This story is part of a series of reports called “Stop Mass Shootings,” providing context and exploring solutions surrounding gun violence in the wake of the deadly Uvalde school shooting. We want our reports to be a resource for Texans, as well as for lawmakers who are holding hearings after the events in Uvalde to discuss how the state should move forward. Explore all “Stop Mass Shootings” stories by clicking here.

AUSTIN (Nexstar) – After a gunman murdered 19 fourth graders and two teachers at an Uvalde elementary school in May, Gov. Greg Abbott called on Texas’ top education and law enforcement officials to redouble their efforts to promote the state’s suspicious activity reporting system: iWatchTexas.

“The use of this single, statewide reporting system better ensures that tips from different parts of the community are better reported back to the schools to allow for the appropriate interventions and enhance school safety,” Abbott said in a letter sent June 7 to the heads of the Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas Education Agency and Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Abbott and law enforcement experts tout suspicious activity reporting and iWatchTexas as some of the best tools available to preemptively thwart an attack. Texas received nearly 7,700 of the reports in 2021, a 59% increase over 2020, according to DPS data.

DPS Director Steve McCraw again promoted the suspicious activity reporting network at a Texas Senate subcommittee hearing on the Uvalde shooting and law enforcement’s response to it. The gunman made “disturbing” statements to acquaintances in private messages online before the massacre, but they were not reported to law enforcement, he said.

“All it takes is one report that might give us the opportunity, and obviously that didn’t happen in this case,” McCraw said.

But while law enforcement and state leaders praise and promote the suspicious activity reporting system, some civil rights scholars and privacy activists question its effectiveness – saying it may not be worth the cost and can lead to mass surveillance of innocent people.

Tips submitted to iWatchTexas filter into Texas’ fusion centers. There, a combination of local, state and federal law enforcement officers sift through and investigate them. Texas has seven fusion centers – the most of any state.

In June, state leaders announced that an additional $5 million in funding would be transferred to the Texas Department of Public Safety to expand fusion center research and capabilities. The funding is part of the $105.5 state leaders designated for school safety and mental health initiatives after the Uvalde mass shooting.

Fred Burton, a former special agent, author and executive director for the ONTIC Center for Protective Intelligence in Austin, said there is “no doubt” suspicious activity reports are useful in preventing attacks. He described the system as “wonderful,” “robust” and helpful in funneling information to the right people.

“In order to connect the dots, you have to collect the dots in our business,” Burton said.

DPS said all the suspicious activity reports in its data were vetted in a Texas fusion center and represent a “potential investigative lead that could be investigated by the appropriate law enforcement agency,” according to an agency spokesperson’s email.

How police handled the tips isn’t clear from the data. DPS said it doesn’t track that information. The agency did not provide a specific reason for not tracking those items.

DPS also monitors “threats to life,” which involve imminent or potential threats, and threats of “serious bodily injury, or significant violent action that may include a threat to public safety, use of weapons of mass destruction, crisis calls, active shooter, threat to law enforcement, or terrorism,” according to DPS.

Threats to life have been ticking up. In 2019, there were 263 threats to life; last year there were 757, DPS wrote in an email.

Burton used the term “pre-operational surveillance” to describe a common pattern among attackers that can be spotted and reported to authorities. Every attacker will want to do some type of reconnaissance on their target; it could be physically visiting or cyber stalking, he said.

“They are going to do their homework,” Burton said. It is during that preparatory surveillance when attackers are “typically very sloppy” and vulnerable for people or law enforcement to spot and report, he added.

Texas launched iWatch in 2013, included a toll-free number in 2016, created an app in 2018 and later added a school-safety reporting option, according to a Homeland Security Strategic Plan.

Abbott’s recent call to promote iWatchTexas in June echoed a similar order he made three years ago.

Following a mass shooting that left 23 dead and 23 injured at an El Paso Walmart in 2019, Abbott issued an executive order telling the heads of Texas’ law enforcement and education agencies to promote the use of suspicious activity reports. Abbott also called for increased staff at fusion centers. The efforts stopped “at least one school shooting,” Abbott said in his June letter.

