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Texas’s Efforts To Keep Schools Safe Are Derailed Amid The Pandemic And Little Oversight

Since the deadly shooting at Sante Fe High School that killed 10 people and wounded 13 others in 2018, Texas has tried to monitor potential threats on public school campuses. However, there is a great deal of confusion surrounding the inconsistent monitoring efforts. 

A 13-year-old North Texas student was threatened with suspension after she communicated what she perceived to be a classmate’s shooting threat to her friends in a group chat. 

The Lewisville Independent School District wanted the honors student suspended and finish the remainder of the school year in an alternative school, according to her mother. The family appealed the decision and won. The eighth grader was allowed to return to her school. 

However, this incident only highlights the confusion surrounding threat monitoring in the state. 

In 2019, Texas lawmakers approved a school safety bill, which included establishing “threat assessment” teams — made up of school faculty and staff. The team would help identify potentially dangerous students and determine the best ways to intervene before they become violent.

Cyberbullying, fighting, harassment, sexual misconduct, assault, teen dating violence, terroristic threats, possession of a weapon and verbal threats, were some of the threats reported. 

“Our goal is that no child will ever feel afraid at school and no Texas family will ever experience the grief that followed the horrible school shooting at Santa Fe High School,” Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said. “The safety of our children remains paramount — the future of Texas depends on it.”

Since Uvalde, the deadliest school shooting in Texas, the Texas Legislature failed to pass any gun safety legislation this year, despite testimony from survivors and families. A measure that would have helped to keep schools safe from gun violence. 

However, since the bill was approved, how to report a threat and exactly how threats are supposed to be monitored by schools is anything but tangible, in part because the global pandemic forced many schools to close frequently and caused a state school staffing turnover problem.

The threat assessment team’s role

The director of education justice for Texas Appleseed, a public interest nonprofit group, Andrew Hairston, said that lawmakers had pitched threat assessment teams as a way to keep schools safe, an alternative to simply prosecuting students for violent threats. 

“I’d much rather have this system in place where the team is extensively trained on the unique dynamics of child development,” he told the Texas Tribune.

The bill from 2019, requires superintendents to appoint faculty members who have expertise in counseling, behavior management, mental health and substance use, classroom instruction, special education, school administration, school safety, emergency management and law enforcement, to the threat assessment teams. 

The teams would be responsible for reviewing students who had reportedly made threats of violence or exhibited any harmful, threatening or violent behavior. The members would then decide what the next steps should be, whether mental health services are needed or perhaps law enforcement intervention. 

In addition to this, the team is supposed to educate students and staff on the signs of potentially violent behavior and figure out a procedure to report threats. 

Schools are supposed to keep track of all the threats and report their data to the Texas Education Agency.

After the pandemic distributed class schedules, the TEA relaxed requirements that schools submit data regarding threats at schools during the 2020-21 academic year because of frequent school closures.

Last year, Texas Appleseed released a report on the performance of each school district’s threat assessment teams. The report was based on a TEA survey of most of the state’s 1,200 public school districts. 

During the 2020-21 school year, Texas school districts logged a total of 37,007 threats, yet the data wasn’t complete because the state had relaxed requirements that required all threats to be reported. 

While some schools did, some didn’t and the schools that did, might not have reported consistently. Out of the total, 17,000 — 51% — warranted intervention or the cases were referred to local law enforcement. 

“In short, some school districts are applying a threat assessment process that is incomplete, lacking, and without the needed student support,“ the Texas Appleseed report stated. “And while threat assessments are well-intentioned and developed to help create a safe environment, problems arise if they are not conducted proactively and comprehensively with a holistic focus on identifying mental health issues and implementing needed supports.”

The lack of reliable procedures for reporting threats surfaced during this year’s legislative session.

A parent, whose name is not disclosed because her child is a minor, wrote to the House Youth Health & Safety Select Committee, requesting the state require schools to inform parents when their kids are subject to a threat assessment. 

Her son was questioned by two social workers and the principal after some classmates made fun of him and suggested that he was a “school shooter” because of his race and gender, she told lawmakers. 

“I should have been informed from the very beginning before any interrogation of my child,” the parent told the Texas Tribune.

Other problems with reporting student threats

In their efforts to confirm the school district’s threats with the data from district officials, the Texas Appleseed found that some school districts reported different numbers than those reported to the TEA or didn’t respond at all to the nonprofit’s information request.

Some school districts still remained unclear about the procedure they should follow if a student exhibited violent behavior, the nonprofit group found. 

During this session, lawmakers passed HB 473, to stiffen plans once a school’s assessment team decides a student is a threat to others. The bill would also require schools to notify a parent or guardian of their findings and conclusions regarding the student’s behavior. 

“Developing a more thoughtful partnership between parents and schools could help identify mental health concerns earlier and allow students to get the support they need at the beginning of this process,” Laura Felix, a spokesperson for Texas Appleseed, told the Texas Tribune

Lack of resources 

The departing superintendent of the Northside ISD in San Antonio, Brian Woods, said that administrators had always known that setting up threat assessment teams would be a challenge.

“It’s easy to say that we are going to set up these threat assessment teams. But when you get into the details, you realize every school is different and every campus is different. You aren’t going to use the same methods for an elementary school that you would for a high school,” he told the Texas Tribune.

While the rules to put the team in place were extensive, many school districts had just begun to create them when the pandemic hit. 

Since then, students spent a couple of frustrating years with online class instruction.

“When the students came back, they had a whole new set of mental health challenges that we were not prepared for,” Woods told the Texas Tribune. “Combining all these issues, you can see how we got into this situation.”

The director of counseling crisis and mental health at Austin ISD, Twyla Williams,  said that their team was pretty small at first. Consisting of just her, the district’s chief of police and a crisis response team. As the team continued to grow, they found that their principals appreciated having a sounding board for their intervention methods. 

“We found principals needed a platform to be able to say, ‘This is what has occurred, this is what we have done and we welcome your input on it if we missed something to make sure the family is supported,’” Williams told the Texas Tribune.

Staffing the teams was the biggest challenge, she said. 

“The needs of the students and staff have been so great and just the sheer numbers of requests,” she said. “We have these meetings that are regularly scheduled, but sometimes situations may deem for us to have an on-call meeting on campus, and that has been more of a challenge.”

Across the state, school districts are struggling to find the staff for classrooms alone. Despite a historic budget increase, the Legislature failed to pass a pay raise for teachers. 

The threat assessment requirements didn’t come with any additional funding and finding so many volunteers can be a challenge, according to Woods, the outgoing Northside ISD superintendent.

“Teachers are asked to give up so much of their time already. A lot of their time is not spent in the classroom doing instruction. Now we are asking them to meet almost weekly to review their own students,” Woods told the Texas Tribune. “It can be a lot.”

The mental health field is also dealing with a decreasing pool of providers. 

“We don’t have enough mental health capacity in the entire state to do any follow-ups,” Woods said. “Families who need help right now are being told to wait for six weeks.”

If a district as large as Northside ISD is having problems with staffing the threat assessment teams, Woods said it might not be possible for smaller or more rural schools.“If we expect this to be run well, then it needs to come with resources,” Woods told the Texas Tribune. “We had a chance this session to do this, but that didn’t happen. We had two years with a record surplus and we have done nothing.”

Atirikta Kumar
Atirikta Kumar
Atirikta Kumar (@AtiriktaKumar) is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Political Science at the University of Houston. Atirikta is passionate about writing about the criminal justice system and issues in order to inform the public about their communities and politics. She also writes for her college newspaper, The Cougar.

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