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Texas Senate passes school safety bill that would require districts to bolster their active-shooter plans

By Brian Lopez, The Texas Tribune

Texas Senate passes school safety bill that would require districts to bolster their active-shooter plans” 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.

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The Texas Senate on Sunday gave final approval to a priority school safety bill that gives the state more power to compel school districts to create active-shooter plans, requires mental health training for certain employees and puts restrictions on those who carry a gun in school.

The Senate unanimously passed its latest version of House Bill 3, authored by Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock. The bill now heads back to the House, which needs to either accept the new version or negotiate the differences with the Senate before the legislation heads to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

The proposal requires 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 conduct checks of a school district’s buildings at least once every five years to make sure they are following the state’s safety standards. In the Uvalde shooting, the gunman entered Robb Elementary through a backdoor that failed to properly lock.

Similarly to Senate Bill 11, authored by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, HB 3 would create a safety and security department within the Texas Education Agency and give it the authority to compel school districts to establish robust active-shooter protocols. Those that fail to meet the agency’s standards could be put under the state’s supervision.

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.

Both chambers have said school safety is a priority this session after a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at a Uvalde elementary school last year. Both have passed school safety legislation, such as a Senate bill that includes many of the provisions in the House bill passed Sunday. However, parents of the Uvalde victims were left disappointed after the raise-the-age bill they advocated for was not brought up for a vote on the House floor. The bill would have changed the age to legally purchase semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21.

In their budget proposals for the next two years, the House allocated $1.6 billion for school security while the Senate called for an investment of nearly $1.3 billion. Members from both chambers are still negotiating what will make it in the final budget.

Already, the chambers sent Senate Bill 838, authored by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, to Abbott’s desk. It would require districts to use part of their school safety budget to place silent panic alert buttons in each classroom. The buttons would immediately alert law enforcement agencies during emergencies. The proposal appears to be in response to the police radio failures inside Robb Elementary during the Uvalde shooting.

The version of HB 3 that passed in the Senate removes two key components from Burrows’ bill: it eliminates a requirement for schools to have an armed security officer at every campus and lowers the money schools get to invest in securing their campuses from $100 to $10 per student. Currently, that figure is at $9.72.

Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, tried to amend the bill to raise the allotment to $100 once again, but it failed.

“I know that it’s an expensive amendment. I just don’t want any of us to go home and hear from our constituents that we provided them some more unfunded mandates,” Menéndez said.

This version also adds that those that carry a weapon on campus cannot act as law enforcement such as making arrests unless it is to prevent a death or a serious bodily injury.

The bill does keep a provision where each campus would get $15,000 for security upgrades on top of other allotments already included in both chambers’ budget proposals.

Under this bill, school employees that regularly interact with children would need to complete an “evidence-based mental health first-aid training program.” The Texas Education Agency would reimburse the employee for the time and money spent on the training.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, tried to add an amendment that would give schools $100,000 to address mental health needs, but ultimately, took it down as Nichols, the bill’s sponsor, said HB 3 was not the right “vehicle” for such amendment and lawmakers would instead study mental health funding in schools during the interim.

“Are we doing what is necessary in order to actually fund the school districts and specifically mental health because every time we have a school shooting, or mass shooting, we’re always talking about mental health,” West said.

Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, argued that lawmakers this session are infusing more money into mental health programs. In the budget, lawmakers have set aside $15 million for mental health grants and several bills still waiting to be passed that would send millions to local health authorities to expand their mental health reach.

“We don’t want our schools to become the delivery system for our mental health system,” she said.

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