KXAN visited the El Paso fusion center in 2019, following the shooting. Dustin Liston, a lieutenant with the El Paso Police Department at the time and director of the fusion center said law enforcement agencies used to keep information in silos, and the fusion centers help break through those communication barriers.

Liston noted a suspicious activity report tip helped the FBI stop and arrest Richard Holzer, of Pueblo, Colorado, in 2019 before he carried out a plot to bomb a Jewish temple. Holzer, 29, was sentenced to 19 years in federal prison.

“It’s very important that, like (Department of Homeland Security) says, ‘if you see something, say something,’ let the police know that you’ve observed something suspicious,” said Burton, using the phrase created after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “And the system is geared to thoroughly vet those kinds of reports today, like no time else in the history of our nation.”

While Abbott and experts like Burton promote the effectiveness of suspicious activity reports, available data from DPS doesn’t show how many of the nearly 7,700 tips the state received last year were found credible or resulted in an arrest or thwarted attack.

In a request sent last month to DPS, KXAN asked for a breakdown showing the number of tips vetted, investigative leads generated, threats identified, arrests made and threats to life processed.

KXAN asked for those specific pieces of information because they are identified as “outputs” of the suspicious activity network software DPS requested funding for in a 2020 “exceptional item” budget appropriation document. DPS said it doesn’t currently count those outputs.

In response to our request, DPS sent the numbers of tips it received each month.

“The Texas Fusion Center does not track police action, arrests, or convictions resulting from tips,” according to a DPS email.

Jake Wiener, an attorney and fellow at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, said he’s found suspicious activity reporting systems and fusion centers are not solving pressing problems. EPIC is a nonprofit research and advocacy group that focuses on privacy and civil liberty issues.

Wiener said he’s been working for two years on a report about fusion centers and has reviewed data made public by the so-called BlueLeaks – a massive trove of hacked law enforcement data released in 2020. The BlueLeaks data include a cache of records from the Austin Regional Intelligence Center, or ARIC, a local fusion center.

Wiener said he has read “probably thousands” of suspicious activity reports received by different fusion centers, and they are “generally very low-quality intelligence.”

The results, Wiener said, are intelligence centers gathering mostly mediocre tips that lead to widespread intrusive surveillance of innocent people.

“Fusion Centers, more broadly, are something that between the states and the federal government, we spend $400 million a year on, and have never proven their value,” Wiener said. “But what they do very well is they do a lot of surveillance of political dissidents, of protesters, of ordinary folks going about their lives, which does not prevent crime.”

In its budget request for fiscal years 2022 and 2023, DPS sought $18.7 million for statewide unified information sharing. That total included $2.6 million for the state’s suspicious activity reporting network and $6.1 million for protective threat monitoring and analysis, according to the 2020 funding request.

In July 2021, a report authored by a Boston University School of Law professor and students singled out Austin’s fusion center as lacking transparency and having little oversight. ARIC conducts wide surveillance of Austin residents and uses city resources to share the personal information of vulnerable residents with federal authorities, putting them at greater risk of arrest, detention and deportation, according to the report, which used information obtained through BlueLeaks.

The report, citing the law enforcement data leak, said ARIC targeted Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020. ARIC “has refused to abide by even the weak oversight mechanisms and civil liberty protections proscribed in its own policy,” according to the report.

Austin Police Department manages ARIC. An APD spokesperson said the center only shares information with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to assist with active ICE criminal cases. ARIC does not “continually” monitor protests and events. It only monitors to determine if there could be a safety concern for the community, according to the spokesperson.

ARIC also has a privacy policy establishing oversight by an executive board, operational management team, privacy policy advisory committee, director and a privacy officer. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Texas Governor’s Office also hold ARIC accountable through annual assessments and oversight of grants, according to APD’s statement.

