Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan’s new priority bills focus on school safety, requiring districts to adopt active-shooter plans

Mock weapons used to train educators in Harrold in 2018. (Marjorie Kamys Cotera For The Texas Tribune, Marjorie Kamys Cotera For The Texas Tribune)

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Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan announced his support for several bills addressing gaps in school safety on Wednesday, one of which would require districts to adopt active-shooter preparedness plans. The bill, which also expands funding for mental health resources, has emerged as one of the most prominent attempts by legislators to respond to Texas’ deadliest school shooting. It was nine months ago when a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde.

Phelan revealed House Bill 13, authored by Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, as one of his priority bills Wednesday evening, along with other pieces of legislation including proposals that seek to better support teachers, provide a cost-of-living adjustment for former educators and hire more school safety officers.

“The active shooter plan would clarify the chain of command for active shooter events to ensure continuity between school officials and law enforcement, designating points of contact during such emergencies,” Phelan said in a written statement announcing his support for HB 13.

Since the shooting at Robb Elementary School, details have emerged showing a lack of a clear chain of command and miscommunication among law enforcement. An investigation by The Texas Tribune, ProPublica and the Washington Post revealed that some lives might have been saved that day if first responders had acted more quickly.

As part of the required active-shooter plans, districts would need to send maps of each campus to the Texas Education Agency, provide opportunities for law enforcement agencies to conduct walk-throughs of all buildings and lay out the costs necessary to meet the state’s established safety standards.

Phelan also indicated support for House Bill 3, which would require districts to have at least one armed security officer present at every campus in the state. Phelan noted that the bill hopes to standardize the roles of TEA and the Texas School Safety Center, a think tank at Texas State University created by lawmakers in 2001 to research enforcement of school safety measures.

All of the top GOP leaders in the state have said they are focusing on school safety. Both Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick named the issue as one of their priorities for the legislative session. Still, many Republicans remain staunchly against any type of major gun reform, even in the wake of the massacre at Robb Elementary School on May 24. Democratic lawmakers, aware of the uphill battle, are trying to restrict gun access regardless.

Given the Uvalde shooter’s troubled behavioral history, many lawmakers have focused efforts on improving the state’s beleaguered mental health infrastructure. In the wake of the mass shooting, legislators recommended expanding access to the state’s telemedicine system for mental health and increasing the number of professionals in the field.

Earlier Wednesday, senators passed a bill that would close a loophole in state law that had allowed gun sales to people who were involuntarily hospitalized for mental illness between the ages of 16 and 18.

Last week, Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, filed a bill that would similarly compel districts to establish safety protocols for active-shooter situations and create a safety and security department housed within TEA.

If passed, HB 13 would require school staff to complete a mental health first-aid training program, which could help teachers and administrators identify early warning signs for struggling students, Phelan said.

School districts would also receive $100 per student to improve school safety and security measures, though the bill would remove existing language that outlines how these funds can be used. Instead, the bill directs school districts to purchase technology and equipment from a directory of approved vendors that Texas School Safety Center would publish upon the legislation’s success.

Phelan also signaled his support for House Bill 11, which would create incentives for Texas educators that include changes to minimum salaries and expanded access to child care.

House Bill 600, which has Phelan’s blessing, would provide retired teachers with a cost-of-living adjustment beginning in 2024 for eligible teachers.

“Ensuring that Texas children are safe in classrooms is a priority that the Texas House will take meaningful action on this year, along with passing measures that better support our teachers — beginning with recruitment and ending with retirement,” Phelan said.

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