AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The head of Texas’ top law enforcement agency, Col. Steven McCraw, said the Department of Public Safety “did not fail” the Uvalde community in its response to the May 24 mass school shooting.
McCraw’s comments come weeks after he said he would step down if there’s “any culpability” among his troopers.
“If DPS as an institution — as an institution — failed the families, failed the school or failed the community of Uvalde, then absolutely I need to go,” McCraw said. “But I can tell you this right now: DPS as an institution, right now, did not fail the community — plain and simple.”
McCraw was there to give an update on the Uvalde investigation at the Public Safety Commission meeting in Austin Thursday. However, the only update the department director provided is that the Texas Rangers’ investigation into law enforcement’s response to the shooting should be completed by the end of the year.
His remarks come amid growing calls for his resignation. Family members of some of the 21 victims killed at Robb Elementary traveled to Austin to testify, looking him directly in the eye while calling for him to step down.
“Your commission has a duty for the citizens of the state of Texas. You have a duty to make this right. And we need something done now.” said Manuel Rizos, uncle and godfather of one of the victims – Jackie Cazares.
Uvalde-related discussion lasted a little over an hour before the commission took a break. Emotions ran high in the room, as family members shared their inability to move forward as they still wait for accountability.
“We are told to find closure, but closure is not an option until we have answers and hold those who are responsible accountable,” Rizos said.
At the meeting, Democratic State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde, detailed the timeline of misinformation, saying it has only made things worse for these grieving families.
“DPS failed on my May 24, it failed to take control of a dangerous situation…it failed in the days following the massacre by giving false information that was easily, provably false,” he said. “And it is failing today by continuing to not disclose all of the information that is important to us today.”
In response to McCraw’s remarks, some Texas politicians called for his resignation Thursday.
“DPS Director McCraw should RESIGN immediately,” Republican Congressman Tony Gonzalez, who represents Uvalde, said on Twitter.
Texas Democratic Party chairman, Gilberto Hinojosa said “The Texas Democratic Party stands with the families of the Uvalde massacre in calling on DPS Director McCraw to resign immediately.”
The meeting comes after at least seven Texas DPS officers were put under investigation for their response to the May 24 shooting that killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School. DPS has not released any names or information about the officers.
Last week, Sgt. Juan Maldonado was the first DPS official terminated over his response to the mass shooting. He was one of the first to respond to the school.
Earlier this month, another former DPS official who is under investigation for her response, Crimson Elizondo, was found to be hired onto the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Police Department, according to records obtained by KXAN. The district then terminated Elizondo after media reports about her hiring.
Uvalde CISD also suspended its entire school police force on Oct. 7. Prior to that, the district had only terminated Pete Arredondo — the school’s police chief.
“Dribbling out, again, sanctions against low-level cops, officers, troopers — when in fact we need to look at the people that were supervising those people and the people that were making decisions,” Gutierrez said, in criticism of the suspensions and terminations of officers thus far.
LivesRobbed, an organization formed by some of the families affected by the tragedy, issued a statement after the meeting, criticizing DPS for not providing an update on the investigation, as was expected according to the meeting agenda.
“Instead, in a bait and switch, [DPS] hosted a glorified press conference and once again refused to accept responsibility for their failures,” the statement said. “To be clear, the Department’s failures on that day are not up for debate. Our children are dead.”
Texas nonprofit proposes STAAR test changes ahead of legislative session
The STAAR test is something people in Texas are always talking about. Some say it’s needed, others want it gone.
A new report released Tuesday by education nonprofit Raise Your Hand Texas highlights some middle ground. The organization is behind the grassroots campaign “Measure What Matters.”
It said members across the Lone Star State spoke to more than 15,000 Texans to get feedback about the STAAR test.
Using those responses, the campaign put together a report with recommendations on how to improve the standardized testing process that helps shape the framework of education in Texas.
The 65-page report included some key findings which shaped its recommendations.
Kaylan Dixon Smith is the Dallas County Regional Director for Raise Your Hand Texas, and she was instrumental in gathering data for the report. Her work to improve education policies is personal, after starting her career as an elementary school teacher.
“Too often policy conversations happen far away from the people,” Dixon Smith said. “So, now being on the other end of it, I intentionally set up these conversations, went into communities, talked to parents.”
This is a full breakdown of the voices Dixon Smith and others got feedback from:
A majority of responders felt the current success measure the STAAR test uses isn’t very effective.
