AUSTIN (KXAN) — As new details emerge about a mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Gov. Greg Abbott and other state leaders said they would be reviewing changes made four years ago, following another Texas tragedy.
In 2018, after a teenager shot and killed 10 people at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, Abbott released a nearly 50-page report containing dozens of recommendations on how to make schools safer: from funding prevention resources to requiring new preparedness programs.
- Read the 2018 recommendations here
By 2019, lawmakers passed as many as 17 bills in response. One piece of sweeping legislation in particular, SB 11, was the culmination of months of roundtable discussions and hearings at the Capitol.
“We consider what was done in 2019 to be one of the most profound legislative sessions, not just in Texas but that we have seen in any state, in addressing school shootings,” Gov. Abbott said in a press conference Tuesday in Uvalde. “But to be clear, we all understand, that work is not done.”
Emergency Operations Plans
Since 2005, school districts have been required to keep a “multi-hazard” emergency operations plan (EOP). After Santa Fe, lawmakers called on school districts to bolster their plans in several ways. For one, the plans must include regular emergency drills and a specific policy for responding to an active shooter. These plans must also lay out pathways to recovery, after a crisis.
Districts must submit those plans for review by The Texas School Safety Center (TXSSC), based in San Marcos at Texas State University. The center audits these plans for all 1,022 Texas school districts every three years.
“All of those things we have been training on for years, but are now in legislation,” Director Kathy Martinez-Prather said. “Those are things we are specifically checking for, in terms of legislative provisions, but also best practices.”
According to their most recent report, auditing the 2017-2020 school years, plans for just 67 Texas school districts plans were deemed “sufficient,” meaning they followed all the best practices.
162 districts, or 16%, did not have a plan in place, as of 2020, according to the findings of the report.
Among the districts that had adopted an EOP 86% reported that their plan contained drills such as fire evacuation, lockdown, shelter for weather, lockout, shelter-in-place for HAZMAT situations. At 73%, slightly fewer districts reported mandating reunification drills in their plan.
The vast majority of districts reported having an active shooter policy included in their plans, but the review indicated that the TXSSC review found only 200 districts had a “viable” active shooter policy.
According to a KXAN Solutions Journalism project in 2019, the Texas Education Agency could appoint a conservator over school districts that are not in compliance with these safety reforms six months after an audit. If there are still no changes after that, the state agency can then appoint a board of managers to run the security for the school.
Preventing Threats in Advance
Districts were required develop and train behavioral threat assessment teams to search for red flags and other threats, in order to stop incidents before they happen. Martinez-Prather called this the “biggest” and most impactful change to come out of the 2019 legislative session.
“You’re thinking, ‘A threat has come in. This team is coming together. they are going to assess the credibility of it and either an arrest is going to be made or the student is going to be expelled,'” she explained, noting that that is only a “piece” of what these teams do.
She said the goal is often plugging students in with the right resources and help, after a threat is made or before the situation escalates.
“How do we get them connected with mental health supports, so they can be successful in the educational setting? How do we get them off the pathway to violence?” she said.
Of the 1,022 total districts, 80% reported their board of trustees had established a behavioral threat assessment team.
Martinez-Prather said it goes beyond the teams. They officer other kinds of assessments and training to help everyone from district leaders to law enforcement to students and teachers identify potential intervention points.
“We know that in the majority of these events, someone knew something. Someone had a hunch. Someone wasn’t surprised that that happened,” she said.
For example, the center’s Digital Threat Assessment Toolkit teaches basic techniques for assessing threats on social media and determining whether pictures are real or stock photos.
This was another big focus in 2019, when state officials added another “fusion center” in the state to help monitor social media threats. The seven fusion centers coordinate with local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to investigate and respond to potential criminal and terrorist acts.
Mental Health Resources
On Tuesday in Uvalde, discussions around mental health took center stage.
“There is an urgent need for everybody affected to access mental health,” Abbott said.
Abbott said the gunman in this attack had no known criminal or mental health history, but noted that but investigators are still looking into his background. The governor said during a discussion with law enforcement, city officials and state leaders, they all said, “we have a problem with mental health illness in this community.”
In 2018 and 2019, some legislative action focused on funding and growing mental health resources.
Two bills allowed more participation in Mental Health First Aid training courses. According to a report published by the Governor’s office in the fall of 2019, participation in these courses had increased 37% from the year before, among public school district employees and school resource officers.
SB 11 was also supposed to provide districts with $100 million in funding, to be used to fund school-based mental health centers, the hiring of counselors, and “other mental health-related needs.” Additionally, the bill established the Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium — a network of university experts on the subject from across the state that is still operating today.
Safety Additions On Campus
After the shooting in Santa Fe, leaders and lawmakers also focused on increasing law enforcement presence and tangible security measures on campus — often called “hardening” the schools.
According to the 2019 update published by the Governor’s office on the ongoing efforts, “collaboration between schools and law enforcement has increased as officers are adding campuses to regular patrol routes and schools are allowing law enforcement to use campus facilities for breaks, lunch, or to file reports.”
Lawmakers also removed the cap on how many trained school employees can carry guns on campus and expanded the School Marshal program. The optional program allows districts to arm and train select employees on campus.
Under Senate Bill 11, school districts gained access to millions in funding for infrastructure improvements, such as campus-wide active shooter alarm systems, bulletproof glass, and metal detectors at entrances.
The original 2018 recommendations released by the Governor after the tragedy in Santa Fe included a few potential changes to “enhancing firearm safety,” including strengthening the Safe Firearm Storage Law or looking at making reporting of lost or stolen guns mandatory. The recommendations also included the possibility of studying a “red flag” law to identify someone who may be a danger to themselves or others and who has access to or owns firearms.
However, neither SB11 nor other efforts at the time focused on these recommendations, and the Governor’s 2019 publication makes no mention of them.
As of August 2021, Texans older than 21 were allowed to carry a handgun in public without a permit under House Bill 1927.