By Andrea Zelinski and Mike Ward
Gov. Greg Abbott is asking for more armed teachers, heightened security presence on campuses and better identification of troubled students to make Texans safer as the nation grapples with a terrifying drumbeat of school shootings.
The governor released a 40-page school and firearm safety action plan Wednesday at Dallas Independent School District, recommendations that come with more than $100 million in grant money and other matching funds to help school districts afford the changes and upgrades. The plan also includes proposed changes to state law.
"Everybody in this entire process and everybody in the state of Texas never wants to see another occasion where innocent children are gunned down in their own schools," Abbott said referencing this month's school shooting at Santa Fe High School that left 10 dead and 13 wounded. "This plan is a starting point, not an ending place."
The governor's plan, much of which was developed over the Memorial Day weekend, also includes a gun lock giveaway and media strategy to encourage people to lock up their firearms, a school safety app, new alarms specifically to sound for active-shooter events and metal detectors.
While the recommendations are optional, Abbott said he expects all school districts to boost personnel to show a greater law enforcement presence in their schools and figure out how to increase access to mental health programs.
Many of the ideas can be implemented by the beginning of next school year, he said.
Much of the plan was born out of three days of roundtable discussions with survivors from the Santa Fe school rampage and a church shooting in Sutherland Springs, mental health experts, law enforcement personnel and educators, among others, Abbott said.
A Santa Fe senior at one of those listening sessions said she wished more teachers were allowed to go armed at her school without students' knowledge.
Abbott said other students echoed her sentiment and said he wants to expand and streamline the existing voluntary school marshal program. He also plans to offer training for teachers who wish to carry guns on campus.
Advocates for stricter firearms regulations had pushed for stronger background checks for gun buyers, an idea absent from the governor's proposal.
However, Texas Guns Sense spokesman Ed Scruggs said he was pleased the governor proposed mandatory reporting of lost or stolen firearms and speeding up from 30 days to 48 hours the turnaround time for the courts to report certain adjudications that would disqualify people from gun ownership.
Scruggs also applauded the governor's support for a so-called "red flag law" allowing law enforcement, a family member, school employee or an attorney to file a petition to remove firearms from a potentially dangerous person after due process.
"It's not enough, of course," Scruggs said of the governor's plan.
The governor's critics were quick to find fault in his proposal for a lack of changes to the state's gun laws.
"Nothing in Abbott's plans address the reality that it is too easy for a weapon to end up in the hands of someone wanting to cause harm," said Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party.
Lupe Valdez, former Dallas County sheriff running for governor against Abbott, said it is "astounding" how few of the governor's recommendations address gun control and vowed to release her own recommendations in the coming days.
Members of the Texas House Democratic Caucus support most of the governor's plan, according to Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat and chairman of the group. But he said lawmakers are worried about the costs and want the Legislature to shore up money for cash-strapped public schools.
Some lawmakers have called on Abbott to order a special session so lawmakers can pass laws to make schools safer. Abbott said that while he was open to that option, many of the key recommendations can be implemented now by school districts without waiting for for legislative action, so additional safety measures can be in place by the time classes start in August.
He said more than $120 million in funding is included to expedite the added measures and said the recommendations generally are intended as options so districts can implement the measures they believe will best fit their needs, although some precautions and safety programs will be implemented statewide.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who appeared with Abbott in San Marcos, called the plan "an excellent starting point" for improved school safety.
"The cost of this is not going to be an issue," he said.
Patrick announced that a special Senate committee was empaneled Wednesday to begin working on legislative efforts to boost state laws.
House Speaker Joe Straus announced that a separate House panel will study a potential "red flag" law to spell out a legal process for family members and law enforcement wanting to keep firearms out of the hands of those who would harm themselves or others
School safety and gun regulations have demanded greater attention here and across the country in recent months following a rash of mass shootings, including the one at Santa Fe.
In November, a man opened fire on a church in Sutherland Springs, killing 26 people and making it the worst mass shooting in modern Texas history. Three months later, a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 students and staff, spurred a national student-led momentum to address school safety and gun control.
"We don't doubt that Gov. Abbott is as heartbroken as any other Texan over the recent tragedy at Santa Fe High School," said Noel Candelaria, president of the Texas State Teachers Association, which opposes arming teachers and worries money for school safety will eventually run out.
"But, tragically, children and educators have been dying in school shootings throughout the country for years. Why did it take a mass shooting in his own backyard in an election year to finally force the governor to respond with a sense of urgency?" she said.
(c)2018 the Houston Chronicle