KXAN asked DPS for a response to Wiener’s comments and the contents of the Boston Law School report, but the agency did not respond.

APD said ARIC has received over 450 suspicious activity reports this year, including 162 school-safety related tips.

DPS operates and oversees the iWatch system. When it get a report through the system that falls within the jurisdiction of a regional fusion center, DPS notifies that regional center and lets it take ownership of the investigation.

Every state is mandated by U.S. DHS to have a statewide fusion center, and Texas’ is operated by DPS.

Local officials can create and operate regional fusion centers to cover major metro areas. ARIC, for example, covers the same counties under the umbrella of the Capital Area Council of Governments (CAPCOG). ARIC is “co-located” on the DPS fusion center campus and, as result, shares information easily with state police, according to a source with extensive knowledge of the fusion centers in Texas.

To get a basic understanding of how many tips other states receive, KXAN reached out to more than 25 of the most populous states. We asked state police and public safety departments a simple question: how many suspicious activity reports did your state receive in the last few years? If the states prepared annual reports or audits of fusion center activities, we asked for those.

Some states quickly provided concrete statistics and prepared reports. Some states had no records at all. The responses showed an inconsistent approach to data keeping from state to state.

For example, Colorado provided an annual report, a recent data summary and information showing its “Safe2Tell” reporting program had received more than 20,000 suspicious activity reports in the past year. Florida and Pennsylvania provided data showing the number of requests received last year. Ohio and Oregon provided only suspicious activity reports related to schools. Oregon maintains a website with its program’s annual reports. Several states provided nothing.

A spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security said the state “does not have the data nor the type of report or link(s) you inquired about.”

Illinois appears to have no statewide suspicious activity reporting system. Outside of Chicago’s Cook County, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s website says a person should “call 911” to report suspicious activity in Illinois.

Other states – include Texas and California – would not provide information without a formal public information request.

“We’ve had about 20 years to kind of get this right, which means for fusion centers to show their work, to show what they’re doing and the impact of it, and they’ve never been able to do so,” Wiener told KXAN. “In my experience, police departments generally do not shy away from showing that they’ve been successful. So, if in the last 20 years, we have almost no accounts of fusion centers successfully preventing a mass violence event, terrorism, something like that, that suggests to me that they haven’t done it.”

‘Give us a chance to survive’: 1,639 Texas educators weigh in on school safety

In the aftermath of the Uvalde school shooting that took the lives of 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary, lawmakers are set to come up with solutions before kids across Texas return to school from summer break.

KXAN surveyed more than 1,600 Texas educators from 106 counties on the confidence they had in their school’s safety measures. The Texas American Federation of Teachers helped in sending our survey out to its thousands of followers and members.

Educators revealed concerns over delayed maintenance repairs that leave schools vulnerable and gaps in staffing and mental health resources leaving students at risk.

While a previous study by the Texas AFT focused on educators’ opinions on law changes and gun reform, our study focused on their experiences with their districts and campuses, current approaches and handling of school safety.

The question of whether to arm teachers provided the most lopsided response in our survey. In total, 78% of respondents either disagreed or strongly disagreed with allowing teachers to carry weapons on campus.

A similar, but slightly reduced, number disagreed with arming school administrators. Just 10% of respondents agreed with arming teachers.

A majority of survey respondents told us their campus did not have adequate services to address mental health of students. A common theme was that school counselors are often used for other purposes — from administrative duties to scheduling to test proctoring — which leaves them little time to focus on the students themselves.

Only 18% said their schools were doing enough to support student mental health. Read some of the teacher’s responses below.

We defined physical safety measures in our survey as things like scan-in doors and locks for doors and windows. The results were fairly split: 43% of respondents said their campus had adequate measures, while 39% said they did not.

Maintenance of those physical measures was often brought up as an aspect of school safety that fell short. We heard from hundreds of teachers who said broken locks and AC systems put safety at risk because doors and windows have to be left open.

