Texas Education Agency Would Have New Power to Enforce School Safety Plans Under Senate Bill

The bill also allocates more funds to the state’s school safety allotment, which is money given to districts to improve campus security.

A police officer monitors Maplewood Elementary School in Austin the Monday morning following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. A new bill backed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick would give the state education department new authority to swiftly impose consequences if a school does not have a safety plan on file with the state. (Tamir Kalifa/The Texas Tribune)

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The Texas Senate on Friday unveiled its priority school safety bill that would create a safety and security department housed in the Texas Education Agency. And the legislation would give the education commissioner more direct power to compel school districts to establish safety protocols for active-shooter situations.

Senate Bill 11, filed by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, additionally beefs up current truancy laws. This comes after reports found that the Uvalde shooter was chronically absent starting in sixth grade and dropped out of high school. During a Senate committee meeting last month, Nichols said current truancy laws don’t have “teeth” with parents.

The legislation, which has the blessing of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, will have the new department oversee mandated school safety measures, such as safety plans.

Those plans — which must include active-shooter strategies — have been required to be filed with the Texas School Safety Center, a think tank at Texas State University created by lawmakers in 2001, since after the 2018 Santa Fe High School shooting.

But, a three-year audit in 2020 found that out of the 1,022 school districts in the state, just 200 districts had active-shooter policies as part of their plans, even though most districts had reported having those policies. The audit also revealed 626 districts did not have active-shooter policies. Another 196 had active-shooter policies, but they were insufficient, according to the audit. In addition, only 67 school districts had viable emergency operations plans overall, the report found.

Under the proposed legislation, the education commissioner, in consultation with the safety center will create rules regarding security audits and other emergency operation plans. The bill also would create similar safety plans for community colleges.

Gov. Greg Abbott initially directed the agency to create such a department following the Uvalde shooting and appointed former U.S. Secret Service agent John P. Scott as the agency’s chief of school safety and security.

The bill makes it easier for the education agency to impose steep consequences for districts that do not comply. Currently, the education agency must be notified by the safety center for noncompliance before it can take action to impose a conservator or a board of managers that would replace the elected school board.

Under the new bill, the agency would have direct oversight and would allow education Commissioner Mike Morath to take over a school district and its board if it does not meet the security standards. This power is akin to current law, where the commissioner can replace a school board and its superintendent if the district or a school campus receives a failing grade for five consecutive years.

The new department will also set up a school safety review team in each of the state’s education service centers, which support school districts in different regions of the state. These teams will conduct vulnerability assessments twice a year of all the school campuses in their respective regions. These education service centers will act as school safety resources for districts, the bill states.

The bill also would increase the amount of money districts get for improving security on campus from $9.72 to $10, plus an additional dollar for every $50 that the district’s payment goes beyond $6,160. It would also include a base payment of $15,000 per campus.

Funding for school safety improvement is at about $600 million in both the House and Senate budget proposals released in January.

On truancy, the bill would be more strict on how many days students can be absent before parents are sent to court. A school district must inform parents at the beginning of the school year that if their child has six or more unexcused absences within an eight-week period in the same school year, then they are subject to prosecution, and the child could be sent to court. The Uvalde shooter was reportedly

The bill also will have school districts receive a copy of a child’s disciplinary record and any threat assessments when a child is enrolled.

Shannon Holmes, executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said the bill contains measures that Texas educators support and is pleased that Nichols will be spearheading the issue in the Senate.

“The legislation also commits significant state funding for school safety, which ATPE believes should be a top priority for lawmakers,” Holmes said.

Disclosure: Texas State University 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. 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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