The Senate Special Committee to Protect All Texans interim report to the 88th Legislature covers school safety, mental health, social media, police training, and firearm safety. For more information see the full report here.
Spotlight on Recommendations
Charge 1. School Safety
- School Safety Review Teams: Consider legislation that would create School Safety Review Teams that check key vulnerabilities as established by the Texas School Safety Center on a semiannual basis. The team would be administratively housed within the Texas School Safety Center, but would physically work out of each regional Education Service Center. On-site vulnerability assessments of each campus would be announced to the superintendent within a week of the review. These teams would function as an accessible resources within ESCs for districts who have questions or concerns about their emergency operations plans, safety and security committees, drilling, or other guidance. The results of their review would be reported to the superintendent and the school safety and security committee.
- School Safety Allotment: Consider changing the school safety allotment to better reflect the specific school security needs of individual campuses. Adjustments could follow based on campus size, but current funding mechanisms do not reflect the basic costs of securing a campus no matter how many students attend on a daily basis. Some of the state’s smallest districts are getting less than $800 per year for school safety for the whole district. The legislature should consider an allotment that reflects the needs of each campus to hire or train personnel, purchase and maintain technology, or other school infrastructure measures.
- School Safety and Security Grant: Consider continuing to fund the School Safety and Security Grant as established by SB 500 (86R) for facilities improvements and other, one-time school safety projects in school districts. TEA should use a need-based system that accounts for the age and condition of facilities to award grants and establish baseline safety and security standards for each facility. TEA recently completed a review of all facilities standards and developed new baseline standards for each campus. A summary of the proposed rule changes are attached in the appendix.
- School Marshal Program: Consider legislation to improve the school marshal program. Currently, the program is limited by capacity restraints. The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE) testified that there are only two licensed training providers for school marshals in the state located in College Station and Abilene. That leaves large portions of the state without a training provider within the region. Consider directing TCOLE to allow more licensed training providers across the state to create more access to the program. Additional locations could be provided at existing police academies across the state. An expansion of this caliber may require start up funding from the legislature for hiring more personnel to teach the course at police academies.
- Additionally, to ensure that our school marshals are adequately prepared to fulfill their mission of preventing the act of murder or seriously bodily injury on school premises, the legislature should consider adding ALERRT training to the school marshal training in lieu of the current active shooter training school marshals receive. ALERRT training is considered the gold standard for active shooter response training and school marshals should certainly be receiving the best training possible to fulfill their role.
- The Legislature should also consider expanding the list of eligible persons who can become a school marshal. Currently, school marshals must have a valid license to carry. The Legislature should consider adding retired peace officers and honorably discharged veterans who do not have a license to carry to that list. Retired peace officers and honorably discharged veterans have extensive training with firearms over the course of their careers. Adding them to the list for school marshals would expand the pool of eligibility.
- Lastly, school marshal training is currently only offered during the summer due to the length of the course and the inability of school personnel to take that much time off during the school year. To address that barrier, the legislature should consider directing TCOLE to develop a version of the training that could be taught over several consecutive Saturdays during the school year. Removing barriers to entry in the school marshal program is imperative to expanding the presence of school marshals on our campuses.
- As an increase in school marshals occurs, so would the demand on the Governor’s School Marshal Grant program, which pays for tuition, fees, and other qualifying expenses for school marshal training. The legislature should consider increasing the funding for the grant program to allow more qualified applicants to attend training.
- Truancy: The Legislature should consider legislation to make further improvements to the truancy system. During the 84th Legislature, House Bill 2398 passed and aimed to decriminalize truancy by repealing the criminal offense for skipping school, among other provisions. The offense of Failure to Attend School changed from a Class C misdemeanor to a civil offense called “truant conduct.” Additionally, the legislation required districts to enhance interventions to address truant students and their behavior before referring a student to court. The intent of the law was to use truancy courts as a last resort and to prevent the school-to-prison pipeline. The new law still includes criminal misdemeanors for parents who contribute to their student’s nonattendance, but only if a school can prove the absences were the result of the parents’ negligence. The effect of this legislation has complicated the truancy process. Superintendents testified that districts have had issues with truancy due to these changes. Districts find the process exhaustive and lacking teeth. As such, the legislature should consider improvements to truancy law allowing districts more authority and options to handle truant students, including but not limited to mandatory home visits by school district personnel for chronically truant students or mandatory meetings with the school for parents or guardians.