Each campus approaches security a little differently. Some districts have their own police departments. Others rely on local police or the sheriff’s office. Others have volunteer security guards.

One thing that is clear from our survey is that schools, especially at the elementary level, do not have enough of a security presence. Of the survey respondents, 67% thought their campus did not have adequate security personnel to keep students and staff safe.

While about 30% of survey respondents felt that active shooter training was adequate, about half said it is not. Several teachers told us the extent of their drills is to simply close the door and turn off the lights.

Here’s one anecdote from a teacher in an unidentified district in Hays County:

“At my former district, I was a district instructional coach. I did campus safety checks at principal requests on campuses that I was not known by the staff. I would attempt to enter the school (not through the front door). I would not wear a badge or anything identifying me as a district employee. My goal was to see if I could obtain entry and how long I could walk around a campus before being stopped. I did a half a dozen of these and gained access 100% of the time. I was able to walk campuses for 36 minutes (the shortest) and once finally stopped the timer at 2.5 hours.

According to our survey respondents, threats made on social media are, for the most part, handled appropriately. In total, 57% agreed with the statement, while just 15% did not.

We also asked survey respondents to describe — in one word or phrase — what part of school safety needed the most attention on their campuses.

Some common themes really stood out: doors, entrances and locks; law enforcement and security guards; mental health and gun control. Thirty-five educators told us “everything.”

The word cloud below shows the variety of responses we received.

We didn’t specifically ask about gun legislation in our survey, primarily because the Texas AFT did in their own survey earlier this month. Still, several educators took the opportunity to share their thoughts in an open-ended question on our survey.

In total, we received 1,639 survey responses over a six-day period. Educators all across the state responded, from El Paso to East Texas, and from the Panhandle to the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Responses came from 106 counties in Texas, highlighted in yellow on the map below.

How we conducted our study:

Data Reporter Christopher Adams and KXAN Investigator Kelly Wiley used Google Forms to create the survey — which included asking educators to rate how much they agreed with eight statements, from strongly disagree to strongly agree. Educators also had the option to answer four narrative questions.

KXAN reached out to the Texas AFT to assist in distributing the survey on its platform. The survey was open for responses for six days (June 10-June 16.)

How do gun laws in Texas compare to other states?

From Capitol Hill to dinner tables in Texas, gun legislation has again become the focus of the political conversation in the wake of the deadly school shooting in Uvalde.

As state lawmakers convene for special committees on school safety and a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers negotiate gun reform measures, KXAN investigators took a closer look at Texas’ laws and how they compare to other states.

Using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, KXAN focused on states with the most firearm deaths per capita: Mississippi, Louisiana, Wyoming, Missouri and Alabama. KXAN also considered Illinois, Florida, California, and Texas which have slightly lower rates than the previous states, relative to their larger populations. Then, KXAN looked at states with the lowest rates of firearm deaths: Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island and New York. 

Using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, KXAN looked at states with the highest and lowest firearm mortality rates, plus Texas, Florida, Illinois and California. KXAN also used information from a mass shooting database funded by the National Institute of Justice. Then, KXAN used various legal resources, experts and state’s laws and code to compile this map.

There are some general federal restrictions on who can possess a firearm, including people who have been convicted of certain crimes or who are subject to certain court orders regarding domestic violence. States can then enact laws to allow state law enforcement to enforce those same federal requirements.

Federal law requires background checks for people buying firearms through a federally-licensed firearm dealer, but not for sales between private citizens – sometimes referred to as the “gun show loophole.”

In the last month, there have been renewed calls for “universal” background checks, which some advocates believe would close that gap by requiring almost all gun transactions to be recorded and go through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Of the states KXAN evaluated, four of the five states with the lowest firearm fatality rates, plus Illinois, require background checks for private gun sales. These same states also require a permit to purchase a gun or a license to own one, which may include separate testing and training requirements.

