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EduLege Tracker 5-24-18

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EduLege Update Volume VI, Number 33
May 24, 2018
By Andy Welch
A Service of the Texas School Public Relations Association

Dear Governor…

In the wake of the Santa Fe school shooting, more than three dozen student activists from across Texas have penned an open letter to Governor Greg Abbott, in the form a full-page advertisement in the Houston Chronicle, accusing him of being “cozy with the NRA” and of opposing sensible gun control measures. 

“Why is our safety less important than the check you get from the NRA?” the letter asks.

The students also chided the governor for contending that gun violence is caused by “hearts without God.”

“Do you think that the children who were shot in class this week died because they hadn’t prayed enough?” they asked.

“We are dying on your watch. What will you do about it?”

The letter was signed by 41 students who used their first names, and the first initial of their last name.

Round-and-round we go….

Governor Abbott is resisting a bipartisan call for a special legislative session to address school shootings and gun safety, and instead hopes that a trio of largely private roundtable discussions that he’s holding this week will produce some suitable solutions.

Those roundtable discussions, which are being held in the Governor’s Reception Room on the second floor of the State Capitol, are scheduled to conclude today, with the invited attendees including shooting victims, their families and educators.

The governor announced late Wednesday that he has invited 30 students, parents, teachers and administrators of Santa Fe High School to attend. Joining that group will be five people associated with a November church shooting at Sutherland Springs that killed more than two dozen people.

The roundtables began Tuesday with the topic “Protecting Our Schools.”

Following the initial three-hour meeting, the governor briefed news reporters on the laundry list of ideas that were discussed, including:

  • “Greater parent accountability” for the actions of their children

  • Rewarding students who share information about potential problems in their schools and providing "comprehensive training" on whom they can contact with their concerns

  • Developing an app for students, parents and law enforcement to allow them 24/7 access to school security cameras

  • Providing better training for teachers and educators who want to be armed school marshals, and expanding the program so that it's available to "every school at every level"

  • Mandating collaboration between law enforcement and schools and increasing law enforcement presence in schools

On Wednesday, the governor met with representatives of two dozen groups, as the roundtable topic turned to discussions on Second Amendment gun-owner rights, possible gun control measures and mental health issues. 

Attendees included representatives the Texas State Rifle Association and of Texas Gun Sense, which said prior to the meeting that it would press for tougher background checks for gun sales and for "red flag" laws that would keep guns away from people who are deemed a danger to themselves or to others.

In the past, Governor Abbott has resisted any efforts to restrict gun-owner rights.

He has signed bills in recent years that reduce the cost and the training that’s required to obtain a handgun license in Texas, and to allow the state's 1.2 million licensed gun holders to openly carry their weapons in public. He also supported legislation allowing guns to be carried on Texas college campuses.

But after the three-hour, closed-door meeting Wednesday, the Governor told reporters that he could support legislation that requires the reporting of the loss or theft of a gun and shortening the time period to report a mental health court judgment.

Legislators from both political parties say that the recommendations emerging from the roundtable discussions need quick approval—and funding—and they are calling on the governor to order the Texas Legislature into a special session as soon as possible, instead of waiting until the next regular session will start in January 2019.

“These school shootings are happening with increasing frequency and are senseless tragedies that we must eradicate. The time to act is now, for not only our children's safety, but for the peace of mind of all Texans by restoring their confidence in our duty to protect them," State Representative Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, wrote in a letter to Governor Abbott.

State Representative Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, has also called on the governor to summon state legislators back to Austin.

“While (roundtable) discussions to generate consensus are welcome, we believe we also have a responsibility to act immediately to prevent an increase of gun deaths and to prevent the loss of more life in Texas,” said Representative Turner, who asked the governor to consider 16 different gun bills, including those that would punish people for carrying guns in certain places that are frequented by children and make it more difficult for certain people with a troublesome past to buy firearms.

We’re split…

The most-recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, which was released last October, found that Texans are split on whether people carrying more guns will make for a safer environment. And as with many issues, the biggest divide was along political affiliation.

