As a union, we like to say “educators’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions.” While this adage applies to diverse issues such as class size, school funding, and facilities, nowhere is that phrase more relevant than when it comes to school safety.
As gun violence has increased in schools across the United States over the past decades, both students and educators feel the same fear walking into the classroom each day.
In the wake of recent atrocities, the legislature had the opportunity to enact changes that would actually curtail the gun violence epidemic and save lives, changes that were supported by those whose lives were forever changed by school gun violence in Texas.
Unpacking the Legislature
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That opportunity was largely squandered. While there were some significant changes enacted by the legislature that will make our schools more secure, the wider issue of firearm availability in Texas was not addressed.
Why It Happened?
The broader discussion of school safety for the 88th Legislative Session began when two teachers and 19 students were tragically gunned down at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde on May 24, 2022.
The immediate and sustained public outcry over the mismanagement of this crisis led to the appointment of special committees in both the House and Senate which heard testimony throughout June 2022 and published reports to be considered as the basis of possible legislative action in the then upcoming session.
On the same day as the first investigative hearing, Governor Abbott directed Education Commissioner Mike Morath to create a “Chief of School Safety and Security” at the Texas Education Agency to oversee efforts to secure schools from gun violence. This charge was finally fulfilled in October 2022 with the appointment of John P. Scott, former Army Captain and Secret Service, to this position.
Additionally, the commissioner was engaged in extensive rulemaking throughout November and December 2022 to codify new school safety facilities requirements. These rules went into effect on May 31.
What Passed … or Didn’t
There were many moving parts on this issue prior to the Legislature gaveling in in January. By the end of the bill filing deadline in March, hundreds of bills relating to safety had been proposed—ranging from school hardening measures to mental health initiatives—but only a handful emerged as contenders for consideration:
- HB 3 by Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock) is the widest reaching bill and, among other provisions, requires the placement of an armed guard on each and every campus in Texas. It also has the biggest price tag of any of the major bills, creating a per-campus safety allotment in addition to the per-student funding districts currently receive.
- SB 838 by Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Beaumont) passed and became effective immediately. It requires each school district and charter school to provide a silent panic alert button in each classroom for teachers to have immediate contact with district or school emergency services and emergency services agencies, law enforcement agencies, health departments, and fire departments.
- HB 13 by Rep. Ken King (R-Canadian) did not pass but would have required several additional trainings (mental health as well as firearm safety) for those serving as campus security and, alarmingly, would have established a program to provide a stipend to educators to serve as “sentinels” (armed guards). This bill also would have significantly narrowed the range of allowable uses for the school safety allotment, including prohibiting it from being used for hiring counselors and new mental health initiatives.
- SB 11 by Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) did not pass but was similar in scope to HB 3 and had some provisions related to truancy and student discipline. It would have also allowed, as part of the state monitoring process, the takeover of a district for non-compliance of state safety standards.
While these bills were intended to beef up school security, it is important to note that these bills do not address the root cause of gun violence: the availability of firearms, especially weapons of war like assault rifles.
HB 2744 by Rep. Tracy King (D-Batesville) would have raised the minimum age to purchase certain semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21 and was supported by a wide coalition of firearm safety advocates, including the parents of victims of the Uvalde tragedy. While this bill would have taken an important step to address the root issues of school gun violence, the bill ultimately did not pass.
In a testament to the power of advocacy from various stakeholder groups, HB 2744 was voted out of the Republican-controlled Select Committee on Community Safety, with Republican Representatives Justin Holland (R-Rockwall) and Sam Harless (R-Spring) supporting the proposal. The bill did not move further in the legislative process, but this is the furthest that such a proposal has ever moved.
While HB 2744 died in the House Calendars Committee, HB 3, HB 13, and SB 11 passed through the legislative process borrowing from and, in some cases, supplanting each other as they passed to opposing chambers. By the anniversary of the Uvalde tragedy, and with just days left in the regular session, the Legislature still had not come to an agreement on a school safety bill.
A sticking point throughout negotiations was how costly a comprehensive school safety bill would be to implement. Schools districts, while not opposed to increasing safety measures, were understandably concerned with not being provided the funding to bring their facilities into compliance and being forced to absorb the costs with no additional school finance package in sight.
Ultimately, HB 3 was the bill with sufficient traction to make it all the way to a conference committee, where the House and Senate name conferees to resolve differences in the two chambers’ versions of a bill before sending it to the Governor. HB 3 contains several provisions, including the following:
- Directs the commissioner to adopt or amend rules to ensure facilities standards for new and existing instructional facilities (see above).
- Requires TEA to establish an office of school safety and security to provide technical assistance to school districts to support the implementation and operation of safety and security requirements and conduct district audits.
- Grants the commissioner authority to assign a conservator if a school district fails to submit to any required monitoring, assessment, or audit; comply with applicable safety and security requirements; or address issues raised by the agency’s monitoring. A conservator assigned in this instance may only exercise authority to correct identified safety issues.
- Requires the presence of an armed guard on every campus during regular school hours. This can be a school district peace officer, a school resource officer, a commissioned peace officer, contracted security, or a school marshal.
- Provides funding in the amount of $15,000 per campus plus $10 per student; costing the state $328 million over the next biennium. Districts may issue bonds to fund capital projects not covered by this allotment.
What Legislators Are Saying
While Texas AFT supports a safe learning environment for both teachers and students, we adamantly oppose many elements in this bill, especially the armed guard requirement. Our members have told us repeatedly that they do not want to be armed or have an increase of armed personnel on their campuses. Unfortunately, research also reveals that armed security on school campuses does not deter targeted shootings by individuals.
Sen. Roland Gutierrez, whose gun safety bills did not pass in the Texas Legislature, released a statement strongly rebuking the Legislature’s lack of real action to keep children safe:
“School districts and their employees have already been asked to do more with less – more students with less counselors and support staff, larger class sizes with fewer teachers, and building more schools with less state money. Now we are going to add an unfunded mandate to have a security officer at every single public school. It is sick and twisted that we have the largest budget surplus in Texas history and we aren’t doing a damn thing to keep our kids safe. We aren’t doing anything to prevent another Uvalde,” Gutierrez said.
What to Expect Next
School safety, as a legislative issue, may not resurface during the anticipated special session(s), but districts must soon begin the arduous and expensive work of bringing their facilities into compliance with the new state law. As budget debates continue in school board rooms across Texas, we have to wonder how these new, unfunded mandates will affect the ability of districts to hire or provide raises to retain teachers and other support staff. What important funding priorities will districts have to forgo because they must meet these new mandates issued by the state?
Texas AFT will be closely involved in the rule-making process to implement HB 3 and will provide continuing updates over the next school year.