While Massachusetts’ law does not explicitly require private sellers to conduct background checks, these sellers are able to check the validity of the purchaser’s required license to own. These licenses must be renewed, at which time the licensee may undergo another background check.

Florida law also does not require background checks for private sales, but in 2018, lawmakers there closed what is known as the “Charleston loophole.” Under federal law, a gun dealer can proceed with a sale — before the background check is complete — if more than 3 days have passed since the background check was initiated.

The Florida law establishes a “waiting period” of either three days or until a background check is complete.

Waiting periods are not required by federal law, but California, Hawaii, Illinois and Rhode Island have also established different required periods of waiting time before a purchase can be completed.

Nicole Golden, the Executive Director of Texas Gun Sense, said her organization has advocated for legislation that would close certain “loopholes,” but says it is up to state lawmakers to pass these laws and “make sure that guns aren’t ending up in dangerous hands.”

Texas attorney and Second Amendment rights expert Richard D. Hayes emphasized Texas was “no more strict than the federal government” when it comes to restrictions and background checks.

“Yesterday’s compromise is today’s loophole,” he said. “Today they’re calling it a loophole, when at the time that was clearly the only thing that made sense.”

State and federal laws outline different age requirements for the possession and purchase of different types of firearms.

Federal law prohibits anyone under the age of 18 from possessing a handgun, but some states, including Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York, have enacted age requirements which are stricter than the federal minimum.

There is no federal minimum age to possess long gun, or rifle. Nearly two dozen states enacted laws to increase the age requirements, while some states have stipulations allowing minors to possess a long gun in certain circumstances, sometimes with a parent’s permission.

“Where do I think the problem is? It probably lies in enforcement.”

Richard D. Hayes, former felony prosecutor and Second Amendment attorney

Under the federal Gun Control Act, people must be at least 18 years old to buy shotguns, rifles and ammunition for those firearms from a federally-licensed vendor. They must be 21 years old to purchase all other types of firearms.

However, there is no federal age restriction on gun sales between private citizens or using unlicensed vendors, so state law in some states allows for the purchase of either kind of weapon at younger ages, including Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Missouri.

Meanwhile, New York recently raised the minimum age to purchase a rifle to 21. According to an NBC News report, only six other states have raised the age to 21: California, Hawaii, Illinois, Vermont, Washington State and Florida.

Florida made the move in 2018, after the deadly school shooting in Parkland.

Florida’s law included several other measures, including implementing a waiting period for purchasing a gun and what is commonly known as a “red flag law.” In Florida, extreme risk protection orders give judges the power to bar potentially dangerous people from owning or buying a gun.

Golden said the law has been successful in catching and averting “potential threats.”

“Texans really deserve something like that as a tool for families in crisis,” she said.

She said her organization was hopeful in 2018, when it held a seat at the table as Gov. Greg Abbott hosted roundtable discussions about school safety. Part of the governor’s list of potential solutions to explore included some gun safety measures, such as red flag laws.

“We know we can’t prevent everything, but we know that we can do more, and that — and that having weak gun laws that are further weakened? It certainly is — certainly not the answer.”

Nicole Golden, Texas Gun Sense

However, when lawmakers passed several sweeping school safety bills, none of the measures regarding firearms were included. Golden recalls it as a “disappointing” moment.

Meanwhile, Hayes pointed out that the state already has a provision that he says functions like a red flag law. He believes it should be utilized more frequently.

Chapter 573 of the Health and Safety Code outlines the procedure for law enforcement to conduct emergency detentions of people they believe to be posing a danger to themselves or others because of “mental illness,” “severe emotional distress” or “deterioration” of their mental condition. The law provides law enforcement a policy on seizing a firearm in these situations.

“We’re going to figure out, ‘Is this person a substantial danger to themselves? Others? We’re going to diagnose them, we’re going to commit them, or we’re going to start monitoring them,” he said. “I think that’s so much better to focus on the dangerous person as opposed to just a firearm by itself.”  

