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EduLege Tracker 8-9-18

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EduLege Update Volume VI, Number 45
August 9, 2018
By Andy Welch
A Service of the Texas School Public Relations Association

We’ll start with this…

The special State Senate committee that was formed to recommend changes in the wake of the Santa Fe High School shooting that left 10 dead in May has released its report, focusing on strategies that beef up school security, while rejecting proposals that could limit access to guns.

The panel of six Republicans and three Democrats proposed legislation that would help school districts hire more counselors, social workers and psychology specialists, in addition to offering mental health “first aid” training to employees who interact with students.

The committee also recommended finding more money for the state’s school marshal program, which allows state-trained teachers and administrators to carry a gun on campus, and the Guardian program, which allows school districts to designate employees allowed to carry concealed weapons in schools.

The full report is available here.

But heeding opposition from Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, the panel did not recommend creating “red-flag” court orders that would allow family members and law enforcement officers to petition a court for the removal of guns from people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others.

Mike Collier, Patrick’s Democratic opponent in November, said the committee’s vague recommendations—with no price tags or concrete goals—seem designed to give the appearance of action, while accomplishing little.

“It’s meant to stall, it’s meant to delay, it’s meant to do nothing,” Mr. Collier said.  “There are very specific demands Texans want — a background check system that’s upgraded so that it works, and red-flag laws. This report says only that we should consider clarifying laws that are already on the books.”

In its report, the Senate committee also made several suggestions for “hardening” the physical security of schools, including finding more money for metal detectors, alarm systems, cameras and fortifying entrances, to make it more difficult for attackers to access campuses. The report also proposed a new state law that would require that schools designate a campus administrator to work directly with law enforcement to develop security plans.

Stephanie Rubin, the Chief Executive Officer of Texans Care for Children, a child-advocacy nonprofit organization, praised the committee’s interest in improving student mental health, particularly if it leads to better access to mental health professionals, but added that proof of the Senate’s commitment won’t be known until bills are passed by the Legislature—and adequately funded.

Ms. Rubin also lamented the report’s silence on ways the state could help schools reduce the risk of suicide and substance abuse among students.

“The best way to protect students from violence is to prevent youth from considering violence as a solution to their problems in the first place,” she said.

Several House committees that are also examining school safety issues have not yet released their commendations on suggested legislation for the 2019 session.

* * *

The Lumberton school district in Southeast Texas is among the latest to allow teachers and administrators to be armed on campus.

“Once, our job was to look at curriculum,” said Superintendent Gerald Chandler.  “Now we have to look at the safety of our schools and ensuring our students can come here to a safe and secure environment.”

Lumberton will continue to have school resource officers on its campuses, as well.

Comprehensive gun safety training for the staff members who are selected to carry guns on campus will be conducted by a former police chief who now teaches criminal justice classes at Lumberton High School.

Troubling statistics…

Texas teenagers are nearly twice as likely to attempt suicide when compared to youth nationally, according to a recent survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When adolescents ages 13 to 17 in Texas schools were asked if they’d attempted suicide in the past year, 12.3 percent answered “yes,” compared to the national average of 7.4 percent. And the problem is getting worse: 12.3 percent is the highest rate ever recorded in Texas since the federal survey began in 2001, up from 10.1 percent in 2013, the last time the survey was conducted.

After his son’s suicide, Kevin Childers, a teacher and football coach at Fairfield High School, sought a solution. He convinced the Texas Legislature in 2015 to pass legislation that requires that Texas school districts and open-enrollment charters train teachers in suicide prevention, such as how to identify warning signs like substance abuse, aggression and self-mutilation.

But now, nearly three years after its passage, Mr. Childers says the law falls short, because the state doesn’t monitor whether Texas school districts are training teachers, and it’s very difficult to independently verify if teachers are completing the training.

Unlike many other states, Texas doesn’t require teachers to take suicide prevention training in order to renew their professional licenses. “It’s a state law, but they’re leaving it to local districts to police themselves,” Mr. Childers said. “To be honest, I don’t know if that’s working.”

Texas Education Agency Spokesperson DeEtta Culbertson says the agency does not collect any data on suicide prevention trainings, so it’s difficult to know how many school districts have complied. “There would need to be a legislative change requiring this,” Ms. Culbertson said.

The latest survey by the CDCP also reports on tobacco, drug and alcohol use, sexual relations, and violent encounters among Texas adolescents. Click here to read it. 