“If you’d look at the accountability rating system for elementary and middle school, 100% of the A through F rating is based on the STAAR test. One test on one day, what we can do is deemphasize the STAAR in our accountability system,” Senior Director of Policy for Raise Your Hand Texas Bob Popinksi said. “Yes, we have to provide assessments that help inform instruction throughout the school year. But we want to take the weight off what that means.”
Dixon Smith is hopeful the recommendations will be considered by the state legislature.
“We can literally shape their [students’] lives,” she said.
The TEA also announced Tuesday, starting in the spring of 2023, it will be redesigning the STAAR test to test students on things that better align with what they’re learning in class.
This isn’t what Raise Your Hand Texas called for, as it’s strictly looking for improvements to the way the STAAR test is used to measure success.
State mental hospital backlog grows
If Adan Castaneda were charged with a crime and found mentally incompetent to stand trial in October 2022, he would be court ordered to a state mental hospital and stuck in jail for about two years before a hospital bed would become available.
Texas’ state hospital waitlist has grown almost continuously since KXAN profiled Castaneda’s case in 2020. He was a Marine sergeant and scout sniper whose mental health spiraled out of control after returning from the Iraq War. In 2011, he fired a handgun almost two dozen times at his mother and stepfather’s house while they were home. No one was injured, but he was charged with multiple felonies, including attempted murder.
It took years for justice to play out. Castaneda was found incompetent to stand trial, and, from 2011 to 2015, he bounced between Comal County Jail and the state hospital system. He was ultimately found not guilty for some charges and not guilty by reason of insanity for the remaining ones.
In Texas, people charged with a crime who are too mentally ill to participate in their own defense are typically found incompetent to stand trial and ordered by a court to a state hospital for restoration. Since Texas’ state-operated mental hospitals are full, those individuals are put on a list and left waiting in lockup.
“You’re basically locked in limbo. It’s like purgatory,” Castaneda told KXAN in a 2021 interview. He spoke via Zoom from San Antonio State Hospital, where he was recommitted after missing a dose of medication.
Castaneda’s mental health has improved since that time. He left the state hospital and lives on his own.
Meanwhile, Texas’ mental hospital waitlist has worsened considerably. Thousands are now stuck in “limbo,” as Castaneda described it.
In September, there were 2,540 people on the waitlist – a new record high. The average wait time for a maximum-security bed was 699 days – also a record – and 241 days for a non-maximum-security bed, according to data provided at an Oct. 19 quarterly meeting of the Joint Committee on Access and Forensic Services. JCAFS is an advisory body that assists the Texas Health and Human Services Commission with oversight of state hospitals.
“I think that is horrible,” said Maria Anna Esparza, Castaneda’s mother. “To see it get worse just makes me feel like Texas is not the best place to live in, if you have any issues with mental health … 700 days, that’s — that’s just not right.”
Esparza has advocated for change and improvement to Texas’ mental health system for years, just as she advocated for her son when he struggled to navigate the state’s criminal justice system while dealing with mental illness.
In October, JCAFS members acknowledged the number of people waiting in county jails for a spot in a state-run mental hospital has continued to grow, wait times have lengthened and a significant portion of existing bed space remains unusable. Meanwhile, county jails that are typically ill-equipped to handle mental health cases are struggling and local taxpayers are footing the bill.
“This is a tragedy of epic proportion. It’s an ongoing tragedy that we have been suffering for years,” State Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, told KXAN. “We simply don’t have the capacity, even on a good day where we’re fully staffed.”
Bed capacity is down 33%. Only 1,510 of the Texas’ 2,263 funded beds are available for use, HHSC data shows.
Most of the lost bed capacity is “simply due to staffing,” said Kristy Carr, HHSC associate commissioner over the state hospitals.
HHSC increased wages and offered bonuses to improve staffing and retention in March. Those pay raises stabilized the workforce but weren’t enough to bring a “significant” number of beds back online, Carr said.
HHSC officials at the JCAFS meeting, and through a spokesperson, outlined several ways the agency is trying to improve the waitlist.
HHSC is working on initiatives to “support diversion, crisis services, state hospital and community-based forensic services, training and technical assistance, and standardization of evidence-based practices,” said agency spokesperson Christine Mann in an email.
Mann said HHSC has hosted a “Jail In-Reach Learning Collaborative” since September 2021 to improve cooperation between mental health providers, law enforcement and criminal justice officials like judges, district attorneys and jail administrators.
