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Santa Fe Shooting: How the Texas Governor Proposes to Keep Students Safe at School

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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott unveiled a broad school safety plan Tuesday that could bring more armed staff, as well as an expanded police force, into the state's schools, a little more than a week after a student gunman killed 10 people at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas.

His lengthy set of proposals also include installing active-shooter alarm systems in every school and the creation of an app that will allow students and teachers to anonymously report threats.

The measures come after Abbott, a prominent gun rights supporter, convened three days of roundtable meetings last week with gun violence survivors, gun control advocates, superintendents, legislators, and others to discuss ways to improve school safety. 

Nothing Abbott unveiled will be mandatory for districts, but the governor said covering the costs of some of his proposals could come from $120 million in federal and state grants. He acknowledged that some schools in Texas are already doing what he's proposing.

The recommendations that Abbott announced at a news conference at a Dallas school fall into three big buckets: hardening schools, addressing mental health, and promoting gun safety.

Hardening Schools:

  • Expand the state's school marshal program, an initiative that trains teachers and other school staff to use guns. The expansion will be free to districts. About 170 districts currently participate in the program, according to the Washington Post. Texas has 1,228 school districts and charter schools
  • Increase collaboration between law enforcement and districts. The state will provide $10,000 in matching grants to districts working to increase law enforcement presence on campus.
  • Promote hiring retired law enforcement officers and military veterans as school resource officers.
  • Install active-shooter alarm systems that will sound different from fire alarms, thus prompting the correct response.
  • Beef up schools' outer layers of security by adding metal detectors, reducing entrances and exits, and adding deadbolt locks in some cases.

Mental Health:

  • Spend $20 million to expand an intervention program for at-risk students run by Texas Tech University that targets junior and high school students who pose a threat to themselves and others.
  • Expand the Campus Crime Stopper program, which will allow students and others to report tips. 
  • Provide behavioral threat assessment training to school staff and free up—or add—counselors to focus on students' behavioral and mental health needs.
  • Create an iWatch Texas app, which will make it easier for students, teachers, and parents to report threats. The app will go live next week.
  • Expand centers that allow law enforcement to monitor social media and the internet to identify threats and intervene before they lead to actual violence.
  • Create a "zero tolerance" policy for students who commit assault. This will require a state law and will allow districts to remove students from class who are threats to their teachers and classmates.

Gun Safety

  • Require that parents secure firearms away from anyone 17 and younger. Texas law currently defines a child as someone younger than 17.  (This will require legislative action.)
  • Require mandatory reporting of lost or stolen firearms within 10 days.
  • Promote safe storage of firearms. Abbott said he will offer $1 million to organizations to provide about 100,000 gun locks free of charge to Texans who want them. 
  • Require reporting within 48 hours when someone is legally barred from owning a firearm, including because of a mental health adjudication or a family protective order.
  • Urge lawmakers to consider so-called "red flag laws" that allow law enforcement and families to petition to have firearms removed from someone judged to be potentially dangerous.

Two groups that represent school employees focused on different aspects of Gov. Abbott's proposals.

While he gave the governor credit for focusing on physical building security, hiring more professional school security, and improving mental health for students, Noel Candelaria, the president of the Texas State Teachers Association, questioned the reliance on grants and federal funds to pay for Abbott's new proposals and the long-term viability of those programs without a permanent funding source.

Candelaria also objected to the proposal to arm more teachers through the state's marshal program.

"Teachers are trained to teach and to nurture, not double up as security guards," he said, adding that in a national union poll, 82 percent of teachers and school staff, including 63 percent of gun owners, said they did not want to carry firearms in school. 

"They know they are no match for heavily armed, suicidal intruders intent on killing," the statement continued. "Sixty‐nine percent of educators said arming teachers would not be effective against gun violence, and 64 percent even said they would feel less safe if their colleagues were allowed to have guns at school."

The Association of Texas Professional Educators, which represents teachers, administrators and para-professionals, noted that while its members were not included in the governor's discussions, the union was pleased that Abbott did not hand down new mandates.

"We are pleased that the governor appears to be focusing on identifying and providing resources, including mental health interventions, rather than imposing mandates in dealing with this critical issue," the statement said in part.

The group also said that it hoped than when the legislature meets it will also ensure that schools are adequately funded.

"The governor's new proposals will require, for instance, the hiring of additional staff and other interventions that will only increase the price tag of safely and effectively operating our public school system," the statement said.

Louis Malfaro, president of Texas AFT, which represents about 60,000 teachers, bus drivers, nurses, custodians, and support staff, commended Gov. Abbott for bringing together those affected by the Santa Fe shooting and listening to their ideas. But the governor's school safety proposals fall way short, he said.

Malfaro also cited a lack of long-term funding to pay for Abbott's proposals, and he scoffed at the idea that Abbott—who as the state's attorney general relished the idea of taking on the federal government—was relying on federal funds to help schools improve security.

"It just feels like we are going to patch things up with some grants," Malfaro said. "The governor has got to put his money where his mouth is."

While Abbott's suggestions seek to keep guns out of the hands of people deemed dangerous or mentally unfit, Malfaro said they do not address how easy it is to acquire firearms in the state.

 "It's a huge failure to not acknowledge that there are sensible restrictions that should be placed on the sale of certain kinds of guns and guns to certain individuals that the governor missed a big opportunity to talk about."

He also disagrees with the expansion of the school marshal program, saying that while it might make sense for a rural school district in which law enforcement may be far away, teachers by and large do not want to carry guns.

"That's not what they do, that's not their job, that's not what they are trained in.  Not a good idea," he said.

Image caption: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott unveils school safety proposals in Dallas on Wednesday, May 30, 2018. Image courtesy the Dallas Independent School District.

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