How Texas’ Plan to Curb School Violence Was Knocked Down by a Pandemic and Little Oversight

Confusion surrounds threat assessment teams on how they operate and what they even do with a child exhibiting threatening behavior

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott convenes the third of three roundtable discussions on school safety and gun violence on May 24, 2018 in the wake of the Santa Fe High School shooting that left ten students dead. (Bob Daemmrich/The Texas Tribune)

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Five months ago, a 13-year-old North Texas student was threatened with suspension because she relayed what she perceived to be a classmate’s shooting threat to friends in a group chat.

According to the eighth grader’s mother, the Lewisville Independent School District wanted the honors student suspended and to spend the remainder of the school year in an alternative school.

The girl’s family appealed the decision and won, and she was allowed to return to school. But the incident highlights the confusion surrounding Texas’ inconsistent monitoring of potential threats on public school campuses, something lawmakers have tried to fix since the deadly shooting at Santa Fe High School that killed 10 people and wounded 13 others in 2018.

The following year, Texas lawmakers approved a sweeping school safety bill that included establishing “threat assessment” teams — made up of school faculty and staff — to help identify potentially dangerous students and determine the best ways to intervene before they become violent.

Some of the “threats” reported include assault, cyberbullying, fighting, harassment, sexual misconduct, teen dating violence, terroristic threats, possession of a weapon and verbal threats.

“Our goal is that no child will ever feel afraid at school and no Texas family will ever experience the grief that followed the horrible school shooting at Santa Fe High School,” Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said. “The safety of our children remains paramount — the future of Texas depends on it.”

But ever since, how to report a threat and exactly how threats are supposed to be monitored by schools is anything but concrete, thanks to a global pandemic which forced many schools to close frequently and a state school staffing turnover problem.

The threat assessment team’s role

Andrew Hairston, director of education justice for Texas Appleseed, a public interest nonprofit group, said threat assessment teams were pitched by lawmakers as an alternative to simply prosecuting students for terroristic threatening to keep schools safe.

“I’d much rather have this system in place where the team is extensively trained on the unique dynamics of child development,” he said.

The school safety bill from 2019 requires superintendents to appoint members to the team who have expertise in counseling, behavior management, mental health and substance use, classroom instruction, special education, school administration, school safety, emergency management and law enforcement.

These teams review students who have reportedly made threats of violence or exhibited harmful, threatening or violent behavior. Team members then decide what is to be done, whether mental health services are needed or perhaps the intervention of law enforcement. Team members are also supposed to educate students and staff on the signs of potentially violent behavior and come up with procedures on how to report threats.

Schools keep track of the threats and report their data to the Texas Education Agency.

At least that was the way it was all supposed to work before a global COVID-19 pandemic entered the picture, interrupting class schedules for two years. After the pandemic hit in early 2020, the TEA relaxed requirements that schools submit data to them regarding threats at schools in 2020-21 because of frequent school closures.

Last March, Texas Appleseed released a report on how school districts’ threat assessment teams were performing. They based the report on a TEA survey of most of the state’s 1,200 public school districts.

While Texas school districts had logged a total of 37,007 threats during the 2020-21 school year, it was far from complete because the state had relaxed requirements that all threats be reported. Some schools did, some didn’t and those that did may have not done so consistently. Of that total, about 51% — or 17,200 — were determined to warrant intervention or the cases were referred to local law enforcement.

“In short, some school districts are applying a threat assessment process that is incomplete, lacking, and without the needed student support,“ the Texas Appleseed report stated. And while threat assessments are well-intentioned and developed to help create a safe environment, problems arise if they are not conducted proactively and comprehensively with a holistic focus on identifying mental health issues and implementing needed supports.”

The lack of consistent procedures for reporting surfaced during this year’s legislative session.

Earlier this year, one parent, whose name is not disclosed because her child is a minor, wrote to the House Youth Health & Safety Select Committee requesting the state require schools to inform parents when they are subject to a threat assessment. She told lawmakers her son was questioned by two social workers and the principal after some classmates who were making fun of him suggested he was a “school shooter” due to his race and gender.

“I should have been informed from the very beginning before any interrogation of my child,” the parent said.

Other problems with reporting student threats

When Texas Appleseed tried to confirm the school district’s threats data with district officials, they discovered that some reported different numbers than those reported to the TEA or didn’t respond at all to the nonprofit’s information request. The nonprofit group also found that a lot of school districts were still unclear about what to do when a student exhibited violent behavior.

This year, lawmakers passed House Bill 473 to solidify plans once a school’s threat assessment team determines a student is a threat to others. The bill requires the teams to notify a student’s parent or guardian of their findings and conclusions regarding the student’s behavior.

“Developing a more thoughtful partnership between parents and schools could help identify mental health concerns earlier and allow students to get the support they need at the beginning of this process,” said Laura Felix, a spokesperson for Texas Appleseed.

Lack of resources

Brian Woods, the departing superintendent of the Northside ISD in San Antonio, said administrators always knew setting up threat assessment teams would be a challenge.

“It’s easy to say that we are going to set up these threat assessment teams. But when you get into the details, you realize every school is different and every campus is different. You aren’t going to use the same methods for an elementary school that you would for a high school,” he said.

The rules for establishing these teams were extensive. Many districts were just beginning to create threat assessment teams when the pandemic hit. Students then spent a frustrating few years with online class instruction.

“When the students came back, they had a whole new set of mental health challenges that we were not prepared for,” Woods said. “Combining all these issues, you can see how we got into this situation.”

Twyla Williams, director of counseling crisis and mental health at Austin ISD, said their team was pretty small at first. It was just her, the district’s chief of police and a crisis response team. She said as the team continued to grow, they found that principals appreciated having a sounding board for their intervention methods.

“We found principals needed a platform to be able to say, ‘This is what has occurred, this is what we have done and we welcome your input on it if we missed something to make sure the family is supported,’” Williams said.

But the biggest challenge, she said, was staffing the teams.

“The needs of the students and staff have been so great and just the sheer numbers of requests,” she said. “We have these meetings that are regularly scheduled, but sometimes situations may deem for us to have an on-call meeting on campus, and that has been more of a challenge.”

Across the state, school districts are struggling to find the staff for classrooms alone. One of the main issues has been that threat assessment requirements didn’t come with additional funding, and finding that many volunteers can be a challenge, according to Woods, the outgoing Northside ISD superintendent.

“Teachers are asked to give up so much of their time already. A lot of their time is not spent in the classroom doing instruction. Now we are asking them to meet almost weekly to review their own students,” Woods said. “It can be a lot.”

The workforce challenges are not limited to schools as the mental health field is also dealing with a shrinking pool of providers.

“We don’t have enough mental health capacity in the entire state to do any follow-ups,” Woods said. “Families who need help right now are being told to wait for six weeks.”

Woods said if a school district as large as Northside ISD is having problems with staffing their teams, then it might be impossible for smaller or more rural schools.

“If we expect this to be run well, then it needs to come with resources,” Woods said. “We had a chance this session to do this, but that didn’t happen. We had two years with a record surplus and we have done nothing.”

Disclosure: Texas Appleseed has been a financial supporter 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. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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