Texas School Safety Law Works Towards DOJ Recommendations, Funding Remains a Challenge

According to a new federal report released on Thursday, the Uvalde mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in May 2022 was plagued by miscommunication and a lack of action among the numerous responding officers.

The report, released by the Justice Department, includes a number of recommendations aimed at improving school safety and active shooter protocols in Texas. Last year, Texas lawmakers passed House Bill 3 in an effort to address some of these issues, but the report suggests that more mental health screenings should have been included. While school districts see HB 3 as a step in the right direction, they have expressed concerns about the insufficient funding allocated to cover the necessary expenses. Despite efforts during last year’s fourth special lawmaking session to increase funding, these were unsuccessful due to the controversy surrounding school vouchers.

Among the key recommendations in the report are the implementation of active shooter plans in every school, regular security exercises conducted by local law enforcement and government officials, the replacement or upgrade of faulty school doors and locks, mental health screenings for victims, and improved communication between law enforcement, school officials, and the community.

“Had law enforcement agencies followed standard practices in an active shooter situation and immediately confronted the shooter, lives could have been saved,” stated U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland during a news conference on Thursday.

Following the release of the report, Governor Greg Abbott expressed gratitude towards the Justice Department and stated that the state has already adopted some of the recommendations while others are under review.

Nineteen children and two teachers were killed in the Robb Elementary tragedy almost two years ago. The shooter gained access to the school through a series of unlocked doors.

Upon arrival, the officers retreated under fire and waited for backup, a decision which goes against the active shooter doctrine developed after the 1999 Columbine High School mass shooting. The doctrine stipulates that officers should immediately confront the shooters.

There was also a lack of leadership among the many law enforcement officers who responded to the shooting, with no one assuming the role of “incident commander.” Pete Arredondo, the former police chief of the Uvalde school district, stated that he did not believe he was in charge, despite the active-shooter plan stating otherwise.

The report also raised concerns about the active-shooter training course received by Uvalde school district police officers from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement just months before the tragedy. The course stated that an “active shooter event can easily morph into a hostage crisis and vice versa,” but the Justice Department emphasized that such events rarely transition into hostage situations and that officers should always aim to eliminate the threat as quickly as possible.

Texas is already taking steps to implement many of the recommendations outlined in the report. House Bill 3 established a safety and security department within the Texas Education Agency, which has the authority to enforce stringent safety protocols in school districts. Failure to comply could result in the state’s supervision of the district.

Since the Santa Fe High School shooting in 2018, school districts have been required to submit safety plans, including active-shooter strategies, for review by the Texas School Safety Center. However, a three-year audit in 2020 revealed that out of the state’s 1,022 school districts, only 200 had active-shooter policies as part of their safety plans. 626 districts did not have such policies, while 196 had policies that were deemed insufficient. The audit also found that only 67 school districts had viable emergency operations plans overall.

House Bill 3 also mandates that each school district undergo annual security audits conducted by designated teams and requires the presence of armed personnel on campus.

In addition, the law calls for the establishment of school safety review teams to conduct vulnerability assessments of all campuses on an annual basis. It also sets standards for notifying parents about “violent activity” on campus.

In counties with fewer than 350,000 residents, the law requires semi-annual meetings to discuss school safety and law enforcement response to “violent incidents.” These meetings must include clear chain-of-command protocols and functioning radios.

Each school district is also required to provide the Texas Department of Public Safety and other law enforcement agencies in their area with detailed information about each campus to avoid confusion during emergency responses.

To address mental health concerns, school employees who frequently interact with children must complete an evidence-based mental health first-aid training program. The Texas Education Agency will reimburse these employees for the time and money spent on the training.

The law allocated $15,000 per campus and $10 per student to each school district for safety upgrades. The TEA also received $1.1 billion to administer school safety grants throughout the state.

However, many school officials argue that these amounts are insufficient. State Senator Roland Gutierrez, a San Antonio Democrat representing Uvalde, expressed concerns about the funding and voted against House Bill 3 last year.

“It is sick and twisted that we have the largest budget surplus in Texas history and we aren’t prioritizing the safety of our children,” Gutierrez stated during a Senate debate, referring to the $32.7 billion surplus from last year. “We aren’t doing enough to prevent another Uvalde.”

Last year, lawmakers attempted to allocate additional funding to boost security on campuses. School districts were close to receiving an extra $1 billion, but the legislation stalled when school voucher legislation failed to pass. Governor Abbott had pledged to veto any new public education funding unless it included a voucher proposal, which was his top legislative priority at the time.

Already struggling to meet the safety requirements set by House Bill 3, such as staffing each campus with an armed officer, school officials have expressed concerns about future funding. Stephanie Elizalde, Superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District, stated that the district needs $3 million annually to place trained security guards in every school. Despite receiving grants from the state, Elizalde does not consider them a reliable source of funding. Without additional funding for safety improvements, the district may be forced to cut programs and potentially lay off staff.

“Our biggest hurdle is how to continually make cuts while ensuring the safety of our schools,” Elizalde explained.

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