Getting personal: Texas lawmakers tackle school security, mental health

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, had done countless interviews before — about education mostly, but also about windstorm insurance, property taxes and all other topics Texas lawmakers are expected to have an opinion on.

But a 2018 interview with KXAN was different.

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Sen. Larry Taylor (KXAN Photo/Phil Prazan)

Taylor sat with the camera across his desk, to the left, in one of the many dark brown offices of the Texas Capitol. The window blinds were down and the bright light was in his face.

He began to cry. 

“I wake up every morning thinking about their parents. As a father of three and grandfather of two,” he stopped, quietly choked on his words. “We have to stop this.”

He was talking about the eight students and two teachers who had just been gunned down at Santa Fe High School. Taylor lives 25 minutes by car from campus. He knew the families and he’d met the kids.

He would soon be the guiding force behind a historic legislative package, one that would bring the State of Texas into the realms of school security and child mental health like it never was before.

Senate Bill 11 was personal.

After the shooting

In May 2018, a problem too common in America came to Santa Fe High School. Taylor, along with the state’s primary leaders — Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Speaker of the House — vowed to act.

Within days of the shooting, Gov. Greg Abbott called a series of roundtables to put problems and possible solutions on the table. He heard students, teachers and police officers say things like, “Nobody is shooting just Democrats, nobody is shooting just Republicans,” and “If it can happen in a little tiny, sleepy town like Santa Fe, it can happen anywhere.”

Onlookers noticed a difference in these roundtables: people who were for years on opposite sides on gun and mental health issues, now sat side by side. Gun control advocates sat next to a representative from the Texas State Rifle Association, an affiliate of the NRA.

“There was an acknowledgment around the table that, yeah this is an issue, and we should do everything we can to try and alleviate it,” said Ed Scruggs, from the gun safety advocacy group Texas Gun Sense.

A week later, Gov. Abbott released 40 recommendations as an action plan — a series of options including gun storage campaigns, communication and security upgrades, and more training. Some ideas, like gun storage campaigns, could start immediately. Others had to wait until legislators returned to the capitol in January 2019, after the mid-term election in November.

“This plan is a starting point, not an ending place,” said Gov. Abbott. “I’m not taking any strategies off the table. And I have been and will continue to work with the legislators to build consensus on proposals.”

When November came, Democrats flipped 13 Republican seats.

The Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, Beto O’Rourke, then an El Paso Congressman, narrowly lost to incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. After the election, Republican leaders heard the message from voters statewide: focus on the basics — more money for schools, limits to property taxes and more security for Texas public schools.  

Taylor considered himself the victims’ representative in the Texas Senate. He filed Senate Bill 11 and began the process of turning an idea into law.

“When you go to multiple young people’s funerals back-to-back within a few short days, you don’t want to do that again,” Taylor told his colleagues during the debate. “That’s why we have to get this done.”

SB 11 passed 30 to one in the Texas Senate and 137 to eight in the Texas House.

In June 2019, Abbott signed SB 11 into law during a Capitol press conference. Sen. Taylor sat to his right smiling as he watched Abbott’s pen scratch the paper.

“Making schools safer is now law in the State of Texas,” said Abbott.

School security

SB 11 has more than $100 million pegged for security improvements through a per-student allotment that will go to more than 1,000 school districts in the state. For each student that attends a district’s schools, district leaders will get $9.72. School boards can use that money for new structures, security guards, training and equipment.

The Texas Student Safety Center at Texas State University in San Marcos will make recommendations, audit and help enforce new security standards passed in SB 11, per a state analysis known as a fiscal note.

If Texas school districts are not in compliance with these safety reforms six months after an audit, the Texas Education Agency could appoint a conservator over the district. Still no changes after that? The state agency can then appoint a board of managers to run the security for the school.