More than 60 percent of the surveyed Republicans said they believed the country would be safer if more people carried guns. Only five percent of Democrats said they felt the same way.

“Republicans and Democrats tend to look at the same tragedy from very different perspectives,” says Mark Jones, a Rice University political scientist. “Democrats look at Santa Fe and their most popular answer tends to be that gun control is the correct response to keep this from happening in the future. Whereas Republicans don’t see it that way. They don’t believe gun control would have any impact or is even germane.”

Texans are also split on who, or what, to blame for mass shootings.  Of those surveyed, most (24 percent) said the primary cause is a failure of the mental health system, closely followed by lax state and federal laws that make it easy to purchase guns. Thirteen percent of the respondents focused much of their ire on the extreme views that can be found on the internet, while 10 percent blamed various forms of media. 

Increased access to mental health services seems to be one solution that both Republicans and Democrats turn to in the wake of such tragedies, according to the latest poll.

The governor really likes this program…

Governor Abbott continues to tout a Lubbock-based program as a potential statewide model to reduce school violence.

The Telemedicine Wellness, Intervention, Triage and Referral Project at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center works to identify junior high and high school students who appear most at risk for committing violence in schools and intervene before it happens.

Billy Philips, Executive Vice President for Rural and Community Health at Tech’s Health Sciences Center, says he’s been “a bit surprised” to hear Governor Abbott mention the program, which he said has seen success—but is still being refined.

Mr. Philips said the project has found students at West Texas schools possessing notes, maps, threats and other evidence that they may have been planning a mass shooting. He said the screenings have helped avert violent incidents, and resulted in students receiving the help they needed.

Through the program, at-risk students at 10 West Texas school districts who show aggressive or harmful behavior are identified and then screened for potential psychiatric services. Parents must consent each step of the process. Students first receive two psychiatry sessions at school—in which they video conference with a psychiatrist working remotely—and additional psychiatric services that are provided through the center’s clinic.

Since its launch, more than 400 students have been referred to the program, with 200 receiving screening for anxiety, depression, loneliness, isolation—and whether they’re prone to violence or violent thoughts. Those screenings can lead to psychiatric appointments and sometimes immediate hospitalizations and arrests for planning violent incidents.

In four years, the program has had 25 students removed from school, 44 placed in alternative schools and 38 sent to a hospital.

Too many windows. Too many doors…

Are American schools built in a way that makes them easy targets? Are there too many windows, too many entrances and exits and too few security features?

Many Second Amendment activists, and some security experts, are calling for safer school designs, but many gun-control advocates believe the debate is a distracting side issue that avoids more meaningful action. 

The school design debate began after the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado and gained more attention in the aftermath of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Within hours of the shooting at Santa Fe High School, Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick was saying that it’s time to get serious about examining school layouts.

“There are too many entrances and too many exits to our over 8,000 campuses in Texas,” Lieutenant Governor Patrick said.

Gun-rights activists, led by the National Rifle Association, have pushed for a “hardening” of schools, including training and arming educators and even keeping shrubbery and landscaping farther away from school buildings, so there are fewer blocked viewpoints.Reducing the number of entrances is considered another way to prevent shooters from getting inside undetected.

According to a report last year in Education Week, the average age of an American school is 44 years, with the last major renovations dating back more than a decade. Older buildings were designed without today’s worries of active shooters and terrorism. They have lots of “nooks and crannies,” isolated areas that are difficult to supervise, as well as old hardware on classroom doors and main offices that aren’t located near the main entrance.

Other problems include old public-address systems and no telephones in classrooms, said Kenneth Trump, President of the National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm.

Gun-shy…

In what surely is an acknowledgment of poor timing, Governor Abbott decided to drop a shotgun giveaway that was being promoted as part of his re-election campaign. 

Originally, the Abbott campaign was going to hold a drawing for a $250 gift certificate toward the purchase of a shotgun from a Texas gun dealer—the type of drawing that many campaigns have held in recent elections to signal strong support for the Second Amendment.

