local law enforcement and local government officials to conduct security exercises, replacing or upgrading all faulty school doors and locks, mental health screenings for victims and better communication between law enforcement, school officials and the community.

“Had law enforcement agencies followed generally accepted practices in an active shooter situation and gone right after the shooter to stop him, lives would have been saved and people would have survived,” said U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland during a news conference on Thursday.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who praised the police response immediately after the shooting and later said he was misled about how it transpired, released a statement Thursday thanking the Justice Department for its report. He said the state has already adopted some of the measures it recommended and would review others.

Nineteen children and two teachers were killed during the Robb Elementary massacre nearly two years ago. The gunman was able to enter the school through a series of unlocked doors.

When officers arrived, they retreated after coming under fire and waited for backup. The decision was counter to the active shooter doctrine developed after the 1999 Columbine High School mass shooting in Colorado, which dictates that officers must immediately confront the shooters.

Leadership was also amiss among the plethora of law enforcement officers who responded to the shooting, with no one acting as the “incident commander.” Pete Arredondo, the Uvalde school district’s former police chief, has said he didn’t believe he was in charge, even though the district’s active-shooter plan states he was.

The report authors also expressed concern with an active-shooter training course that Uvalde school district police officers received from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement just months before the massacre, which states that an “active shooter event can easily morph into a hostage crisis and vice versa.” The Justice Department said that an active shooter event very rarely ceases to be a hostage situation and officers should always seek to eliminate the threat as soon as possible.

Texas is already trying to implement many of the Justice Department's recommendations. Under HB 3, the state created a safety and security department within the Texas Education Agency and gave it the authority to compel school districts to establish and follow robust safety protocols. Those that fail to meet the agency’s standards could be put under the state’s supervision.

Since the 2018 Santa Fe High School shooting, the state has required school districts to submit those plans — which must include active-shooter strategies — for the review of the Texas School Safety Center, a think tank at Texas State University created by lawmakers in 2001.

A three-year audit in 2020 found that out of the 1,022 school districts in the state, just 200 districts had active-shooter policies as part of their safety plans. The audit revealed 626 districts did not have active-shooter policies; 196 had active-shooter policies but were deemed insufficient. Only 67 school districts had viable emergency operations plans overall, the report found.

HB3 also tasks the state with setting up teams to conduct security audits at every school district at least once a year. Districts are also required to have an armed person on campus.

In addition, the law requires the TEA to develop standards for notifying parents of “violent activity” on campus and set up school safety review teams to conduct vulnerability assessments of all the school campuses once a year.

In counties with fewer than 350,000 people, the law requires the sheriff to hold semi-annual meetings to discuss school safety and law enforcement response to “violent incidents.” The law states response plans must include a clear chain of command and that all radios must be working.

Each school district is also required to give the Texas Department of Public Safety and other law enforcement agencies in their area a walkthrough and a map of each campus in an effort to avoid confusion when responding to an incident.

To tackle mental health, school employees who regularly interact with children will need to complete an “evidence-based mental health first-aid training program.” The TEA would reimburse the employee for the time and money spent on the training.

The law gave each school district $15,000 per campus and $10 per student to pay for safety upgrades. Lawmakers also gave the TEA $1.1 billion to to administer school safety grants among the state’s school districts.

Many school officials have said those amounts aren’t enough. State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a San Antonio Democrat who represents Uvalde, voted against HB 3 last year because of the funding concerns.

“It is sick and twisted that we have the largest budget surplus in Texas history and we aren’t doing a damn thing to keep our kids safe,” he said during a Senate debate on the bill referring to last year’s $32.7 billion budget surplus. “We aren’t doing anything to prevent another Uvalde.”

Lawmakers tried to give school districts more money to beef up security on campuses late last year. School districts were close to receiving an additional $1 billion for school safety but the legislation stalled after school voucher legislation failed to pass. Abbott had vowed to veto any new public education funding if it didn’t come in hand with a voucher proposal, his top legislative priority last year.

School officials were already struggling to meet the safety requirements in HB 3, like the mandate to staff every campus with an armed officer. Dallas Independent School District Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde told The Texas Tribune last month that with more than 220 campuses, the district needs $3 million annually to post trained security guards at every school. While the district did receive grants from the state, Elizalde believes they aren’t a reliable source of funding for the future. And if the district doesn’t receive more money to pay for safety improvements, it may have to cut programs and potentially lay off staff.

“That has become our biggest obstacle — how do you, time and time again, continue to make cuts to make sure that we have the safest schools possible?” Elizalde said.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/01/19/texas-school-safety-uvalde-doj-report/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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