Per the new law, TSSC will hire 25 more staff members to launch audits at random throughout the state to investigate if school districts are implementing standards now set in law. If a district is not compliant six months after an audit, the Texas Education Agency can appoint a conservator over the district. If the district continues to fight state-mandated changes, the TEA can appoint a board of managers to run security for the school district.

Each district will also have to create threat assessment teams from members of the community to advise the school district. They will work together through school safety committees made up of local law enforcement, emergency management, the school police department, the superintendent, two parents and a classroom teacher.

The Texas legislature also passed (and Abbott signed) a state budget directing $1 million to the Texas Department of Public Safety to start a safe gun storage program. Republican leaders took action despite organized opposition from the National Rifle Association and calls from smaller gun rights groups for Abbott to line-item veto the program.

The Consortium

During the emotional discussions after the Santa Fe shooting, many lawmakers realized they had a mental health crisis on their hand and the mass shooting was only a sad symptom. They were caught unprepared for the size and scope of the problem — Texas has a chronic shortage of counselors and mental health professionals.

Abbott soon named student mental health an emergency item.

“The Governor set up a task force and right away there was a clamor for hardening our schools. Putting metal detectors in, that’s fine,” Nelson said, “But, that does not address the root problem, that there are some children who need to be identified and helped from potential serious risks to themselves and others.”

Nelson found a way to provide new and improved mental health services to the sprawling state of Texas, where communities can be geographically and ethnically diverse. She leaned on an infrastructure that already existed, pumping $100 million through the 13 health-related universities, forming the backbone of the Child Mental Healthcare Consortium.

Each university will partner with state health agencies and non-profits to provide child psychiatry centers in their specific area. They will have local mental health professionals that school districts could use.

“I heard from so many teachers and parents and pediatricians that they just didn’t know where to go,” Nelson said. “They needed more than what was available to them.”

In Central Texas, the regional hub will be the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin. In the next year, they plan to house counseling and mental health professionals that school students can use. They hope to set up a wide array of telemedicine services so communities on the outskirts of Central Texas can use them over an internet video.

The consortium hopes to be up and running by next school year.

Snatching victory

The members in the Texas House gasped.

It was nearing midnight late in the session with a key deadline fast approaching that would kill any measure that wasn’t passed. One of them was a historic mental health program that had nearly unanimous support — Senate Bill 10 by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound.

Tea Party firebrand Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R- Bedford, successfully found a small discrepancy in the bill’s process, known as a point of order, and the House parliamentarian upheld it.

The House was in shock.

SB 10 was one of the mental health bills filed and moved through the process, in response to the Santa Fe School shooting, with hopes of defusing violent student acts before they go off.

Rep. Stickland and Rep. Zerwas (KXAN Photo/Phil Prazan)

Stickland discovered the bill analysis did not adequately describe the bill and scuttled SB 10.

But around 11:30 p.m., the House sponsor of the bill, Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, acted out a plan to bring the bill back from the dead — recall SB 11, the school security bill that already passed, and attach SB 10’s language to the bill through a legislative amendment. Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, led the show.

The measure was a priority for Abbott, an emergency item he had laid out in his State of the State address months before, and it was the brain-child of the Number 2 Republican in the Senate, Nelson, who was also chair of the powerful, budget-writing finance committee. These four powerhouses wanted it passed despite Stickland’s move.

There is no recording device at the front of the chamber for reporters but Stickland, Bonnen and Zerwas could be heard yelling all the way at the press table feet away.

“I’m sick of this sh**,” Stickland yelled.

Rep. Stickland and Rep. Bonnen (KXAN Photo/Phil Prazan)

“Oh, you only like the rules when they work for you,” Zerwas said.

“Argue your point of order and move on,” Bonnen said to Stickland.

Stickland argued against the amendment but the House passed it 130-14.

Many of the other opponents were allies of Stickland’s through the conservative Texas Freedom Caucus. They voted against the bill because, in their view, it would violate the rights of families, wasn’t the role of government and was a waste of taxpayer dollars.

The program was attached to SB 11, which was signed into law later in June.

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