Hayes told KXAN he believes enforcing current laws, such as Chapter 573, may be key to preventing gun violence. With a background as a felony prosecutor, he noted he counted 49 laws broken by the Uvalde shooter in all, during the shooting rampage that claimed the lives of 19 students and two teachers.

“We have a ton of laws on the books, and I think some of these could have prevented it,” he said.

He also emphasized what he called the “staggering” numbers of shootings taking place in gun-free zones, where he worries unarmed victims may be defenseless. He used churches as an example, crediting a 2019 Texas law that authorized anyone with a concealed-carry license to bring their weapon into houses of worship. It passed in response to the Sutherland Springs church shooting, where 26 people died.

Historically, the Texas legislative response after mass shootings has led to a flurry of laws aiming to improve safety generally, alongside laws to reduce restrictions on guns. For instance, in response to a shooting at a high school in Santa Fe Texas, lawmakers also expanded the number of trained school teachers and support staff who can carry guns on public school campuses in 2019.  

Golden says, this time, “All eyes are on Texas.”

She said her organization has heard a stronger outcry than ever for what she calls common sense gun reforms, such as closing certain “loopholes” on background checks and red flag laws.  

“I don’t think that the public is going to accept just the status quo anymore, especially after what happened in Uvalde,” she said.

The mom-turned-advocate began calling for gun safety measures and reforms after the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in 2012.

She said its research shows states with more gun restrictions see fewer gun deaths overall.

KXAN evaluated a database of public mass shootings, compiled by the National Institute of Justice, which is an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. The researchers compiled a database of these incidents from 1966 to 2019, using the Congressional Research Service definition of a public mass shooting: “a multiple homicide incident in which four or more victims are murdered with firearms”, not including the shooter(s), “within one event, and [where] at least some of the murders occurred in a public location or locations in close geographical proximity (e.g., a workplace, school, restaurant, or other public settings), and the murders are not attributable to any other underlying criminal activity or commonplace circumstance (armed robbery, criminal competition, insurance fraud, argument, or romantic triangle).”

The NIJ research found a “troubling upward trend” of these kinds of attacks in recent years.

It also found shooters in more than 77% of these incidents used handguns, while 25% used assault rifles.

According to the study, 77% of the shooters in the incidents evaluated purchased at least some of their guns legally. In cases involving school shootings, the study noted more than 80% of shooters stole guns from family members.

Hayes said these facts points to why handguns are often regulated differently from long guns — and the need for better enforcement.

“Homicide is the problem; violence is the problem. It’s not necessarily the long gun,” he said.

According to the researchers, their findings also support gun storage laws and certain red flag laws.

KXAN investigators found it’s unclear what other legislation, if any, had an impact on the number of shootings in each state, as defined by this research.

Golden said she sees direct connections between the initiatives championed by Texas Gun Sense and past mass shootings.

“If we were to enact comprehensive background checks, that’s the kind of measure that could have prevented Midland-Odessa,” she said. “If we talked about extreme risk protection order, that might have prevented what happens in an El Paso. Then if we if we want to talk about a stronger vetting process, and perhaps raising the age of purchase for semi automatic weapons, that could have prevented Uvalde … Again, I’m not saying we know for sure, but we’re saying — something might have.”

She also agrees with Hayes on looking closer at laws that are already in place, but she says many of those laws “are working” already.

“They’re creating some safety nets,” she said. “How can we strengthen those laws?”

Training program makes students key to school safety. Will it work in Texas?

Sitting on their colorful rug, a group of kindergartners listened carefully. Laminated lessons lined the walls of the classroom with numbers, shapes and the ABCs.

Their teacher joined them, sitting in the back, but it wasn’t story time on the rug on this day.

The students were learning key skills, including how to find good hiding spots, be quiet and move through their classroom and school like ninjas.

This type of lesson has played out in classrooms across the country including in rural Wyoming.