- Discipline: Consider legislation to improve Chapter 37 of the Education Code, which houses statutes on discipline in schools. Throughout the hearings, multiple members and witnesses described continued issues with certain definitions and limitations within Chapter 37. The construction of the chapter no longer serves students or the community. Additionally, the legislature should consider legislation to allow student discipline records or any behavioral threat assessments to follow the student if they move from district to district. This would allow administrators and teachers to identify students who may pose a threat to the community they are moving into.
- Delineation of responsibility between TEA and the Texas School Safety Center: During the course of the committee’s hearings, it became apparent that the school safety space has many stakeholders without clarity on which agencies have jurisdiction over different responsibilities. As such, the legislature should consider clearly defining each agency’s role in the school safety process. TEA should be the primary apparatus for enforcement and investigation as it pertains to school safety. The Texas School Safety Center should become formally attached to TEA. They will be overseen by the new School Safety Chief position created within TEA that answers to both the Commissioner and the Governor. TEA has existing infrastructure for rulemaking, enforcement, investigations, and other state agency responsibilities. Districts already have an existing relationship with TEA and bringing clarity to the school safety environment is vital for its continued improvement.
Charge 2. Mental Health
- TCHATT Expansion: The Legislature should continue to monitor and support statewide expansion of TCHATT, with a goal to make it available to all school districts that desire services within a reasonable time frame. However, it must be noted that onboarding several hundred additional school districts to TCHATT will require a significant increase in the number of licensed professional counselors, social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists available to provide consultations to patients. To that extent, the Consortium should provide quarterly updates to appropriate Legislative leadership on the number of providers and patients seen, including statistics on patients referred to TCHATT, but who are not seen by a provider and the reason for which a patient was not seen. The Legislature should continue to require parental or guardian consent before children are seen for services.
- Texas Child Mental Health Consortium: The Legislature should consider authorizing the Consortium to accept contributions, as practitioners and other entities may be positioned to donate their time and resources to see and treat Texas youth.
- Loan Repayment Program Expansion: The Legislature should continue to invest in physician and mental healthcare loan repayment programs, with a particular focus on rural areas. Rural Texas continues to be underserved by both physical and mental health providers, as evidenced by data from the Department of State Health Services regarding Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAs) and Medically Underserved Areas (MUAs).
- Paid Fellowship and Internship Opportunities: The Legislature should support mental health professionals in their career by offering paid-internships and fellowships for licensed professional counselors and social workers. Increasing the number of mental health providers will require an increase of providers across the spectrum – not just psychiatrists but also psychologists, social workers and counselors. Texas has a compelling interest in assisting providers to reach their pinnacle of their ability to practice independently by offsetting the cost of supervision.
- Streamline Licensure Requirements: The Legislature should consider directing the Behavioral Health Executive Council to streamline licensure requirements, with a goal towards standardizing basic mental health licensure requirements for marriage and family therapists, counselors, psychologists and social workers. While each license type may differ in approach, all four are recognized as mental health professions. Furthermore, the Behavioral Health Executive Council should review the hours of supervision needed to qualify for licenses, and consider accepting supervision earned outside Texas. The Behavioral Health Executive Council should also conduct a review of reciprocal state licensures.
- Database of Community In-Patient Beds: The Legislature should create a state database of community in-patient beds, including those specifically for pediatric patients. Local governmental entities and law enforcement agencies incur significant costs transporting patients who need immediate hospitalization.
- Funding for Additional Community Beds and Needs Study: The Legislature should increase funding for additional community beds and direct the Department of State Health Services to analyze the need for additional psychiatric hospital beds. While the Legislature has made historic investments in its state hospital systems over the last six years, capacity needs will continue to grow with the state’s population. The 2014-15 budget enacted by the 83rd Texas Legislature, Regular Session, 2013, included Department of State Health Services Rider No. 83, directing the Department of State Health Services to consider the operational and infrastructure needs of the existing state psychiatric hospital facilities, as well as the future demand for services to persons residing in a state psychiatric hospital. CanonDesign was commissioned to help study this issue.
