ByMaría Méndez, The Texas Tribune
“New school safety laws seek to add armed guards, chaplains and mental health training. Here’s what you need to know.” 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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Almost a year after Texas’ deadliest school shooting, state lawmakers ordered school districts to secure schools with armed officers and to train more staff to identify students who may need mental health support under legislation set to become law in September.
The new school safety law will grant the Texas Education Agency more authority to make sure schools have robust safety plans to respond to an active shooter — something about half of all Texas school districts lacked, according to a 2020 assessment report. Meanwhile, another law will allow schools to use school safety funds to employ unlicensed chaplains for mental health roles, a move some critics have said could allow religious activists to recruit in schools and further polarize school communities.
The renewed emphasis on school safety came in response to the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde last year. But despite the new measures, state lawmakers didn’t listen to Uvalde parents’ calls to pass legislation that would’ve raised the minimum age to buy an AR-style rifle from 18 to 21.
All in all, experts say many of the changes will bolster school safety but some requirements, such as for armed officers, may be challenging for public schools to implement by the upcoming school year with limited funding and staffing constraints. The legislation does not punish schools for not having an armed guard at every school.
Here’s what you need to know about the changes lawmakers made to school safety in Texas.
Over a year ago, a teenage gunman entered Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School and killed 19 children and two teachers in what became Texas’ deadliest school shooting. Seventeen people were also injured.
Law enforcement didn’t breach the classrooms the gunman had taken over for more than an hour amid lapses in communication and leadership, according to investigations by state officials and journalists. A state committee report also found “systemic failures” and missed warning signs that the gunman may have been planning a violent attack.
In response, state leaders called for boosting schools’ physical security measures to protect them against intruders and addressing student mental health.
Not long after the shooting, some Texas officials, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, called for placing law enforcement officers at all schools, though some law enforcement leaders at the time noted it would be challenging to fully staff and pay for such a proposal.
About a month after the shooting in Uvalde, Gov. Greg Abbott and state leaders channeled $100 million toward school safety initiatives, including silent panic alert technology that was mandated by the TEA to quickly alert police whenever there’s an intruder in a school.
Abbott also appointed a chief of school safety and security, a new TEA position, to serve schools and the Legislature as a security expert. He also ordered audits to see how effective schools are at detecting and stopping intruders.
In February, Abbott made school safety an emergency item for the regular legislative session, calling on state lawmakers to provide additional funding for school safety and mental health and to “use the newly created Chief of School Safety and Security to ensure compliance with all mandated school safety standards.”
Heeding Abbott’s call, state lawmakers passed House Bill 3. The broad legislation expands and reinforces several existing school safety efforts, like requiring mental health training for more school staff, and outlines more ways schools can use funding for school safety. The law will go into effect in September, but lawmakers gave schools some flexibility to meet the requirements for armed guards and staff mental health training.
Despite the renewed focus on school safety, state lawmakers largely ignored calls from Uvalde parents for more gun regulations. During this year’s regular session, the families pushed for a bill that would’ve raised the minimum age to buy an AR-style weapon from 18 to 21. The bill saw some traction in the Legislature, but it failed to pass along with several other proposed firearm safety measures.
HB 3 also creates a new safety and security department within the TEA to be led by Abbott’s appointed chief of school safety and security. That department will be tasked with monitoring school districts’ compliance with safety requirements, including the intruder detection audits ordered by Abbott. If a district fails to submit school safety information or address any concerns, the new law gives the commissioner of education the power to appoint a conservator to oversee the district’s school board and superintendent and correct the issues. The law says this corrective action would not apply to school districts that fail to have an armed officer at every school.
The legislation also requires more cooperation between the TEA and the Texas School Safety Center, a research center at Texas State University tasked with collecting and sharing school safety information from schools and law enforcement.
The TEA and the center must work together to assess the security of school campuses at least once every four years, and set facility standards for districts at least once every five years. The legislation also directs the TEA commissioner to develop guidelines for districts to notify parents of “violent activity” that takes place or is investigated at the district, and orders the Texas School Safety Center to provide schools with resources they can hand over to parents on how to safely store their firearms.
In addition, school districts must provide the Texas Department of Public Safety and local emergency responders with maps of each school and let them conduct a walkthrough of school buildings. In counties with a population of less than 350,000 inhabitants, sheriffs must also conduct semiannual school safety meetings with local law enforcement officers, emergency responders and school leaders.
The legislation raises the amount districts receive each year for school safety expenses to $10 per student — an increase of $0.28 — and provides them with an additional $15,000 per campus.
Lawmakers also allocated $1.1 billion in the state budget for the TEA to award grants to help school districts pay for some school safety requirements, like silent panic alerts. School districts will first be able to apply for funds to help them meet minimum safety standards, according to the TEA. In a second cycle, grants will be offered to school districts so they can meet other identified safety needs, the agency said.
The new funding will likely not cover all the costs of implementing the new requirements, according to education associations and school safety experts. Placing an armed officer or guard at every school campus will be particularly expensive, they said.
“Everyone wants to do everything possible to keep students safe, but we are very concerned about our schools’ ability to meet all of the new requirements given the limited resources that are available,” said Brian Whitley, a spokesperson for the Texas Public Charter Schools Association. He noted that charter schools are particularly worried because they can’t levy taxes to help pay for school security upgrades, unlike traditional public school districts.
The legislation directs school districts to have at least one armed officer at each campus during regular school hours. The officer must be a commissioned peace officer from the district’s own police department, a school resource officer from another law enforcement agency or a peace officer hired as a security officer.
