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Gov. Abbott wants more marshals, increased mental health screening to make schools safer

Gov. Gregg Abbott held roundtable discussions last week in Austin and this week unveiled a school safety plan.
Gov. Gregg Abbott held roundtable discussions last week in Austin and this week unveiled a school safety plan. Austin American-Statesman

Just weeks after the deadly Santa Fe school shooting, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott unveiled a 40-point school safety plan that touches on issues ranging from boosting law enforcement presence at schools to increasing social media monitoring to potentially prevent deadly shootings before they occur.

His plan would provide more than $120 million in state and federal grants to Texas schools. The goal is to let each district pick solutions that would best keep their students and teachers safe.

“This plan is a starting point, not an ending place,” Abbott told media gathered Wednesday at Dallas school district headquarters. “It provides strategies that can be used before the next school year begins to keep our students safe when they return to school.

"This plan will make our schools safer and our communities safer.”

Abbott said his plan will boost campus security programs, increase firearm safety, provide mental health evaluations that could identify students potentially at risk of hurting others and provide free gun locks for Texans who want to keep their firearms safe.

This comes comes shortly before the last day of school for many districts, including Fort Worth.

Roundtables

Wednesday's announcement follows three roundtables Abbott hosted that were focused on finding ways to reduce gun violence and boost school safety.

Abbott said some pieces of his plan can go into effect immediately, such as training more school marshals this summer.

Others, he said, would take longer.

His plan includes boosting the number of school counselors, studying whether to expand a program that arms teachers and expanding the Campus Crime Stoppers program to let more students share information they have about potential threats.

Plans also call for providing more funding for mental health evaluations to identify problematic students, increasing "mental first-aid training," adding active shooter alarm systems that would work differently from fire alarms and creating more "fusion centers" to help law enforcers identify and potentially resolve potential threats that first arise on social media.

Abbott said some schools may want to improve the "infrastructure and design" of their buildings to create limited entrances and exits — and better monitor who comes and goes.

And he noted that the state offers grants up to $10,000 for any campus that wants to increase the number of school marshals at schools.

But the governor stressed that his position on the Second Amendment hasn't changed.

“I can assure you I will never allow Second Amendment rights to be infringed,” he said. “But, I will always promote responsible gun ownership. That includes keeping guns safe, and keeping them out of the hands of criminals.”

The Texas State Teachers Association was not a fan of Abbott's plan.

“The Texas State Teachers Association strongly objects to Gov. Greg Abbott’s proposal to arm more teachers, the so-called school marshals, as a part of his plan to address gun violence in schools," said Noel Candelaria, president of the association. "Teachers are trained to teach and to nurture, not double up as security guards.

"Answering a National Education Association survey conducted earlier this year, 82 percent of teachers and other school employees throughout the country, including 63 percent of gun owners, said they would not carry a gun to school. They know they are no match for heavily armed, suicidal intruders intent on killing."

The Brady Campaign to Reduce Gun Violence had one response to Abbott's plan: "What are you planning to do about the guns?"

Brady co-president Kris Brown said the key to preventing school shootings "isn’t some deep-seated secret. ... It’s the fact that it’s frighteningly easy for dangerous people to get access to a gun, and this proposal does little to stop that."

Legislative ideas

Some Texas lawmakers have suggested everything from reducing the number of entrances and exits at schools to strengthening the state's mental health system and removing guns from school and college campuses.

Although some lawmakers have asked Abbott to convene a special session to pass new laws to keep schools safe, the governor appeared to be on the fence. Even if he did call a special session, he said it's unlikely new laws would be in place before students go back to school this fall.

The Texas Legislature heads back to work in January 2019.

Abbott did say he'd like to see changes in the law made to allow for the removal of students who pose threats to teachers or others. He wants a mandatory reporting requirement for any lost or stolen guns. And he wants courts to be required to report within 48 hours any convictions or orders that prevent Texans from having firearms.

He also said current law makes parents accountable when their children under the age of 17 get their hands on weapons; he proposes changing that to 17 and younger.

Abbott also said he'd like lawmakers to study creating a "red flag" law to let family members, law enforcers, school officials or more file a petition to have firearms removed from a potentially dangerous person. Abbott stressed that this could only happen after "due process" occurs.

