Schools, Elected Officials Struggle With How To Deal With Gun Violence

After the Santa Fe shooting, Texas elected officials, school leaders and teachers continue to struggle with how to respond to future situations. The Valley Times will continue to follow this issue and provide regular updates on the issue.

Compiled from reports by Paul Cobler, Matthew Choi and Alex Samuels, The Texas Tribune

After Santa Fe shooting, Gov. Greg Abbott wants to put more counselors in schools. Educators say that’s not enough.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s “School and Firearm Safety Action Plan” — released earlier this month in response to the deadly Santa Fe High School shooting — is filled with ideas on how to prevent school shootings by “hardening” schools to make them more resistant to attackers.

But one part of his plan pushes a softer approach: Hiring more counselors to focus on student mental health.

Simply identifying students who are having a mental health crisis isn’t enough, said Tammi Mackeben, president of the Lone Star State School Counselor Association. Teachers, administrators and counselors all need to work together to improve overall student mental health, with counselors ready to step in once problems appear, Mackeben said.

“Counselors can’t be the only individuals that are recognizing when students have mental health issues,” Mackeben said.

Texas is one of 20 states that don’t require schools to have counselors, and it has the fifth highest student-to-counselor ratio in the country, with an average of 684 students for every counselor, according to the American School Counselor Association.

School counselors are often given tasks like scheduling and administrative work, Mackeben said, limiting the time they can focus on students’ mental health. A counselor is “the only person on campus who is trained in mental health issues, so we’re trying to get that message out that they are the person on campus to deal with these kind of issues,” she said.

Abbott’s plan recommends freeing up school counselors to focus on students’ mental health and behavioral needs rather than on tasks like scheduling and college applications. To do that, Abbott recommends allowing schools to shift money toward counseling and mental health services.

But teacher organizations like the Association of Texas Professional Educators say schools don’t have excess funding to reallocate.

“Districts are strapped with the amount of money that they have now,” said Monty Exter, a lobbyist for ATPE. “Simply telling them to spend the money how they see fit won’t work. They’re not spending it on crazy or frivolous or unimportant things.”

During school safety hearing, Texas lawmakers express support for arming faculty and staff — maybe even with rifles

Wylie Independent School District is preparing for armed intruders in a variety of ways, from active shooter drills to safety-themed coloring books. Some school staff are trained to be armed marshals and are ready to shoot if there’s a threat.

Members of the Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security disputed among themselves whether that model is appropriate statewide, but they arrived at no concrete legislative proposals. It was the second meeting of the committee, which Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick created to address gun violence in schools. Possible solutions members pondered included allowing faculty to carry guns. One state senator raised the idea of giving faculty rifles.

In a 44-page action plan on school safety, Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, recommended recruiting more faculty and staff with military or police experience to serve as armed marshals in schools – a recommendation that drove much of the conversation Tuesday.

School marshals are school board-appointed staff members with access to firearms on campus. They must undergo psychological exams and at least 80 hours of training. They also must be licensed by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.

Craig Bessent, assistant superintendent of Wylie ISD and one of the first school marshals in Texas, testified about the marshal program in his school district, arguing that arming faculty is the among most effective ways to protect schools from violence.

The marshals in his district must go through training at least once a month, which, with travel and fees, can be a considerable expense for them, Bessent said. Larger districts try to pay for initial training, Bessent said, but many smaller, rural districts “don’t have the funds to do it.”

No state senators voiced opposition to the idea of arming teachers. State Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, asked other committee members and Bessent if the state should devote funding for marshal training. The committee will look into it, he said.

Advocates say arming Texas school employees won’t cost that much. But many districts don’t want to do it.

At the heart of Gov. Greg Abbott’s proposal: “hardening” Texas schools, in part by providing money to districts that join existing state programs for arming school staff. The idea received immediate pushback from many educators, who don’t like the idea of guns in schools and worry that programs that arm teachers would be too expensive in a state that’s already struggling to fund education.

But those who support the idea say armed staff can help stop a dangerous gunman. And, they say, the school marshal plan that Abbott is touting wouldn’t actually cost that much.

“The latest that I heard is that the training for each marshal is about $500,” said state Rep. Jason Villalba, the Dallas Republican who authored the bill that created the Texas school marshal program Abbott wants to expand.

Under the program, schools can designate one employee for every 400 students a marshal. And, Villalba noted, nearly 80 percent of Texas’ school districts have fewer than 3,000 students. That means most Texas districts, in theory, could have seven or eight marshals at most.

Aside from training, Villalba said, the only other costs associated with the program are the costs of buying the guns, ammunition and a lock box (which is currently required for marshals who directly interact with students). Villaba’s measure doesn’t require schools that utilize the marshal program to get liability insurance, but districts may choose to do so, he said.

It’s also possible the cost to train school marshals could decrease. In outlining his proposal, Abbott advocated for streamlining the training course — currently a “burdensome” 80 hours.

Disclosure: The Texas State Teachers Association and The Association of Texas Professional Educators 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.

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