Texas Senate passes bill to strengthen school active-shooter plans

Educators take part in active shooter training in Pflugerville on Aug. 10, 2018. (Rachel Zein For The Texas Tribune, Rachel Zein For The Texas Tribune)

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The Texas Senate approved Wednesday a sweeping school safety bill in response to the Uvalde shooting nearly a year ago that aims to make sure that hundreds of Texas school districts without active-shooter plans get up to speed.

Senate Bill 11, filed by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, would create a safety and security department within the Texas Education Agency and give it the authority to compel school districts to establish active-shooter protocols. Those that fail to meet the agency’s standards could be put under the state’s supervision.

The bill would also strengthen the state’s truancy laws, a provision that was included in the bill after state officials found that the gunman in the Uvalde shooting was chronically absent since sixth grade and dropped out of high school. Truancy is considered a red flag for school officials that a student might need a school counselor.

The bill passed with a unanimous vote and now heads to the House, where it will need to be voted out of committee before hitting the full floor.

A three-year audit of 1,022 Texas school districts released in 2020 found that most of them reported having active-shooter plans but just 200 had policies that followed best practices. About half of the state’s districts — 626 — did not have active-shooter plans at all. Another 196 had active-shooter policies with negligible guidance like having someone “call 911” as their plan, according to the audit.

Under the proposed legislation, the TEA would work with the Texas School Safety Center, a Texas State University think tank that has been reviewing schools’ safety protocols since the 2018 Santa Fe High School shooting, to audit districts’ active-shooter plans on a regular basis.

The TEA, in consultation with the safety center, would also be charged with creating guidance for districts on how to create or improve emergency operation plans.

The TEA commissioner would be able to assign a conservator to districts that fail to comply with the agency’s safety requirements. That person would oversee the school board and superintendent to make sure they solve the issues outlined by the state.

Appointing a conservator is usually the first step the agency takes to correct a school district’s performance before fully taking over its management and replacing its school board and superintendent with state appointees. The Houston Independent School District, the most recent district to be taken over, had a conservator in place for years before the agency took over the district.

In addition, the bill would require all school district police officers to complete an active shooter training program with the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University. The provision was included in response to law enforcement taking 77 minutes to confront the gunman in Uvalde nearly a year ago.

Despite the overwhelming support for the proposal, some senators on Wednesday felt it lacked sufficient funding to improve schools security.

Under the bill, each campus, depending on their size, would get anywhere between $15,000 to $16,800 for security upgrades.

Stephanie Elizalde, the Dallas Independent School District superintendent, said the funding isn’t enough. The district recently had a shooting on a high school parking lot and wants to hire a parking lot attendant plus additional security features. They can’t do that with the money being proposed, she said.

Scott Muri, superintendent of the Ector County Independent School District, echoed Elizalde, saying that while the bill brings much needed oversight to active shooter plans, it falls short on funding.

“There just doesn't appear to be enough money embedded to give us what we need to keep our kids and staff members as safe as we can possibly make them,” Muri said.

The amounts outlined in the bill would be in addition to more than $1 billion approved by both the Senate and House in their budgets for school safety, but it is still unclear how that money will be distributed.

During the floor debate, Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, tried to pass an amendment that would require school staff to receive some mental health training that would help them assess students. His amendment failed.

“Members, we've got to catch these things on the front end,” Gutierrez said. “We failed not just those kids [from Uvalde]. We failed that shooter. We failed to catch what was going on in this child's mind.”

In response to the criticism, Nichols said the bill and improving school safety in the state is “a work in progress.”

“Each session the Legislature has made very positive steps toward a very important needed goal,” he said.

The bill would also require 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.

On truancy, the bill would be stricter on how many days students can be absent before parents are sent to court. A school district must inform parents at the beginning of the school year that if their child has six or more unexcused absences within an eight-week period in the same school year, then they are subject to prosecution, and the child could be sent to court. Currently, a district informs a parent after 10 unexcused absences within a six-month period.

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