HHSC is also funding “restoration services that people can access in jail or out in the community, including crises services,” Mann said. Jail services include court-ordered medication and outpatient care to help people avoid arrest.
JCAFS committee member Jim Allison said all those efforts are important and have an impact, but more needs to be done to reduce the waitlist immediately. Allison is the general counsel for the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas.
HHSC’s efforts are “great and wonderful,” he said, and everyone wants to find better ways to intervene in people’s lives before they need in-patient care. However, “that is not doing a darn thing for the people that are on the waitlist now, and we have got to address this.”
“We don’t seem to grasp that there is a crisis here,” Allison said. “We don’t seem to understand the Titanic has hit the iceberg.”
In addition to reporting on the backlog “crisis,” a KXAN investigation found the state doesn’t collect vital information about people on the waitlist, like whether a person is homeless or indigent. Experts say more layers of data collection could help reduce the backlog.
KXAN also discovered HHSC does not track when people die waiting for a state hospital bed. Our investigation uncovered at least 12 cases of people dying in jail since 2015 after being found incompetent to stand trial and ordered to a state hospital.
One of those individuals was Naquan Carter, a 23-year-old man who died in his Travis County jail cell in July 2018 awaiting transfer to a state-supported living center for further mental health restoration. Carter lived with an intellectual development disability.
On Tuesday, Sonja Burns — a mental health advocate who sits on the Texas Judicial Commission on Mental Health’s Collaborative Council — nominated Carter to be the namesake of Travis County’s probate court building.
“The naming of this building is very important for our community, and it should reflect and remind us of our vulnerable community members this court is intended to serve,” Burns said.
Burns testified Tuesday and told Travis County Commissioners Carter’s name would “impel us all to action to better serve our most vulnerable.”
Carter’s guardian, Carla Thomas, told KXAN she was in favor of naming the building after him to remind the community of people with unique needs.
“Naquan represents a community of people that have a diagnosis of mental illness and developmental disabilities,” Thomas said. “He also lost his life because people did not understand how to work with him.”
Carter was nominated for the naming of the building alongside longtime Travis County Probate Judge Guy Herman and civil rights activist Ada Collins Anderson, who died last year at the age of 99.
The three names will be sent to the Travis County Historical Commission for further review and consideration.
With the state hospital backlog at record highs, lawmakers are expected to author bills that could improve the situation in the upcoming legislative session beginning in January.
In 2021, Sen. Eckhardt crafted a bill to create an Office of Forensic Services within HHSC. That bill didn’t pass, but, she said, the state “must have” it. She said Texas needs more nurse practitioners, increased use of telehealth and Medicaid expansion.
“Both victims of crime and individuals who are seeking fair and efficient and effective mental health care, both categories of individuals would be helped massively by inexpensive expansion of Medicaid,” Eckhardt said. “I will be looking at every way I can, legislatively, to expand access to mental health care before it becomes a crisis and one must search for a mental health state hospital.”
Oil price volatility brings uncertainty for Texas jobs, consumers
Last week President Joe Biden announced there would be 15 million barrels released from the strategic petroleum reserve sometime in December. Since then, gas prices have dropped slightly in Texas and around the country.
But ongoing uncertainty fueled by the war in Ukraine and the risk of a recession makes it difficult to predict which direction prices will head next.
Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil & Gas Association, spoke with KXAN to share his insights on what gas prices and jobs may look like for Texans in the near future.
“We really need to protect consumers, we really, truly need a domestic energy plan and unleash American energy leadership,” Staples said.
The American Petroleum Insitute has indicated that there are about 4.5M barrels of build-up oil which points to why Texans are seeing a reduction in oil prices right now.
“I think we’re still gonna have volatility, as long as we do not determine if we want to be energy independent, that we want to be energy secure and that we want to encourage the jobs and the growth and the production right here in America,” Staples said.
The current oil climate has affected Texas’ energy sector and jobs.
“It creates uncertainty and you have investment pressures, you have supply chain issues, and workforce issues that are all impacting the ability to go produce more. And so we really need to get some certainty here. And I think when you have that, you’ll see companies in America making a long-term investment plan.” Staples said.
The federal Energy Information Administration tracks the short-term outlook for the price of West Texas Intermediate crude. And right now, it’s hard to predict that value.
The Administration forecasts that in January a barrel could sell as low as $52 – or as high as $132. The ongoing war in Ukraine could push prices to the high end, while the risk of a worldwide recession could move prices lower.