TAC*ONE trainer speaking to elementary students at an active shooter training. (Courtesy: Joe Deedon & TAC*ONE Consulting)
TAC*ONE trainer speaking to elementary students at an active shooter training. (Courtesy Joe Deedon & TAC*ONE Consulting)

“My kids came home from school and talked about how they learned to play hide-and-seek,” said Sarah Walker, whose kindergartner and second grader participated in an active shooter training. “We’re very open with our kids about the possibility of things like this happening, and we view it as just part of their education. And when they’re learning it in school, it carries over into everyday life — when we travel to a bigger city, and we go to an event where there’s a lot of people, and something could happen.”

Walker isn’t only a parent but a coach at Johnson County School District #1, which has about 1,200 students.

Kindergartners to high schoolers and staff participated in the training in April.

“Gives me as a mom a little bit of peace of mind that my child has been given some tools to understand how to make decisions in moments when we would typically rely on the adult to protect us,” Walker explained. “Now we’re allowing the kids to understand how to not just listen to the adults, and do what the adults are telling them in those crisis moments, but also to feel empowered that they’ve — they’ve been given the information, and they have the knowledge to make a choice, so that they can also kind of protect themselves if there was to be an incident.”

Across the country, students are learning how to react in an active shooter scenario. 

“It’s the missing link — it’s the only piece that for years and years, because we’re afraid to empower kids, you know, that that is lacking,” said Joe Deedon, founder and president of TAC*ONE Consulting out of Denver.

Deedon’s program provides the curriculum. He started the program designed for students and tailored to each grade level several years after the mass shooting in Columbine.

TAC*ONE trainer helping elementary school students move like ninjas through hallways of school. (Courtesy: Joe Deedon & TAC*ONE Consulting)
TAC*ONE trainer helping elementary school students move like ninjas through hallways of school. (Courtesy Joe Deedon & TAC*ONE Consulting)

“Everyone’s still about this traumatizing tag out there — the stigma, but yet, you’re just, you’re holding your kids back from not giving them some actual valuable life skills, right?” Deedon explained. “It’s just like stranger danger, sex assault prevention. We talk about those things with our kids all the time, how to keep themselves safe, and we’re not around them as adults, you know, as protectors.”

While younger students play hide-and-seek and learn to be ninjas, older students work on learning how to be more involved in the response.

“We do the barricading, the evacuation in groups, and then we also do the fighting back portion to where if a staff member were to subdue an adult and ask for help, you know, we teach those kids how to go basically trap a limb,” explained Deedon. 

Deedon and his team don’t use high-stress drills with real weapons. He said with the high schoolers, they use an orange plastic gun and are suited up in safety gear for an exercise where students learn to take down a shooter.

“The high school age kids are like, ‘Wow, you know, I’ve always felt like a sitting duck, where I felt so powerless, you know, when we run these drills, but yet now I feel like I have a plan,'” Deedon said.

High schoolers also get a breakdown of recent mass shootings like what happened in 2018 in Parkland, Florida and weigh the decisions made by students that day.

“We show them the Parkland animation, where, you know, some of the skills that were taught would have saved, you know, half or two-thirds of those kids’ lives,” Deedon explained.

For Johnson County School District #1, it’s about giving students skills to respond in a stressful situation.

“It’s really about empowering students and staff to make decisions that … could save their lives,” explained Charles Auzqui, superintendent of Johnson County School District #1. “When I say the word ’empowering,’ I want to make it clear to say we don’t want people to be victims. So we’re empowering them to be successful, and not that victim mentality, that they can’t do anything about it. But it is definitely age-appropriate with what we do.”

After the Uvalde elementary school mass shooting, Gov. Greg Abbott requested active shooter training in schools.

He’s tasked the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center or ALERRT to provide the training to not just school-based law enforcement but also school administrators.

ALERRT is based at Texas State University and provides scenario-focused training to law enforcement, first responders and civilians. 

John Curnutt, assistant director at the ALERRT Center, said they’ve been contacted by more than 30 independent school district police departments since the Uvalde shooting.

