On Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott released a “School and Firearm Safety Action Plan” as a response to the recent tragic school shooting at Santa Fe High School. The plan includes 40 specific recommendations on issues ranging from gun safety to school security to mental health services.

Among the recommendations is one to remove threatening students in the classroom. The plan cites TCTA survey results, as well as TCTA’s student discipline testimony to the Senate Education Committee, which emphasized the importance of administrative support for teachers in student discipline matters, and which also included real-life examples of student violence in the classroom provided by TCTA members. 

The plan was the result of input the governor received from several days of school safety roundtables he conducted in the aftermath of the school shooting. TCTA’s executive director, Jeri Stone, was among those invited to participate in the roundtables, which also included legislators, state agency leaders, mental health experts, school administrators, parents and student victims of school violence, and gun group representatives.

During a press conference announcing the release of the school safety plan, the governor announced that $120 million would be available immediately to implement some of the recommendations, primarily from state and federal grant programs. He also noted that, after speaking with Senate and House leaders, there seems to be consensus that funding can be allocated from the current budget for strategies in the plan for which there is general support and for additional funding to be provided during the next regular legislative session, which starts in January. 

Removing threatening students from the classroom

The governor’s plan calls for the state to “empower teachers to immediately remove from the classroom a student who threatens bodily injury to his or herself or another” by removing students if they intentionally, knowingly or recklessly commit against a school employee an act that: 

  1. Causes bodily injury; 
  2. Threatens with imminent serious bodily injury; or
  3. Causes physical contact when the student knows or should reasonably believe that the employee will regard the contact as offensive.

Since current law already requires students to be removed from class and placed in a DAEP for engaging in assaultive conduct that causes bodily injury, in practical effect, Abbott’s proposal would involve adding “threats of imminent serious bodily injury” or “causing offensive physical contact” to the list of conduct for which students must be removed from class and sent to a DAEP.

In balancing the proposal to take a stronger stance on what behaviors will no longer be tolerated in classrooms, the plan also calls for the state to take a stronger stance in focusing on restorative educational models that address the underlying causes of misbehavior. Specifically, the plan provides “When a student is placed in a DAEP classroom, the school district should implement a cycle of restorative practices designed to address the underlying mental or behavioral health issues, including screenings from the TWITR project or similar programs…” (TWITR — Telemedicine Wellness Intervention Triage and Referral — is a program administered by the Texas Tech Health Science Center in which students at risk for committing school violence are identified and interventions provided before acts of violence occur.)

The plan provides that when students are placed in a DAEP there should be a focus on involving parents and assessing the cause of these behaviors. Prior to placement, the campus behavior coordinator or an appropriate administrator should meet with the student and a parent/guardian, and counseling and behavioral assessments should be made available to students during their time in DAEP. Mandatory screenings by the TWITR project, or similar programs, should also be considered for students in DAEP. Additionally, the plan calls for school districts placing skilled educators into DAEP classrooms to partner with administrators and counselors to further separate students who are credible threats from regular and other DAEP students.

Other recommendations of interest in the plan include:

  • Increase presence of law enforcement in schools: Immediately increase law enforcement presence in schools by adding campuses to regular patrol routes and allowing law enforcement use of campus facilities for breaks and filing reports.
  • School marshals: Expand the current school marshal program by providing funding to train more school marshals this summer at no cost to school districts and amending current law to increase the allowable number of school marshals to 1 for every 100 students. Revamp the training to focus more on responding to an active shooter, require annual training updates, and remove the firearm storage requirement for school marshals who are in direct contact with students. (Note: Current law allows a school board to select for appointment as a school marshal an applicant who is an employee of the district and who possesses a concealed handgun license. The governor’s plan makes clear that the school marshal program is not intended to require any teacher to be armed against their will, but rather, to arm any willing school staff member.)
  • Immediate school safety improvements: Give priority to school districts applying for existing Title IV federal funds for use on school safety improvements, including “school hardening, increased law enforcement patrols, and implementation of mental health programs.”
  • Strengthen existing campus security programs: Require that one of the designees of the existing School Safety and Security Committee be a classroom teacher.
  • Notify parents if a significant threat to students’ safety occurs.
  • Expand access to the Telemedicine Wellness Intervention Triage and Referral Project: The project provides for students to be identified by trained school staff and screened for at-risk behaviors by licensed professional counselors in schools, and then, if necessary, provided psychiatric services via a telemedicine link. If a student is identified as requiring mental health care, either a referral for individual and/or family counseling is made or the student is referred to a medical school department of psychiatry for additional telemedicine psychiatric services. Parental consent is required.
    The governor’s plan provides for identification of $20 million to expand the capacity of the TWITR project/similar programs, with the next short-term step being to provide extensive TWITR training to 10 more school districts across the state.
  • Increase mental health first-aid training: Increase the number of mental health first-aid training opportunities this summer to be provided by local mental health authorities to school staff under current law. The program is designed to train school staff to assist a person experiencing a mental health situation until a trained person arrives, and is often compared to CPR training. It is available for free and counts toward continuing education requirements.
  • Provide schools with behavioral threat assessment programs: The plan provides for the Texas School Safety Center to partner with experts in threat management to provide free training on behavioral threat assessment to school personnel. Additionally, the School Safety Center will provide school safety training focused on planning for potential threats in collaboration with local first responders and ensuring effective response protocols during an emergency drill this summer, with additional training held throughout the school year. These programs will be funded through grants from the Governor’s Criminal Justice Division.
  • Better use and expansion of campus counseling resources: In recognition of the lack of time school counselors have to focus on student mental health issues due to the demands of academic responsibilities, the plan provides that the state should consider creating two classes of school counselors: one focused on academic issues (college acceptance, student assessment, etc.) and one on behavioral or mental health issues. The behavioral counselors would be those certified as licensed mental health professionals, while the academic counselors could have other backgrounds such as former teachers who have a particular interest in academic counseling issues.
    Additionally, the plan calls for policies to encourage school districts to house these counselors on campus instead of at administrative offices.
  • Expand capability for confidential reporting by students, parents and teachers of threatening or suspicious behavior: Launch a mobile iWatch Texas app on June 7, 2018, to be used by students, teachers and parents, as well as all citizens, for confidential reporting of any kind of threatening or suspicious behavior that could result in potential harm to schools.
  • Gun safety: Change Texas law to increase the age of children for whom parents must safely store firearms to 18. Require that legal adjudication of mental unfitness to possess a firearm be reported within 48 hours, and allow persons to petition for removal of firearms from the possession of persons proven to be a danger to themselves or others. Require gun owners to report when their firearms are lost or stolen, in an effort to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals.

Roundtable participants have been invited to share their thoughts on the plan with the governor’s office, and TCTA plans to continue to provide any needed input.