- A follow-up Ten-Year Plan for the Provision of Services to Persons Served by State Psychiatric Hospitals suggested 2,463 state-operated beds, 456 state-contracted beds and 1,936 locally – supported beds accounted for met needs, but that an additional 570 beds were needed to serve the criminal justice system and people with serious mental illnesses. That 2015 report also suggested Texas would need an additional 607 beds to keep pace with population growth. These figures need updating to execute the next ten years of care.
- Criminal Justice Involvement and Losing Access to Prescription Medication: When a person receiving prescription medication finds themselves involved in the Texas criminal justice system, they can often lose the benefits of a state-supported prescription, whether through a Local Mental Health Authority or otherwise. If incarcerated locally, these prescription costs are incurred by counties, that do not have systems like the Texas Correctional Managed Health Care Committee to manage costs. This can result in medication non-adherence and exacerbate mental health challenges. The Legislature should convene a workgroup to review the feasibility of including counties’ incarcerated populations within the Texas Correctional Managed Health Care Committee.
- Coordinated Specialty Care Coverage: The Legislature should evaluate the costs and benefits of offering coverage of coordinated specialty care for Texans under the age of 21 who have been diagnosed with psychosis.
- Multisystemic Therapy Teams and Pediatric Stabilization Teams: The Legislature should consider increasing funding for MST and PST teams via Youth Empowerment Waiver (YES) program, while recognizing the workforce shortage and the time needed to build an adequate supply that could meet state demands. The Legislature should continue to fund MST but only through the YES Waiver, which was created to focus services on the children with highest behavioral health needs and who are at-risk of entering other systems, including Foster Care and Juvenile Justice. This funding should be coordinated with an increase in the number of YES waiver slots funded.
Charge 3. Social Media
- iWatch Public Awareness Campaign: The Legislature should direct the Department of Public Safety to expand and enhance the capabilities of iWatch Texas and publicize its availability to all school districts in the State as well as the public at large. Specifically, the Legislature should grant DPS resources necessary to engage with experts in the staging of a statewide public awareness campaign for iWatch Texas and to ensure that it can address the reporting volume of a fully realized iWatch platform.
- iWatch in School Districts: School districts in the State should be encouraged to either utilize iWatch Texas or a platform that is similarly integrated with regional fusion centers and the Texas Fusion Center, as integration with these centers is crucial for a platform’s ability to successfully mitigate threats.
Charge 4. Police Training
- Add Mandatory ALERRT Training to Basic Officers Course: Consider making ALERRT training mandatory for all law enforcement in the Basic Officers Course. ALERRT is considered the gold standard for active shooter response training. ALERRT should be added to the basic officer’s course that all new law enforcement officers have to take. All school-based law enforcement should also receive ALERRT training as soon as possible. The state could make additional investments in the ALERRT Center to expand its reach and capability statewide while prioritizing school-based law enforcement first.
- ALERRT fulfills active shooter training requirements: Consider directing TCOLE to accept ALERRT training in lieu of TCOLE’s active shooter training. Law enforcement officers who are already ALERRT trained are still required to attend and take TCOLE’s active shooter training. This is unnecessary and wastes time and resources.
- Require districts share EOPs with local law enforcement: Consider requiring school districts to share their emergency operations plans with local law enforcement – including ISD police, city police, and county sheriffs – to ensure all responding agencies know and understand what the plan is in the event of an emergency. These EOPs should be in their final form after receiving feedback from the TxSSC.
- Continuity of Care Query: Consider allowing peace officers and dispatchers to access the Continuity of Care Query (CCQ) system. Currently, officers cannot run a CCQ or access mental health records to know if they encounter a mental health client. However, jailers have access to run a CCQ. Consider granting similar access for officers so they can identify the least harmful solutions for mentally ill clients.
Charge 5. Firearm Safety
- State penalty for straw purchases: While the issue of firearm straw purchases did not arise during testimony relating to firearm safety, representatives from the Texas Police Chiefs’ Association testified as to the issue relating to straw purchases during testimony on police training. The testimony was so straightforward and compelling as to the need to make straw purchase of firearms a felony under state law that it is included here as part of the report recommendations.
- This report also notes that another recommendation raised numerous times in testimony as a way to reduce mass violence events in schools was raising the age to purchase an assault-style weapon to 21. Testimony highlighted that US Secret Service reports on violence in schools have found that attackers have historically been between the ages 12 and 19 with few exceptions. However, there remains a strong lack of consensus of the Committee as to this idea.