New bill provides immunity to school resource officers if damages occur from their actions

Education

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Some Texas lawmakers want to shield school police officers if they were to cause damage while taking action in a school building.

HB 1788 has passed out of the House Committee on Public Education. Its identical companion bill, SB 534, was read for the first time on Thursday in front of the Senate Committee on Education.

The bill’s language states school resource officers, school district peace officers, school marshals and retired peace officers will be “immune from liability for any damages resulting from any reasonable action taken by the security personnel to maintain the safety of the school campus, including action relating to possession or use of a firearm.”

Opponents of the bill say providing blanket immunity will lead to escalating situations and more uses of force. Plus, the term “reasonable action” is vague, they contend.

“They’ll be able to use any force they think is necessary in that moment,” said Andrew Hairston, the Education Justice Project director for Texas Appleseed. “It’s very troubling to consider how those actions might play out.”

But advocates say school resource officers need reassurance, particularly when there’s not a moment to lose, like during a school shooting.

“This bill, it’s not a ‘wild, wild West’ bill. It’s a bill to take care of a very specific incident that creates a sense of danger that needs to be addressed,” said Bill Haenisch, the executive director for the Texas Association of Community Schools.

The association represents small to midsized school districts across Texas, far and away the majority in the Lone Star State. Haenisch said SROs in these districts should be provided full authority, given most of these districts are planted in small, rural areas, often far away from the local sheriff’s office.

“It’s for that security officer who finds themselves in a situation that’s a split-second decision, and there really is no right or wrong answer,” Haenisch said.

But the concept itself makes some parents uneasy.

Jennifer Cochran Anderson is currently homeschooling her kindergartener due to COVID-19. But she said she would consider keeping her child out of her local public school next year if a bill of this nature passes. She shuddered at the thought of her little boy having a negative encounter with a school resource officer.

“Guns don’t belong in schools, at all,” Cochran Anderson said. “In what, why does having an armed resource officer foster a good learning environment? How is that good for kids?”

Several school districts in the KXAN viewing area have their own police force or are working to create one. Those include Austin ISD, Pflugerville ISD, Manor ISD, Round Rock ISD and Del Valle ISD. The Lake Travis ISD Board of Trustees recently approved the creation of a police department.

Reach KXAN’s Education Reporter Alex Caprariello by email at alexc@kxan.com or by phone at 512-703-5365, or find him on Twitter and Facebook.

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