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EduLege Tracker 6-14-18

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EduLege Update Volume VI, Number 35
June 14, 2018
By Andy Welch
A Service of the Texas School Public Relations Association

‘And the beat goes on…’

State senators spent two days this week considering ways to prevent school shootings, but could reach little consensus among themselves on whether Texas schools should be equipped with metal detectors, or whether teachers should be allowed to carry guns.

The select committee named by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, R-Houston, kicked off a series of Capitol hearings that legislators are expected to hold over the next few months in response to the Santa Fe High School shooting on May 18 that left 10 dead.

The first day’s focus was on ways to improve security through school design and the installation of metal detectors, among other things. But discussion often veered to other school safety topics, with multiple Republican senators speaking in favor of arming teachers.  

The next day, committee members discussed the state’s school marshal and guardian programs, which allow trained teachers and administrators to carry firearms into the classroom.

But school security officials and School Resource Officers who were invited to testify before the committee cautioned against arming teachers and administrators.

“Those programs are just to make people feel good,” said Mike Matranga, a former U.S. Secret Service agent who now serves as head of security for the Texas City school district.  “If you’re going to designate a marshal or a guardian, why not just hire another police officer and put them in a school? They’re better trained. They’re better equipped. They have the ability to make judgments. It seems like you’re putting a Band-Aid on a hemorrhage.”

Jeff Foley, Regional Director of the Texas Association of School Resource Officers, and Joe Curiel, the San Antonio school district’s police chief, both said they have concerns about police accidentally shooting an armed teacher, or administrator, during an active shooter situation.

At least 217 of the state’s 1,024 districts have policies that allow teachers to be armed, according to the Texas Association of School Boards.

Defending the program, Republican senators said nobody was forcing teachers to carry guns, and that armed staff members are meant to support, not supplant officers. Training could also help prevent armed school staffers from being caught in friendly fire, Republican senators Don Huffines of Dallas and Larry Taylor of Friendswood both said.

“I just don’t want us to totally throw out a program that I think has merit,” Senator Taylor said.

Senators Joan Huffman, R-Houston, and Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, also appeared to support using more metal detectors in schools as a way to prevent student shooters.

But several school experts were cool to that idea—citing concerns about the cost of $3,000-$5,000 per device; the time it could take to funnel hundreds of students each morning through such detectors and the risk of having students crowded outside school entrances in the morning who could become easy targets for shooters.

Senator John Whitmire, D-Houston, sought to shift the committee’s attention, calling the lack of mental health services in schools and communities the “most severe broken part of our system.”

“You want to talk about architecture? You want to talk about gun training?” Senator Whitmire said. “If we don’t detect and have a place for (a troubled student) to be referred to and get meaningful help, we will end up fortifying our schools and still having tragedies.”

The Senate committee will address mental health in a future hearing and is scheduled to release its recommendations in August.

At the direction of Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence will meet on June 25 to discuss so-called “red flag” gun laws, which prohibit potentially dangerous people from accessing firearms.

Guns aren’t the problem, she says…

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says that the Trump administration’s School Safety Commission will not study potential changes to gun laws as a way to curb school violence.

Secretary DeVos was asked by Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, during a committee hearing whether the commission, formed after the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting earlier this year, would examine guns.

“That is not part of the commission’s charge per se,” Secretary DeVos, who chairs the commission, responded.

Her comments sparked outrage from advocates for greater gun safety, including a parent of a student who was killed in the Florida shooting.

Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime died in the Feb. 14 murders, says that Secretary DeVos’ comment will motivate voters who care about gun safety.

“Betsy Devos, your comment that the investigation following the shooting death of my daughter and 16 others will not involve guns is surprisingly helpful,” Mr. Guttenberg wrote on Twitter. “You just gave every parent who actually cares about school safety a reason to vote in November.”

Advocates of tighter gun laws also seized on DeVos’ comments.

“What we heard today only confirms what we already knew: The Trump administration is far more concerned with securing NRA support than addressing the root causes of gun violence—namely, our lax gun laws,” said John Feinblatt, the President of Everytown for Gun Safety.