Despite all the noise…

While a growing number of Texas parents advocate for allowing their children to opt out of state vaccination requirements, a new poll shows that 86 percent of Republican voters want students to receive vaccines before starting school.

The poll found that most Republican voters want schoolchildren immunized, an increasingly contentious issue in the Legislature. In recent sessions, some Republican members have sponsored bills to make opting out of vaccinations easier,and opposed bills to make each school report its opt-out numbers.

“Given the increasing number of Texans opting out and all the noise out there, it’s comforting to see such huge numbers of Republican voters support the protection of schoolchildren from disease and the role of government in this area,” said Dr. John Carlo, chairman of the Texas Public Health Coalition, which commissioned the poll.  “Republican lawmakers should have nothing to fear from extremists who don’t reflect the views of most of their party’s voters.”

The poll also found that 67 percent of Republican voters believe government should have a role in reducing the number of vaccine-preventable deaths; 68 percent oppose the concept of non-medical opt-outs; and nearly 80 percent believe schools should make their number of unvaccinated children publicly available.

Texas is one of 18 states that allows waivers of school vaccine requirements based on parents’ conscience or personal beliefs. All but two states—Mississippi and West Virginia—grant exemptions on religious grounds, and all states grant exemptions for medical conditions, such as a compromised immune system.

The poll was released a few days after new state data showed that nearly 57,000 students received a non-medical exemption from their vaccinations during the 2017-2018 school year, a more than 2,000 percent increase since 2003, when the Legislature began allowing such “conscientious objections.”

Shop ‘till you drop…

The state’s popular Back-to-School Sales-Tax Free Weekend starts tomorrow, (Friday, August 10), and runs through Sunday, August 12.

Anybody buying clothes, shoes and school supplies can save on the state and local sales tax, which combined can total as much as 8.25 percent.  

Parents are expected to spend about $684.79 per child on back-to-school clothes and supplies this year, according to the National Retail Federation.

The Texas Legislature began the Back-to-School sales tax holiday in 1999, under then-governor George W. Bush.  Shoppers this year are expected to save more than $90 million in local and state sales taxes.

Among the eligible tax-free items this weekend: shirts, shorts, jeans, pants, sweatshirts, dresses, socks, underwear, coats, nightgowns, pajamas and tennis shoes.

And of course, supplies such as backpacks, lunch boxes, calculators, compasses, composition books, folders, legal pads, markers, pencils, pens and scissors are eligible for the tax break as well. The full list is available here.

To qualify for the tax break, just make sure that you buy individual items that cost less than $100—for example, shoes and jeans.

This is the fourth and final sales tax holiday in Texas for the year. Earlier holidays were for purchases of emergency preparation supplies, Energy Star appliances and water-efficient products.

Our kind of guy…

TSPRA has named Reverend Charles Foster Johnson, founder of Pastors for Texas Children, as recipient of the association’s coveted Key Communicator Award.

Pastor Johnson is receiving the award in recognition of his work as a champion for Texas public schools and adequate school funding.

Pastor Johnson will receive his award, sponsored by West (SchoolMessenger solutions), from TSPRA President Kristin Zastoupil at the 2018 Texas Association of School Administrators/Texas Association of School Boards Convention, to be held in Austin on September 28-30.

“Reverend Johnson has worked tirelessly recruiting and leading advocates who know that a strong public education system is a moral imperative,” said Ms. Zastoupil. “His unwavering defense of Texas students and educators makes him a deserving recipient of this award.”

Most prominently, Pastor Johnson and his organization have been outspoken opponents of legislative attempts to divert funds from public schools via voucher schemes, believing them to be antithetical to the goal of providing a free publication for all Texas children.

Click here to read more about Pastor Johnson, Pastors for Texas Children, and TSPRA’s Key Communicator Award.

And we’ll end with this…

Before they took the field this week for their first practice of the season, players from the Santa Fe High School Football squad placed decals on their white helmets.

One was the initials “CS.” The other “RG.”

Chris Stone.

Riley Garcia.

They were both teammates.

But neither boy was there at 7 a.m., when the team gathered in this hot August sun.  Both were killed in the shooting at the high school back on May 18.

“We are going to honor them,” Coach Mark Kanipes told his team as they pressed the stickers on their helmets. “When you’re hot, when you’re tired, when you feel like giving up, you think of them. We’d love for them to be here. We are going to work hard for them this season.”

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.