By María Méndez, The Texas Tribune
“Texas has some safety requirements for public schools — but leaves most of the particulars up to education officials” 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.
School safety measures in Texas are largely left up to its more than 1,200 public school districts and charter schools, though the state requires emergency plans and safety drills — and only certain individuals are allowed to carry guns in schools.
Here’s a breakdown of general school safety measures in the state.
While Texas leaders have loosened gun laws, including by eliminating the requirement for a license to carry a handgun in 2021, schools are generally considered gun-free zones under federal and state laws except in certain circumstances.
A 1990 federal law bans firearms on school property or within 1,000 feet of public and private schools, but the law makes exceptions for law enforcement and individuals licensed to carry. Other exceptions include if the gun is not loaded and is locked away or if the individual has been authorized to carry a gun by the district. Texas also generally bans guns where school-sponsored activities take place, unless an individual is exempted.
Teachers and school staff can carry a gun under a state-run school marshals program, which is overseen by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement and requires 80 hours of training. Another 2021 state law now allows school marshals to carry concealed guns around students instead of storing them in lockers.
School districts can also pass their own policy authorizing certain individuals to carry guns in their buildings. The policies, often referred to as “guardian plans,” are determined by districts and do not have uniform requirements, said Kathy Martinez-Prather, director of the Texas School Safety Center. In most cases, school districts use this option to authorize commissioned peace officers in school district police departments to carry a gun, but it can also be used to authorize other school staff, according to the Texas Association of School Boards.
School safety measures are largely up to individual school districts, but the state does mandate they enact some policies.
“There’s no one aspect of school safety that addresses the needs of all campuses, so the state has an approach that is really broad in terms of the different options that schools use,” said Joy Baskin, legal director for the Texas Association of School Boards.
Since 2005, the state has required schools to have emergency operation plans in place, said Martinez-Prather of the Texas School Safety Center.
The Texas School Safety Center, a research center at Texas State University, was created after the 1999 Columbine school shooting and was tasked by the Legislature in 2001 with collecting and distributing school safety information, Martinez-Prather said. The center assesses school safety and provides research and free training.
The emergency operation plans should outline emergency management, staff training and safety drills for hazards such as natural disasters, Martinez-Prather said. After a 2018 shooting in Santa Fe High School left 10 dead and 13 wounded, lawmakers also required schools to outline responses to active threats and tasked the center with reviewing the emergency operation plans.
School districts are also required to conduct safety and security audits every three years. The Texas School Safety Center uses information provided by districts to create statewide school safety reports.
If a school district does not comply with requirements or recommendations from the school safety center, they may be required to hold a public hearing to address concerns or face Texas Education Agency conservatorship, Martinez-Prather said.
Districts’ plans and audits are not made publicly available, but schools should provide a summary, according to TASB.
“The reason for that is the last thing we want to do is expose or make available plans to any folks that, you know, may be interested in targeting a school,” Martinez-Prather said.
Martinez-Prather said concerned parents can ask their campus leadership about their school’s safety measures or can look to districts’ school safety and security committees. The committees, made up of school leaders and community partners such as parents, were also required after the Santa Fe school shooting and must hold public meetings.
School districts must also complete two lockdown drills a year, Martinez-Prather said.
In response to the Santa Fe school shooting, state lawmakers also required every school to have a behavioral threat assessment team.
The behavioral threat assessment teams, designated by school boards, help identify immediate threats, but Martinez-Prather said they should also work on prevention.
“It’s about connecting students with appropriate supports and interventions to get them off a pathway to violence so they can be successful in the educational environment,” she said.
State lawmakers also pushed for more school safety communication, training and mental health resources after the Santa Fe school shooting, but turnover and staffing constraints have complicated efforts, Baskin said.
“There’s staffing shortages for all purposes in schools right now,” she said. “But particularly around the state, there are locations where it’s very difficult to access mental health services. So expanding that access is a real priority.”
Law enforcement and security presence in schools is left up to each school district in Texas. School districts can choose to employ school resource officers, who report to a local law enforcement agency, or commissioned peace officers, who often report to school district leaders. Both are licensed by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement and receive training from the Texas School Safety Center, according to TASB.
Schools can also employ or contract with security officers not licensed by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, but they may be required to be registered and verified by the Texas School Safety Center.
Martinez-Prather said 333 districts reported to the center that they have their own police department, and the center has also seen an increase in school districts implementing “guardian plans” appointing certain individuals to be armed.
If a school district employs officers, an officer may be assigned to more than one school, said Lynelle Sparks, executive director of the Texas Association of School Resource Officers.
“It comes down to, unfortunately, funding and then it takes a specific person to be that officer to be in that school,” she said.
Schools are not required to lock entrances or doors inside buildings, but Martinez-Prather said it’s considered a best practice to help fend off intruders.
“Locking doors during the day, classroom doors during instruction also, is another time barrier and one less step to do when we go into lockdown,” she said.
Schools can also use metal detectors, but experts warn no single tool or measure will completely address school safety.
“The most important thing is building relationships and stopping anything from happening before it happens,” Sparks said.
Disclosure: Texas Association of School Boards has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/05/25/texas-school-safety-requirements-mass-shootings/.
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