KPRC 2 Investigates: The gaps in school safety and what educators need to close them

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and we have not figured that out in the state of Texas yet.”

After eight students and two teachers were murdered at Santa Fe high school in 2018, state legislators passed more than a dozen laws. None of those laws prevented Uvalde and pressure is mounting for lawmakers to address lingering gaps in school security.

“I lost faith in the whole process,” said Flo Rice, who was critically wounded during the Santa Fe mass shooting. “I’m sad and I’m frustrated and I don’t feel like our children are any safer than they were after the Santa Fe shooting.”

After the murders at Robb elementary, state lawmakers again scheduled hearings and listened to parents who lost children.

“I don’t want my daughter to just be remembered for what happened to her, I want her to be remembered for change,” said Kimberly Rubio, whose daughter Lexi was killed during the mass shooting at Robb elementary school.

“How do you address that?” asked KPRC 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.

“We want to have a solution that not only addresses mass shootings but all the other types of violence and crimes that happen in and around schools,” said State Rep. Gene Wu (D), Dist. 137.

“What are your priorities?” asked Arnold.

“I think now, in retrospect, people don’t know what steps need to be taken to make sure they have an operational plan that actually results in safety,” said State Sen. Paul Bettencourt/(R) Dist. 7

One of the most significant pieces of legislation to emerge from the horrors of Santa Fe was Senate Bill 11, which requires school districts to conduct threat assessments on potentially violent students.

The teams that conduct these assessments are called Safe and Supportive School Program Teams (SSSP.)

“Those threat detection teams are there to recognize the obvious and that didn’t occur in Uvalde,” said Bettencourt.

State law also requires members of these teams to go through at least one 7-hour threat assessment training course. According to data obtained from the Texas Education Agency, about 30% of the people on these teams have yet to complete this training as of June 2022.

“We did have an uptick in training this summer,” said Celina Bley, Ph.D., associate director for training at the Texas School Safety Center.

“Did that come after Uvalde?” asked Arnold.

“Correct,” said Bley. “One of the things school districts are dealing with is their team members have changed this year.”

Bley said another challenge for some districts is ensuring threat assessment teams are effective.

Senate Bill 11 also calls for these teams to be multi-disciplinary and “to the greatest extent practicable, that the members appointed to each team have expertise in counseling, behavior management, mental health and substance use, classroom instruction, special education, school administration, school safety and security, emergency management, and law enforcement.”

“The key is really figuring out how does that team operationalize to support the campus,” said Bley. “I think where school districts are struggling is getting the team together to go out and look, find information and then come back and assess.”

Which schools are compliant?

A check of the School Safety Center’s website shows classes for this training are full through the end of November.

Bley said beyond the required training, it’s up to each individual school district to figure out how to achieve this mandate, as well what interventions will be needed for students who are deemed a potential threat. KPRC 2 Investigates found many districts have different methods for determining whether a student is a potential threat.

Parents can learn more about the School Safety Center’s toolkits by going here.

KPRC 2 Investigates analysis of TEA data found that the SSSP teams across Texas received more than 67,000 reports of potentially violent students during the 2021-2022 school year. In 17% of the cases, threat assessment teams determined there was a threat and intervention was needed; an additional 3% of cases determined there was an imminent threat and the student was reported to law enforcement, according to the data.

Search your child’s school or district below.

Some district answered, ‘no,’ in response to whether one of these teams had been put in place. When KPRC 2 reached out to several of the districts that answered, ‘no,’ we discovered it was due to a misunderstanding of the question.

The TEA representatives further explained that “While it varies from school system to school system, almost all instances of “no” on the survey submissions can be attributed to the following factors:

  • Changes in administration
  • Staff turnover
  • Confusion related to the SSSP team not being the same as a District Safety and Security Committee
  • Other submission issues

The education agency is now developing a plan to help support school districts that do not mean the safety program requirements.

If the district does not meet the requirements, TEA investigators help “determine appropriate actions” within the agency’s authority.

What school districts need to close the gaps

“How difficult was that for educators to suddenly have to assess whether or not somebody is going to be violent?” asked Arnold.

“The first thing that had to be done was we had to train staff on what does certain types of behaviors look like that might manifest itself in someone doing harm,” said Alief ISD superintendent, HD Chambers.

Chambers is retiring in December after 12 years as Alief’s superintendent. He said he felt for these teams to work, all employees needed some level of training.

“We didn’t have enough individuals in our district to train the individuals that needed to be trained,” said Chambers. “Making sure we had the ability to train all the eyes and the ears that were going to be on our campuses observing some of these behaviors and knowing the behaviors when you saw them and you heard them.”

Chambers said he had to find money in the district’s budget to make this training happen.

President of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, Zeph Capo said not every district has the funds for training beyond the state-required course.

“We need funding for mental health, we need additional resources,” said Capo. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and we have not figured that out in the state of Texas yet.”

Bettencourt and Wu said school safety will again be a priority during the upcoming legislative session; what form that will take is still being debated.

“The more we looked under the hood, the more we’ve found wrong with engine,” said Bettencourt.

Bettencourt said he wants to make sure districts with effective threat assessment teams are able to share best practices with districts across the state. Wu said there also needs to be a support system in place for those students who are deemed a threat.

“We have to address it, we can’t just push them away and try to ignore them until something snaps,” said Wu. “Let’s try putting more resources into providing social workers and counselors. Let’s try the things we didn’t want to do last time.”

Flo Rice and her husband, Scot, have been tireless advocates for improving school safety. Both said they worry the legislature won’t make the changes needed to address the gaps in school safety that remain.

“There’s nothing new and nothing different and it’s business as usual; I’m scared,” said Scot Rice. “Is your kid safe in school today or can another shooter walk in, like in Santa Fe or Uvalde and do the same thing they did then?”

“What do you think the answer is?” asked Arnold.

“I think it can happen tomorrow,” said Scot Rice.

The state Senate Committee to Protect All Texans has yet to issue a report on its findings following a series of hearings on the Robb elementary school massacre. Gov. Greg Abbott also has not yet named a Chief of School Security and Safety; a new position he ordered be created after Uvalde.

The Governor’s Office did send KPRC 2 Investigates a statement:

“In the upcoming session, Governor Abbott will work with the Texas legislature to continue building on actions taken so far to address mental health issues and make schools safer. Governor Abbott took immediate action to address all aspects of the heinous crime committed in Uvalde, including requesting the Texas legislature work together on legislative recommendations to make schools safer and address mental health and providing over $105 million to increase school safety and improve behavioral health for students. The Governor will also ensure the mental health assessment and treatment programs, which are already available in more than 3,500 schools, will reach every school in Texas.”

About the Author:

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”