Left to right: State Sens. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownville, and John Whitmire, D-Houston, at the second day of hearings held by the Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security on June 12, 2018. (Rachel Zein / Texas Tribune)
The Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Safety also wants to explore new funding to help arm certain school employees.
A special Texas Senate committee devoted to fighting school violence has recommended improving mental health resources for students and increasing funding for a program that arms some members of school staff, but shied away from any measures aiming to limit access to guns.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, formed the Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security following the mass shooting at Santa Fe High School south of Houston. Committee members heard testimony during four meetings in June and July on ways to improve school safety infrastructure, address mental health issues among students and consider controversial “red flag” policies that would take guns away from those deemed a risk to others.
Several of the committee’s recommendations focused on “hardening” schools, adding funding for metal detectors and other security apparatuses on campuses. The committee also recommended that the state explore increasing financing for school marshal programs, which allow certified staffers to have access to firearms in schools. During its public hearings, committee members heard testimony that marshal programs can strain school budgets, since they require training and lockboxes for guns. The committee hopes to alleviate that strain with state funds, though it didn’t give specific dollar amounts for any of its recommendations.
The recommendations were in line with Republican Gov. Greg Abbott‘s proposal to expand the school marshal program, included in a 44-page school safety action plan he released soon after the Santa Fe shooting.
School marshal programs are one of two ways the state allows schools to arm teachers. School districts can also allocate “guardians” who can carry firearms in schools without a minimum amount of training. The committee recommended considering a minimum training requirement for school guardians.
Craig Bessent, assistant superintendent of Wylie Independent School District and one of the first school marshals in Texas, said that he was happy to see Abbott’s and the senators’ support for the marshal program. Few sites offer school marshal training in Texas, he said, and travel expenses and time away from school can be taxing on administrators. He hoped the Legislature would not only help finance training but also distribute it to sites across the state.
But no matter how well trained marshals could be, Bessent said the root problem was mental health and spotting the seeds of violence before they materialize. If schools can address those issues, “maybe we won’t have this discussion about school marshals,” he said.
Committee members also pushed for increased mental health resources for students, including expanding mental health first aid training for school staff who interact with students and videoconferencing psychiatric help to students who wouldn’t otherwise have access to mental health professionals.
Testimony from counselors and school social workers showed a pattern of schools using counselors for administrative work. Committee members recommended considering legislation that would enumerate counselor duties. They also proposed looking into ways to make counselors more accessible to students, particularly in rural areas with fewer school personnel.
Stephanie Rubin, CEO of advocacy and research group Texans Care for Children, lauded the focus on mental health care, but expressed concern at the report’s lack of specific methods to implement its recommendations. In a statement released soon after the report, Rubin said the Legislature will still have to work out several of the details in the upcoming session in 2019 for any substantive change to occur.
“We hope state leaders build on these efforts and take real action, with meaningful increases in state funding, to support student mental health,” the statement said.
The committee did not recommend the implementation of “red flag” laws, which Abbott proposed in his school safety recommendations but Patrick has fiercely challenged. Instead, members proposed clarifying legislation on whether people convicted of domestic violence can own firearms to begin with and on returning guns to people who have been detained but declared not to be a risk to themselves or others.
That drew a rebuke from Mike Collier, the Democrat who is challenging Patrick for lieutenant governor.
“Red flag laws work, and the only language in this report regarding red flag laws is the recommendation to clarify current statutes,” Collier said in a statement.