The Texas House on Monday passed legislation that is calling for significant investments to beef up schools' safety, including hiring at least one armed security officer at every campus, providing incentives for school employees to get certified to carry a weapon and installing silent panic alert buttons in every classroom.
The proposal would also require regular safety inspections of school buildings and would give grants to students who want to attend another school district if their current one is not complying with safety standards. In addition, the bill was amended to give schools $100 for each student who regularly attends classes, plus an additional $15,000 each year, to upgrade their security. The change would raise the cost of the bill from $300 million to about $1.6 billion.
HD Chambers, executive director of the Texas School Alliance, said the state must strike the right balance between making schools safer and not creating environments where children are afraid to go to school.
"Access to mental health services is as important as any effort to harden campuses," he said. "Ultimately, each school district is unique and needs the resources and flexibility to enact solutions that work for its community.”
School safety is a priority for both chambers this session after the Uvalde shooting left 19 children and two teachers dead last year. The House voted on HB 3 and two other school safety bills less than a week after the Senate passed a proposal to make sure that hundreds of Texas school districts without active-shooter plans get up to speed. The Senate's school safety bill also includes many of the provisions in the House bills passed Monday.
In their budget proposals for the next two years, the House has allocated $1.6 billion for school security while the Senate calls for a nearly $1.3 billion investment. Members from both chambers will meet behind closed doors to negotiate what will make it into the final budget.
But while both chambers have passed bills on school security in response to Uvalde, it is unclear whether lawmakers will listen to Uvalde families who want to raise the minimum age to purchase semi-automatic guns from 18 to 21. The bill that would do that had a hearing at the House last week, but it faces stiff opposition from Republicans.
Under HB 3, armed security officers would be hired to be present at every campus during school hours. The Texas School Safety Center — a Texas State University think tank that has been reviewing schools' safety protocols since the 2018 Santa Fe High School shooting — would be required to conduct checks of a school district’s buildings at least once every five years to make sure they are following the state's safety standards. The Texas Education Agency could withhold any grant money from a district until the agency finds that it is in compliance.
In the Uvalde shooting, the gunman entered Robb Elementary through a back door that failed to properly lock.
During the floor debate, Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos, D-Richardson, brought an amendment that would bar teachers from being armed on campus. Under the current language of the bill, a school district could arm a teacher to meet the requirements of having an armed officer at every campus. The amendment failed.
Robin Breed, the Austin legislative lead for Moms Demand Action, a group that advocates for public safety policies to protect people from gun violence, said she was disappointed that the amendment wasn't approved.
"Law enforcement officers like those that were at Uvalde have enormous training requirements," she said. "We know that even with those training requirements, those officers at Uvalde were unable or unwilling to stop that shooter. So, asking a teacher to be able to perform better than the officers is ridiculous."
The House also gave preliminary approval to House Bill 13, authored by Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, which will need one more floor vote before heading to the Senate. The bill would give district employees a $25,000 incentive for each year they're certified as so-called school guardians, or staff who can carry a gun in school.
HB 13 would also require law enforcement to do regular walk-throughs of school buildings and require district employees who regularly interact with kids to attend a mental health and first-aid training program. It would set up grants of up to $250 million for schools to upgrade their security and allocate $100 for each student who regularly attends classes.
In addition, the House also gave preliminary approval to Senate Bill 838, authored by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe. The proposal would require districts to use part of their school safety budget to place silent panic alert buttons in each classroom. The buttons would immediately alert law enforcement agencies during emergencies. The proposal appears to be in response to the police radio failures inside Robb Elementary during the Uvalde shooting. Creighton’s bill was the companion to House Bill 669, authored by Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, an identical piece of legislation that was part of the House’s school safety package.
Erin Douglas contributed to this story.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/04/24/texas-house-school-safety/. The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.