But a shotgun was one of the two weapons used by the student gunman to kill 10 people and wound 13 others in at Santa Fe High School. 

Critics on social media were quick to criticize the governor’s shotgun drawing.

“To put it bluntly, we find this a disgusting display of the disregard of the toll gun violence and an absolute failure to respect your constituents in the wake of the #SantaFe shootings," tweeted student gun control group March For Our Lives. 

The Abbott campaign had quietly substituted the prize for a $250 gift certificate redeemable for any kind of merchandise.

They’ll forgo a trip to Six Flags this summer to pay for school supplies…

Nearly all public school teachers report digging into their pockets to pay for school supplies, spending nearly $480 a year—far more than the federal $250 tax deduction that’s available to them for such purchases.

The findings by the National Center of Education Statistics come as teachers across the country are walking out of classrooms to protest low pay and demand pay raises. Helping teachers pay for class supplies was a key demand during the recent Arizona teachers' strike.

Ninety-four percent of all public school teachers say they spent their own money on notebooks, pens and other supplies in the 2014-2015 school year without reimbursement, according to the NCES study. The average amount spent was $479.  About 44 percent spent $250 or less, while 36 percent spent $251 to $500.

Currently, teachers who spend their personal money on students’ classroom needs are able to reduce their taxable income by $250.  

Teachers pushed back strongly last year when the tax bill passed by the House called for eliminating the deduction altogether. The Senate version of the bill, meanwhile, sought to raise the deduction to $500. In the end, the two chambers reached a compromise, and the deduction remained unchanged.

The study also found that teachers in high-poverty schools were more likely to spend personal money on school supplies. 

Reminder No. 1,001: Be careful what you write…

Austin school board president Kendall Pace has resigned from her at-large seat, effective immediately, just days after the district’s employee organization Education Austin called for her to step down following controversial text messages that she sent to a fellow trustee.

In the messages, President Pace referred to “crazy ignorant community activists” and “poverty pimps” in discussing a grant opportunity from the Texas Education Agency. 

President Pace originally agreed to vacate the presidency in June, but subsequently decided to leave the board altogether, apologizing for “the crudeness in the discourse.”

Earlier this month, a College Station school board member was forced to apologize for notes that he had scribbled during a heated community forum on campus attendance zones.

The notes, written by board member Michael Wesson, included personal comments next to the names of many of the parents. In one instance he wrote “suck it.” Other parents he labeled a “crazy lady” and a “hypocrite.” 

Targeting ‘yellowbelly politicians’…

Former House Public Education Committee Chair Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, lays it all out in a recent question-and-answer session with the Waco Tribune-Herald, sparing no punches on the state’s role in fueling higher local property taxes and why more-and-more educators believe that state leaders are hostile to public education.

During his 10 years as a state legislator, the Killeen veterinarian, rancher and former school board president gained prominence as a champion of public education.

In his conversation with the Waco newspaper, Aycock also discusses his involvement with the Texas First Coalition, a nonprofit organization that is bringing together education advocates and business leaders “to promote quality public schools, a thriving business climate, fiscal responsibility at all levels of government and stronger ethics for elected officials.” 

Mr. Aycock says the organization is specifically targeting “yellowbelly politicians” who are intent on reducing state funding of schools and “forcing higher taxes on local homeowners to make up the difference.”

Read the full interview here.

Here’s wishing all TSPRA members a successful conclusion to this school year, and a well-deserved and relaxing break, before the planning and preparing for 2018-2019 begins.  

EduLege will resume on Tuesday, June 12.

                                                                                                                             -Andy


EduLege is provided by the Texas School Public Relations Association as a service to its members.

Long-time TSPRA member Andy Welch, the retired Communication Director for the Austin School District, compiles and writes EduLege.  Questions or comments may be directed to him at andywelch1@gmail.com.

For more updates on education news from throughout the state, visit the TSPRA website.