Texas Politics

A year after the Santa Fe school shooting, Abbott signs bills to make schools safer

Thursday was the last day of school for students across the Santa Fe Independent School District, the marker of a year survived since one of the deadliest school shootings ricocheted in their halls last May.

Nearly 200 miles away at the Texas Capitol, Gov. Greg Abbott and lawmakers gathered in the same room where roundtable discussions to address the shooting were held, and signed bills into law that they say will usher in a new level of safety across Texas’ schools.

Those discussions “led to proposed bills, that led to debates, that led to the passage of bills that have now led to laws in the state of Texas,” Abbott said pointing a finger down at the bills before him, “to address not only the tragedy that took place in Santa Fe, but also laws that will do more than Texas has ever done to make our schools safer places.”

Abbott signed three bills that aim to increase school safety, mental health resources and school marshals throughout Texas’ schools.

“There are no words that will take away the pain and suffering or the terrible loss which has been suffered,” said Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, who represents part of Santa Fe. “What they went through has not happened in vain. In their memory we are taking tangible, concrete steps to see that no one has to go through, as best we can prevent it, what they went through.”

Lawmakers vowed to beef up school safety during the legislative session, with state leaders naming it one of their top priorities after the shooting at Santa Fe High School left 10 dead and 13 wounded in May 2018.

Rusty Norman, president of the Santa Fe school board, traveled to Austin to watch the bills be signed. Santa Fe is still healing, he said, but the legislation is an excellent start.

“We had asked for help,” Norman said. “And some guidance. What we also asked for was not a bunch of unfunded mandates. And we did not get unfunded mandates. We got some things that make some sense.”

Senate Bill 11 includes measures such as hiring additional mental health counselors and establishing threat assessments teams and trauma-informed approaches — many of which were noted in in Abbott’s 43-page school safety plan released shortly after the shooting.

The bill, authored by Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, also allocates about $100 million toward “hardening” schools for “the day we live in today.” Districts can use the funds toward securing campuses, including hiring peace officers or installing security cameras.

“These schools were not designed for the types of situations we’re dealing with,” said Taylor, who represents part of Santa Fe. “They’ve done a magnificent job of handling the load of having such a burden brought upon their community by an unknown evil, that’s all you can describe it as.”

Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, noted that an organization’s budget shows its “moral compass.”

“If you open this budget at this time, you will see sprinkled throughout it millions upon millions — if not billions of dollars — dedicated to mental health,” Zerwas said.

The bill will also establish the Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium, which will bring mental health experts together to work to address the mental health needs of students. The provision was amended onto the sweeping school safety bill after Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, attempted to kill the language in Senate Bill 10.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who authored Senate Bill 10, said mental health is an essential component of school safety, and highlighted tackling a lack of counseling through alternatives, like tele-health.

“I can’t imagine the horror of losing your child,” Nelson said. “I heard from so many teachers and parents and pediatricians that they just didn’t know where to go. They needed more than what was available to them.”

With Abbott’s signature, the bill will go into effect immediately because it received at least two-thirds of the vote in the House and Senate.

Students’ mental health is also the focus of House Bill 18, which will go into effect on Dec. 1. The bill includes provisions that require training for educators on mental health conditions and suicide prevention, in addition to establishing comprehensive counseling programs and improving students’ access to mental health resources.

“We know that the common denominator amongst all of these horrific crimes is mental health,” Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said of mass shootings.

But throughout the session, some lawmakers have stressed that a different tactic would be the most effective in stopping a school shooter.

“One very simple measure that would be at no cost to the state or schools,” Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, said on the Senate floor on one of the final days of the session. “And that is, a good, law-abiding citizen with a gun.”

While the sweeping school safety bill does not include provisions related to firearms on campus, House Bill 1387 may allow for more of them through school marshals — select employees who undergo training to act as armed peace officers.

The bill, which was part of the trio that Abbott signed Thursday, abolishes the cap of one school marshal per 200 students.

Norman said Santa Fe ISD does not participate in the school marshal program or the Guardian plan, which allows school staff to carry guns as long as they receive district training and have a handgun license.

Both options are being researched, and support for firearms in the classroom “goes both ways,” he said.

“Right now we need people to stay focused on moving forward,” Norman said. “Our students are resilient. They’re doing a remarkable job. And we need that to continue.”

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Tessa Weinberg is a state government for the Star-Telegram. Based in Austin, she covers all things policy and politics with a focus on Tarrant County. She previously covered the Missouri legislature where her reporting prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. A California native and graduate of the University of Missouri, she’s made her way across the U.S. and landed in Texas in May 2019.