SENATE APPROVES COMPREHENSIVE SCHOOL SAFETY BILL
(AUSTIN) — The Texas Education Agency would be given authority to monitor and enforce school safety plans at Texas schools under a bill unanimously approved by the Senate on Wednesday. In the wake of the tragic shooting at Ross Elementary in Uvalde on May 24th of last year, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick commissioned a special committee to look at the problem of school safety and make recommendations. Headed up by Jacksonville Senator Robert Nichols, the committee heard testimony from experts and developed recommendations to improve the administration, funding, and practice of school safety in Texas. These recommendations were offered to the Senate for consideration in the form of SB 11.
Jacksonville Senator Robert Nichols' SB 11 would increase funding for school safety and give TEA authority over campus security.
Nichols said that one issue faced by districts trying to grapple with the issue of school safety was that there wasn't a clear delineation of authority between state agencies involved with school safety issues. SB 11 creates a new Office of Safety and Security at TEA, headed up by a governor-appointed and Senate-confirmed Chief of School Safety. This office will work with the Texas School Safety Center in San Marcos to develop standards for school emergency plans, and will review and approve plans submitted by districts. Districts who fail to meet state standards could have a conservator assigned to oversee school safety. The bill also requires better communication and data sharing between TEA and the TxSSC.
Schools will be subject to one intruder detection audit per year, where School Safety Center personnel will test how easy it is for an unidentified adult to access the campus. TxSSC's Associate Director of Readiness Nate Turner Jr. says these are currently ongoing through the end of the year, conducted by plain clothes staff, who are not acting in a threatening or suspicious manner. They come on campus and check how difficult it is to gain access to various areas at the school, including checks of exterior and interior doors. Rather than visiting all of Texas' nearly 10,000 K-12 campuses, they are hoping to cover 75 percent of all campuses before June. SB 11 would change that, requiring yearly audits at all campuses. Every fourth inspection would be a more detailed vulnerability audit that reviews campus emergency operations procedures and access control.
The law enforcement response to the Ross Elementary Shooting has been heavily scrutinized, as hundreds of state and local peace officers waited more than an hour to engage the shooter. SB 11 would require that all school-based law enforcement officers undergo active shooter training at the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training program at TxSSC. "The ALERRT center is the gold standard for active shooter response training and it's imperative that our school-based law enforcement receives that training," said Nichols.
The bill also changes the way that the state funds school safety programs. Right now, every district gets $9.27 per student to pay for safety-related costs. "This is insufficient for our small and medium-sized sized schools," said Nichols. "Some of our smallest districts are only getting about $1,000 a year for the whole district for safety, and this forces schools to use funds to improve school safety that would've been spent in classrooms." Safety funds will now be allotted in specific grant amounts, with the largest districts receiving $16,800 per year per campus for school safety, scaling down to $15,000 for the state's smallest districts.
Other provisions in the bill shorten the time line before a chronically truant student is referred to truancy court, require notification of parents of any violent event on any campus in a school district, and requires districts to share disciplinary records and behavioral health assessments of any new or transferring students. Passed by the Senate without objection, it now heads to the House for consideration.
The Senate will reconvene Thursday, April 20 at 11 a.m.