Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Texas House approves requirement for armed guards on school campuses

The Texas House approved two bills to create a statewide school safety fund, require armed guards at every campus in Texas, and add training requirements for school personnel, among other reforms proposed in response to the Robb Elementary School massacre in Uvalde.

On Tuesday, members approved House Bill (HB) 3 on third reading by a vote of 119 to 25 and HB 13 by a vote of 125 to 21. Most votes in opposition were from Democrats, although Reps. Brian Harrison (R-Waxahachie), Terri Leo-Wilson (R-Galveston), and Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler) voted against HB 13. The next stage for the bills is referral to a Senate committee by Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Last week, the Texas Senate unanimously passed its own version of school safety legislation backed by Patrick. Senate Bill (SB) 11 adds funding for school security measures and provides more strict enforcement against truancy.

The primary authors of HB 3 are Reps. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock), Tracy King (D-Batesville), Joe Moody (D-El Paso), Ken King (R-Canadian), and Greg Bonnen (R-Friendswood). For HB 13, the primary authors are Ken King, Burrows, Tracy King, and Reps. Mary González (D-Clint) and Brad Buckley (R-Salado).

On May 24, 2022, an 18-year-old gunman barged into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde and murdered 19 schoolchildren and two teachers with an AR-style rifle. Despite hundreds of law enforcement officers from numerous agencies responding to the shooting, it took 77 minutes before a tactical team of border guards killed the perpetrator. The law enforcement response was widely condemned as inadequate, including by a Texas House legislative committee convened to investigate the massacre.

The feature of HB 3 is its requirement that school districts maintain armed security at each of their campuses at all times. While the bill does not require teachers to carry weapons, it provides that a trained school district employee can fulfill the requirement for an armed guard on campus. Opponents of the bill, such as Rep. Vikki Goodwin (D-Austin), argued against the idea of teachers being expected to serve as armed security.

“When a shooter decides to rampage, the full-time presence of a well-trained, armed security officer can save precious minutes and lives,” Burrows said on the House floor Monday.

Responding to criticisms from Goodwin and others, Burrows it is a “false narrative” that the bill necessarily arms teachers.

Burrows said HB 3 would “reduce confusion in the midst of a crisis” by requiring more coordination between school staff and law enforcement agencies. The bill requires the sheriff’s department in counties with a population of fewer than 350,000 to call semiannual school safety meetings that various law enforcement personnel and school district officials are required to attend.

Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos (D-Richardson) proposed several unsuccessful amendments, including one to add a third-degree felony penalty for parents who neglectfully allow their children to bring a weapon to school. Burrows contended the amendment was not germane to the bill and asked members to vote it down rather than spend the time on a point of order.

Ramos also tried to add requirements for more mental health professionals, an amendment the House voted down.

“This bill does nothing to address mental health,” Ramos said about HB 3.

Burrows accepted a successful amendment by Moody to increase the school safety allotment for school districts from $10 per student to $100 per student. It will be taken from the $1.6 billion already designated for school safety in the House supplemental budget, Burrows added.

The second bill, HB 13, sets up a statewide fund for equipment and technology for school districts to improve security. The bill is contingent on the passage of House Joint Resolution (HJR) 170, a proposed constitutional amendment.

Ken King said his bill compliments Burrows’ HB 3 and is part of a larger effort to make schools in Texas safer.

“This should be the number one priority of this entire Legislature,” Ken King said.

The text of HB 13 would mandate mental health first aid training, reimburse school districts for providing the training to personnel, and set up training for “school sentinels.” Ken King offered a successful amendment to strike the word “guardian” throughout the bill and replace it with “sentinel” to distinguish it from the existing programs.

It would provide a $25,000 stipend for those that serve as school guardians, though the stipend would be in addition to their regular compensation as school employees.

HB 13 would also require school districts to provide a venue for students to report “concerning behavior” by other students. The legislation would make school districts entitled to $100 per student each year for school safety, changing the same section of code amended in HB 3.

Rep. James Talarico (D-Round Rock) and Schaefer both expressed concerns about the stipend, but for different reasons. Talarico said it could become a “perverse incentive” for teachers to carry weapons. Schaefer suggested there may be better training programs that teachers would forgo so they could receive the stipend by participating in the program from a state-approved vendor.

The chamber adopted an amendment to HB 13 by Rep. Erin Zwiener (D-Driftwood) to add fentanyl awareness to the bill.

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