Flowers surrounded the sign for Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on Wednesday. Photo by Sergio Flores/Texas Tribune
May 27 (UPI) -- Four years after an armed 17-year-old opened fire inside a Texas high school, killing 10, Gov. Greg Abbott tried to tell another shell-shocked community that lost 19 children and two teachers to a teen gunman about his wins in what is now an ongoing effort against mass shootings.
"We consider what we did in 2019 to be one of the most profound legislative sessions, not just in Texas, but in any state to address school shootings," Abbott said inside a Uvalde auditorium Wednesday, flanked by state and local officials. "But to be clear, we understand our work is not done, our work must continue."
Throughout the 60-minute news conference, he and other Republican leaders said a 2019 law allowed districts to "harden" schools from external threats after a deadly shooting inside an art classroom at Santa Fe High School near Houston the year before. After the Uvalde gunman was reportedly able to enter Robb Elementary School through a back door this week, their calls to secure buildings resurfaced yet again.
But a deeper dive into the 2019 law revealed many of its "hardening" elements have fallen short.
Schools didn't receive enough state money to make the types of physical improvements lawmakers are touting publicly. Few school employees signed up to bring guns to work. And many school districts either don't have an active shooting plan or produced insufficient ones.
In January 2020, the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District received $69,000 from a one-time, $100 million state grant to enhance physical security in Texas public schools, according to a dataset detailing the Texas Education Agency grants. The funds were comparable to what similarly sized districts received.
Even with more funds and better enforcement of policies, experts have said there is no indication that beefing up security in schools has prevented any violence. Plus, they said, it can be detrimental to children, especially children of color.
"This concept of hardening, the more it has been done, it's not shown the results," said Jagdish Khubchandani, a public health professor at New Mexico State University who studies school security practices and their effectiveness.
Khubchandani said the majority of public schools in the United States already implement the security measures most often promoted by public officials, including locked doors to the outside and in classrooms, active-shooter plans and security cameras.
After a review of 18 years of school security measures, Khubchandani and James Price from the University of Toledo did not find any evidence that such tactics or more armed teachers reduced gun violence in schools.
"It's not just guns. It's not just security," Khubchandani said. "It's a combination of issues, and if you have a piecemeal approach, then you'll never succeed. You need a comprehensive approach."
Insufficient active-shooter plans
Since the shooting, GOP lawmakers have repeatedly suggested limiting access to schools to one door.
"We've got to, in our smaller schools where we can, get down to one entrance," Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick offered at the press conference Wednesday. "One entrance might be one of those solutions. If he had taken 3 more minutes to find that open door ... the police were there pretty quickly."
There are still questions about the timing and details of the tragedy, however, including whether the shooter busted a lock to get into the school or if a door was unlocked. A state police official reported Thursday that the door appeared to be unlocked but that it was still under investigation.
Khubchandani and education advocates said locking doors and routing everyone through one entrance is standard practice in most districts. And safety leaders said locking exterior doors is a best practice, but it's one strategy that needs to be strictly enforced.
"Sometimes convenience can take priority over safety, and you can have a plan in place, you can have policies in place," said Kathy Martinez Prather, director of the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University. "They're only as effective as they're being implemented."
At Wednesday's press conference, Abbott emphasized that the package of school safety laws passed in 2019 required school districts to submit emergency operations plans to the Texas School Safety Center and make sure they have adequate active-shooter strategies to employ in an emergency.
State law dictates that districts must be able to show how they will prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters like active threats, but also extreme weather and communicable disease. These plans must include training mechanisms, communication plans and mandatory drills. Schools must create safety committees and establish a way to assess threats. These are known as emergency operations plans. As part of those, schools need active-shooter plans.
But a three-year audit by the center in 2020 found that out of the 1,022 school districts in the state, just 200 districts had active-shooter policies as part of their plans, even though most districts had reported having them.
That same audit revealed 626 districts did not have active-shooter policies. Another 196 had active-shooter policies, but auditors found those plans were insufficient.
In addition, only 67 school districts had viable emergency operations plans overall, the report found.
Martinez Prather wouldn't say if Uvalde's emergency plan was considered adequate because of ongoing investigations into the shooting. But said the center's review did not find any areas of noncompliance.
The audit reviewed school districts' emergency plans in June 2020, and Martinez Prather said she was "absolutely" surprised that so many schools did not have clear-cut plans, especially after the Santa Fe shooting and others around the country.
"Our attention to this issue should not be as close to the nearest and latest school shooting," she said. "We need to keep sending that message that this can happen at any point in time and to anybody."
She said the center has spent the last year and a half following up with schools to get their plans up to standard.
Texas leaders have shunned the idea of restricting gun access in the aftermath of the Uvalde shooting. In fact, in recent years, Texas lawmakers have loosened gun laws after mass shootings.
Instead, lawmakers point to the nearly decade-old school marshal program in Texas as another measure to deter and prevent mass shootings. That program was created in response to the deadly shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., that left 26 people dead, including 20 first-graders.