House Speaker Joe Straus issued a charge Wednesday afternoon, calling on the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee to study creating a "red flag" law.

"It's critically important that students and parents know when they return to school in August that schools are significantly safer and less vulnerable to a shooting tragedy, and today the state has taken the first steps toward giving them that assurance," he said.

Budget cuts?

Democrats agree that the state must invest in schools to keep students safe.

Democrats support many of the ideas that Gov. Abbott laid out today," said state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, who heads the Texas House Democratic Caucus. "Many of the governor’s proposals will undoubtedly have bipartisan support. Democrats and Republicans should work together to make our schools safer and protect our kids."

Turner said one key issue that should be addressed is the record of "Republican budget cuts" to Texas schools, particularly what he said was a $5.4 billion cut in 2011 that hasn't been fully restored.

"We know that lack of adequate state funding hurts academic performance, but it also has other negative impacts — including reduced resources for security, counseling services, and more," he said. "In the past, we’ve seen a lack of political will to invest enough funding in our local schools and to take reasonable gun safety measures. Hopefully, that will change when the Legislature convenes in 2019 — or sooner, if the Governor opts to call a special session."

James Largent, superintendent of Granbury schools, said many of the ideas discussed by the governor may “carry a hefty price tag.”

“Many of us worry if these ideas will become yet more unfunded mandates, where the state tells us what we must do, but tells us to find the money in our local budgets to pay for them.,” Largent told the Star-Telegram in an email. “Hopefully, with the extreme importance of this issue, the state will step up and fund any mandates they demand of local schools.”

Several school districts have also addressed security enhancements in their long-range plans, including bond programs as they renovate and build new campuses. For example, voters in Northwest schools, a district that includes far north Fort Worth, approved a bond program includes $14 million in safety and security enhancements.

"We will scrutinize the plan as recommended by the Governor," the Northwest school district said in a statement. "We remain committed to partnering with our community to make our schools as safe as we can."

Southlake Mayor Laura Hill announced Wednesday that the city has plans to invest $500,000 in new safety and security initiatives for schools in the Carroll district.

"We want our students to feel safe, secure and protected and if we work together, we will find the best solutions for Southlake," Hill said in a video shared on social media.

Student reaction

The Santa Fe shooting is the worst school shooting since the Valentine's Day shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla. There, after 17 people were killed, parents of those killed and surviving students began calling on lawmakers to bring about gun law reforms.

As for the Texas shooting, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, a 17-year-old student, is being held without bond in the Galveston County jail on charges of capital murder.

Both mass shootings prompted student activist movements for gun reform that includes ensuring that guns don't end up in the hands of "unstable" or under-aged people. Students have walked out of classes, participated in marches and rallied with a consistent message of reform.

They also directed open letters to Abbott.

"We know that Texas can be a leader on responsible gun ownership and reasonable gun legislation, which will prevent further tragedies like those in Santa Fe and Sutherland Springs," Lillian Scott and Lucy Ariola wrote in a letter to the governor recently provided to the Star-Telegram.

Dakota Rudzik, a student activist who recently graduated from Keller Central High School, said he supports expansion of mental health screenings and and changing the age of parent liability to 17.

“It may be your right to own a gun, but the Second Amendment calls for fair regulation,” he said. “If you can't keep your gun secure and practice basic firearm safety then you should not have a firearm. Period.”

Lalita Kunamneni, a junior from Flower Mound High School, said she favors proposed “red flag laws” that allow guns to be removed from people with mental health issues.

However, she questioned why Abbott didn’t call a special session.

"The avoidance of calling a special session to pass these laws is telling,” Kunamneni said. “Furthermore, I saw that he proposed free gun locks — an admirable plan, but there should be a law designating safe storage, like Australia’s storage laws. Make it mandatory, rather than a suggestion.”

Kunamneni said the Santa Fe shooter got his weapon from his father and "although Texas does have some of the strongest acts against leaving a firearm within reach of a minor, they are often not executed, and don’t set a necessary safety requirement, just that the firearm is in a place that a child can’t reach. "

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley

"I was just shaken by anger and frustration that this still keeps happening even after the Parkland shooting." Watch as students and parents honor victims of the latest school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas.

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