Senator Leahy, the top Democrat on Senate Appropriations Committee, asked Secretary DeVos about the commission’s charge. “So, you’re studying gun violence but not considering the role of guns?” he asked.

“We’re actually studying school safety and how we can ensure our students are safe at school,” Secretary DeVos responded.

The School Safety Commission is comprised of four Cabinet secretaries: Ms. DeVos, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

The commission faced criticism when its first meetings were not made open to the public or news media, and didn‘t include teachers, school administrators or students.

Carry for our kids…

Open carry activists are planning a rally in Santa Fe next weekend, a month after the deadly high school shooting, saying that they want to demonstrate support for arming teachers.

The Facebook event page for the "Carry for Our Kids" rally features an advertisement with children playing on top of a black and white pistol.

The rally is planned for Saturday, June 23, at a local park that’s just a five-minute drive from Santa Fe High School, where a 17-year-old student opened fire with a shotgun and pistol that he took from his father, killing eight classmates and two teachers.

“How many more innocent children need to die before we wake up and prepare our teachers to fight back?” the Facebook event description reads. “The only solution is self-responsibility: Arm school officials and give them a fighting chance. No gunman is going to target a school that can defend itself and fight back.”

The rally is organized by Open Carry Texas and Texas Freedom Force, a gun rights group that made headlines last year for defending Confederate monuments from protesters in several Texas cities.  

Open Carry Texas founder CJ Grisham and James Dickey, chairman of the Texas Republican Party, are expected to speak.

There’s an ‘app’ for that…

Through a new mobile application, Texas residents can now report suspicious behavior that might help law enforcement officials identify ongoing or future criminal activity.

The program—available to iPhone and Android users—can be used to supply tips from residents to investigate threats related to crime, terrorism or school safety.

Reports can be filed through the new mobile app, at www.iwatchtx.org or by calling 1-844-643-2251. All iWatchTexas program reports are confidential and will be reviewed by law enforcement analysts.

The app is part of Governor Greg Abbott’s Firearms and School Safety Plan, which he developed in response to the shooting at Santa Fe High School.

Here are examples of suspicious behaviors and activities that the Texas Department of Public Safety says should be reported:

  • Comments about harming or killing someone
  • Questions from strangers about building security features and protocols
  • Briefcases, suitcases, backpacks or packages that are left unattended
  • Vehicles parked in no-parking zones at prominent buildings
  • Unusual chemical smells or fumes
  • Unauthorized requests for sensitive information—such as security plans, blueprints or VIP travel schedules
  • Purchases of supplies that could make bombs or weapons, or purchases of uniforms without credentials

They needed it…

A visit to the Houston Texans at their practice facility offered a badly-needed respite for the Santa Fe High School football team and coaching staff this week.

“It’s just great to have them here, to be able to see practice, meet our players,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said. “Our players really are hands-on when it comes to the community and Houston, and it’s good to see this here.”

The Texans have pledged a $100,000 donation to the Santa Fe Strong Memorial Fund. The money has been earmarked for grief counseling and support services.  Texans star defensive end J.J. Watt earlier offered to pay for funeral expenses for victims’ families.

After practice was over, all of the Texans’ players came over to sign autographs, pose for pictures and talk with the Santa Fe players.

“You’re signing balls, so you can hold a short conversation with them,” said Texans rookie safety Justin Reid. “You can really feel that these kids are all so strong. It’s awesome being able to interact with them and try and make some impact, just try to give them a smile.”

Coming up…

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath now acknowledges that the number of students who were affected by computer glitches during the administration of standardized tests this spring was much higher than previously reported—more than 100,000 students across the state.

And, now that we’re back in the early weeks of hurricane season, Commissioner Morath has released the criteria that he will apply to decide how to waive state ratings for schools that were affected by Hurricane Harvey last year.   

Meanwhile, bowing to criticism of scholars and activists, the State Board of Education is scheduled to take a final vote Friday on whether to officially change the name of a new statewide Mexican-American studies course.

That—and more—in the Monday, June 18, edition of EduLege.

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.