Designated school employees who take an 80-hour training course and pass a psychological exam are allowed to keep a firearm in a lockbox on school grounds, an idea most attractive to rural schools in areas where law enforcement response can take longer.
After the school shooting in Santa Fe, state lawmakers removed the cap that limited schools to one marshal per 200 students. Today, according to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, which oversees the training for the program, there are 256 marshals across the state.
While lawmakers tout it as a potential tool to prevent mass shootings, just 6% of school districts use it, according to a report from the Texas School Safety Center. Martinez Prather at the Texas School Safety Center said many school districts say it's expensive and the training is time-consuming for educators.
Meanwhile, 280 schools are utilizing an unregulated option known as the Guardian Program, which allows local school boards to approve individuals in schools to carry concealed weapons. Each "guardian" must have a handgun license and take 15 to 20 hours of specialized training by the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Nicole Golden, executive director of Texas Gun Sense, said she's concerned by the "minimal" level of training school staff go through before they are approved to have a weapon in the classroom.
"These aren't law enforcement officers," she said. "These are school staff who have some training, and there's really not a lot of data to support that that's the safe direction to go in."
Plus, Golden said, placing more guns on school grounds can be problematic when data show students of color are disproportionately disciplined.
When lawmakers decided to expand the number of marshals in Texas schools in 2019, Black students and parents said the idea made them feel less safe in school, knowing they are disciplined more than other students.
The study from Khubchandani and Price pointed to a 2018 shooting at a high school in Kentucky where the shooter killed two and injured 14 students in 10 seconds.
"Armed school personnel would have needed to be in the exact same spot in the school as the shooter to significantly reduce this level of trauma," the researchers wrote. "Ten seconds is too fast to stop a school shooter with a semiautomatic firearm when the armed school guard is in another place in the school."
$10 per student for safety
Big changes often take big money, and officials have noted that the 2019 school safety bill gives about $100 million per biennium to the Texas Education Agency. The agency then distributes the money to school districts to use on equipment, programs and training related to school safety and security, a little less than $10 per student based on average daily attendance. The money can be used broadly, ranging from physical security enhancements to suicide prevention programs.
According to a self-reported survey of districts by the Texas School Safety Center, more than two thirds of school districts have used this money for security cameras. Some 20% used it for active-shooter response training. Nearly 40% of districts installed physical barriers with the allotment.
But Zeph Capo, president of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said that money wasn't enough to pay for the more expensive projects lawmakers were suggesting.
"Districts ended up spending money on some programs, some electronic AV equipment, but I don't think it was nearly enough to do what needs to be done in most of the schools, which is really change the structures of the buildings so there's better control over entrance and egress," he said, noting that AFT believes more gun restrictions is a better solution.
The TEA also received a separate onetime $100 million pool of money to provide grants to districts specifically for physical security enhancements, like metal detectors, door-locking systems or bullet-resistant glass.
It's unclear how Uvalde CISD spent the $69,000 it received from the state to enhance its physical security. School officials did not respond to questions Wednesday. As of the May 2 report, the district had spent about $48,000 of the grant, which is set to end at the end of the month.
Other remote town school districts received comparable grants per their student population, according to an analysis by The Texas Tribune. For example, the Sulphur Springs Independent School District in East Texas has only a slightly larger student population and received about $71,000 in grant funds.
According to a district document, Uvalde CISD, which enrolls around 4,100 students, had a variety of so-called hardening measures in place that lawmakers and school safety leaders recommend.
The district employed four district police officers, installed perimeter fencing meant to limit access around schools, including Robb, and instituted a policy that all classroom doors remain locked during the day.
There are campus teams that identify and address potential threats, and schools hold emergency drills for students "regularly." The district employed a threat reporting system for community members to raise concerns. Some schools had security vestibules at their entrances and buzz-in systems to get inside from the outdoors.
But a security vestibule, which is basically a secure lobby to the school, can be a huge expense for school districts already tight on money. In 2019, the Waller Independent School District estimated that the addition of two of these entrances to the junior high school would cost $345,000. Security cameras at a small elementary school can cost more than $20,000, according to industry experts.
In recent years -- even before the Santa Fe shooting -- school districts have begun to rely on bond proposals to find the money to implement some of these changes.
But Texas voters have expressed hesitancy at the ballot box to approve such bonds in recent years, which the Texas Association of School Boards attributed to the lingering pandemic and political polarization. Recent changes by the Texas Legislature have also complicated bond requests for schools after it started to require districts to write, "This is a property tax increase," on bond project signs, even when the proposals wouldn't affect the tax rate.
Overall, Monty Exter, a senior lobbyist with the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said the per-student allotment and onetime grants set aside for school security could never pay for the types of construction projects lawmakers have touted publicly in the wake of the shooting.
"Thinking about making significant changes to 8,000-plus campuses, $100 million doesn't necessarily go that far," he said.
Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators, Texas AFT and the Texas Association of School Boards have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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