Many school districts already hire some internal or external police officers, but they may have to resort to alternatives, such as arming school staff or hiring private security officers, to guard all school campuses.
Jacksonville Independent School District Police Chief Bill Avera said his district has officers stationed at each of its schools. But Avera, who also serves as vice president of the Texas School Police Chiefs Association and as a member of the Texas School Safety Center’s board of directors, acknowledged other school districts could face challenges doing so.
In addition to paying for an officer’s salaries and benefits, school districts sometimes also have to take care of equipment costs, like paying for uniforms, gear and patrol vehicles, Avera said.
The Texas Association of School Boards estimates the cost of hiring a police officer for districts could range from $80,000 to $100,000 per year, said Joy Baskin, the associate executive director of policy and legal services for TASB.
And the pool for eligible officers is competitive amid a nationwide shortage of law enforcement job candidates, Avera said. His district, for example, has relied on retired police officers to staff its schools, he said.
“It takes a minute nowadays to hire a police officer,” he said. “There’s a lot of background work. There’s a lot of things that have to be reviewed and checked on to ensure that [officers] are qualified, and so it’ll be interesting with all the school districts looking for officers at basically the same time.”
Texas has more than a thousand traditional public school districts and almost 200 charter school operators or districts.
The legislation doesn’t outline penalties for school districts that don’t meet the armed officer requirement, Baskin said.
If school districts can’t staff schools with armed peace officers because of financial or staffing constraints, the legislation allows for a school board to claim a “good cause exception.” Each school board will determine what these exceptions will look like locally and must outline an “alternative security standard with which the district is able to comply,” the TEA told The Texas Tribune.
According to the law, alternative plans can include allowing trained staff members to be armed. A new option in the school safety law approved this year is for districts to contract with a licensed private security firm that has personnel licensed to be armed, Avera said.
Districts can arm their staff members through the state-run school marshal program, which requires 80 hours of training and certification by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, or by setting their own policies — known as “Guardian Plans” — to designate specific individuals to carry firearms.
In a 2020 report from the Texas School Safety Center, 41% of the state’s more than one thousand school districts reported contracting school resource officers from other law enforcement agencies and 32% employed their own police officers, but about 70% of districts said they hired only between 1 and 5 police officers. About half of districts reported using non-law enforcement security personnel, including 27.4% under Guardian Plans and 6% under the school marshal program.
In a similar 2022 report about charter school districts, 30.2% of almost 200 charter school operators in the state reported using non-law enforcement security personnel, including 24.2% who hired private security.
Arming school staff could be less expensive than hiring police officers but still requires vetting and training under the school marshals program. The state pays for school marshal training, but that training is not always widely available, so school districts may still incur travel costs for their staff to be trained, said Craig Bessent, a school marshal in Wylie Independent School District, where he also serves as assistant superintendent of school operations.
“I wish we would have had more legislative help on that but we didn’t, so we’ll just see how it plays out,” said Bessent, who is also chair of the Texas School Safety Center’s board of directors.
In addition, finding school employees who want to be armed might be hard. In the past, they have been reluctant to do so. About a month after the Uvalde shooting, a survey showed that Texas teachers do not want to take a gun to school.
Given these constraints, Bessent said school districts are “scrambling” to figure out how to follow the legislation before it is expected to go into effect in September.
The TEA said it plans to provide additional guidance, including webinars with an overview of HB 3 and school safety-related funding, within the next few weeks.
Districts will likely work to meet the requirements as soon as possible, Baskin said, but it may take some time.
“I think many districts will want to stay as closely aligned to the statute as possible. In part because they do want to provide the best possible safety for students, but also in part because they would not want to be out of sync with the legal requirements if there were an emergency event,” she said.
State Rep. Dustin Burrows, the Republican from Lubbock who authored the bill, did not respond to a request for comment on the rollout of the requirement.
Schools are generally considered gun-free zones under federal and state laws except in certain circumstances, including in the case of police officers, school marshals and individuals authorized by the school district to carry guns.
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 in federal law 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. HB 3 clarifies that individuals allowed to carry firearms at schools but who aren’t law enforcement officers can’t carry out routine law enforcement duties unless there is an emergency that poses a serious threat of injury or death.
Every school staff member who regularly interacts with students will be required to take evidence-based mental health training designed to help school staff identify signs that a student may need mental health support, which Avera said can be crucial to preventing violence.
The legislation allows school districts to stagger the training of staff to meet the requirement by the 2028-2029 school year, but Baskin said districts may work to complete the requirement sooner amid a renewed focus on student mental health, also spurred by the pandemic.
School districts can be reimbursed by TEA for the costs of providing this training to employees, according to legislation, but schools and mental health advocates did not get a dedicated funding stream for mental health. Many expressed worries that meeting the other school safety requirements will take up most of the available funding.
The Legislature also passed a bill this session that gives schools the option to use school safety funds to pay for unlicensed chaplains to work in mental health roles. Volunteer chaplains will also be allowed in schools. Policies for chaplains in schools will be up to local school boards. Parental consent is required for school-related mental health services, including chaplains, the TEA said.
And lawmakers boosted funding to the Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine program, which connects school districts with mental health professionals who can help identify student behavioral needs and help provide access to those services. The program is expected to receive $140 million for the next two years.
Disclosure: Texas Association of School Boards and Texas Public Charter Schools Association have been financial supporters 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.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/07/14/texas-school-safety/.
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