The current mandatory school-based law enforcement training is based off ALERRT curriculum. However, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement or TCOLE allows any law enforcement instructor to teach the class, not just ALERRT-certified instructors who have been through extensive training and have had to pass graded portions.

“So, we do know what material should be covered, but we don’t know who taught it or how well they taught it. It isn’t just how much time one spends in training, it is also how they spend their time in training,” Curnutt explained. “The same class can be a completely different experience depending on the knowledge, skills and experience of the instructor. The ALERRT-certified instructors have been through our 40-hour train-the-trainer course and have had to pass graded portions to demonstrate their ability to teach to our standards.”

ALERRT has also partnered with the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State to create new curriculum tailored to children and teens.

Curnutt explained there is no definitive timeline right now for when the age-appropriate curriculum could be available for students in Texas.

Students working with TAC*ONE trainers during active shooter exercise. (Courtesy: Joe Deedon & TAC*ONE Consulting)
Students working with TAC*ONE trainers during active shooter exercise. (Courtesy Joe Deedon & TAC*ONE Consulting)

“It has been slowed down the past two years with COVID, but we had begun to ramp up again, prior to Uvalde,” Curnutt said.

He explained part of that will include curriculum for school personnel to teach to students.

In Texas, the type of training offered by Deedon and his team is not mandatory.

The Texas Education Agency said school districts and charter schools are required to have one secure drill during a school year that focuses on threats outside of the school building, and two lockdown drills every year focused on a threat inside the school.

A recently adopted amendment to the rule, which goes into effect this week, said they are not required to do active threat exercises, which can include an “active shooter simulation.”

However, if the districts or charter schools do, the Texas Administrative Code explained it must be developmentally appropriate, have everyone involved — including parents who must be notified — and provide access to mental health support.

“Whether we want to talk about it or not, it’s something we do have to talk about. So, knowing that there’s opportunities to do it in a developmentally appropriate way and an empowering way that brings all of the community together, from the parents to the younger students to the police force, the staff, it gives a good sense of unity,” said Kristein LeDoux, Johnson County School District #1 board trustee and parent.

Ross Walker, a middle school teacher, coach and parent added he could immediately see the impact of the training.

“It makes them more aware of what they need to do,” Ross said. “It creates kind of this mental scenario where now they’ve already been through it, so they don’t get stuck thinking about what their response and reaction should be.”

Deedon explained one of the biggest hurdles has been helping schools and parents understand the training doesn’t cause anxiety or trauma to students taking part.

Students listen to TAC*ONE trainers during active shooter exercise. (Courtesy: Joe Deedon & TAC*ONE Consulting)
Students listen to TAC*ONE trainers during active shooter exercise. (Courtesy Joe Deedon & TAC*ONE Consulting)

“I feel that the kids actually getting to do hands on and seeing what that would really look like … if they were to have to barricade in a room, what that looks like, and what they would need to do if they were stuck in a situation that there was someone right directly outside the classroom,” said Lynette Fox, Johnson County School District board trustee. “And so, by giving them those, those tools, those kids were able to see what that looks like. And I feel like that the kids took a lot away from that.”

Johnson County School District #1 hopes to bring the program back, building on the training just completed.

“In order to do it effectively, this has to be done, in my opinion over three or four years. So, it’s done effectively and then kids are reminded — it becomes a routine,” Superintendent Auzqui explained.

Since 2018, Deedon and his team have provided the training to 10 school districts in three states — about 4,000 kids have gone through the program. 

“I have seen firsthand, you know, the failures of law enforcement, you know from my coworkers, peers that should have done something — didn’t,” Deedon explained. “I’ve also seen firsthand where a little bit of knowledge went a long way for these people in the shooting, when you break them down thinking, wow, they were empowered. But they had something up here that clicked that helped them make a good decision.”

Deedon said federal grants for school safety can cover the cost of training. It can cost anywhere from about $10,000 to $80,000 depending on the size of the district.