Providing stronger mental health services on campus and freeing up school counselors to work with students were among the top school safety measures supported by TCTA members following the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, recent survey results show.
“We need more counselors/mental health individuals to work on our campuses and train staff to be able to identify those individuals that ‘fly under the radar’ and to identify them and get the help that they need before situations like Sandy Hook and now Uvalde happen,” one survey respondent offered.
More than 1,300 TCTA members responded to the survey that focused on different approaches to school safety that are being explored by the Texas Legislature. The results will inform TCTA’s policy suggestions and testimony before legislative committees.
Speaking at a joint House committee hearing on Thursday, Jazmin Cazares of Uvalde talked about her little sister Jackie, who was killed in the shooting. The 9-year-old loved to sing, dance and act and dreamed of going to Paris.
“The people who were supposed to keep her safe at school didn’t. They failed,” said Cazares, who plans to honor Jackie by going to Paris next year after she graduates from high school.
Cazares had combed through the school district’s safety plan and pointed out the multitude of failures that led to the shooting. And she said it’s terrifying to think about going back to school.
“I have senior year and that’s it,” Cazares told the committee. “Am I going to survive it?”
In the Texas Senate, the Special Committee to Protect All Texans — formed in response to the Uvalde shooting — held two days of hearings this week to discuss the school safety, mental health, social media, law enforcement training and firearm safety.
“Protecting our schoolchildren is the most pressing issue facing our state today,” said Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville.
Nichols noted that the Legislature has previously dug into school safety issues, particularly in the wake of the Santa Fe school shooting in 2018, but “clearly it has not been enough.”
It’s unlikely that Gov. Greg Abbott will call a special legislative session to address school safety issues before the next regular session begins in January. Instead, state leaders have been scrambling to put additional resources into existing mental health programs for children as well as equipment for law enforcement.
Education Commission Mike Morath assured lawmakers that all 340,000 school doors would be checked before the next school year.
Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said the key consideration for the Legislature must be whether parents believe their children will be safe in schools. He added that the needs of teachers must also be front and center in the school safety discussion.
“We must reassure the teachers that we’re not going to ask them to be armed guards,” West said. “But what we’re going to do is to make certain that when they’re in the classroom, they’re focused with laser certainty on teaching our kids.”
In the TCTA survey, just under 40% of respondents said they did not feel safe on their campus and almost two-thirds of all respondents reported that they would feel safer with increased law enforcement presence. Similarly, 68% agreed that school hardening, such as metal detectors and limiting entrances, makes schools safer and most did not believe such measures would harm the learning environment.
The survey showed little consensus among members for further arming teachers and other gun-related policies.
But there was strong support for additional school counselors and allowing them more time to provide counseling services to students.
“More counselors should be hired. They should not have the added duties of state testing coordinators. These duties have taken valuable time away from students over the past 10 years,” one survey respondent wrote. “At this point, their focus should be more on student mental health and developing plans to help students.
In 2019, the Legislature created the Texas Child Mental Health Consortium as part of the response to the shooting at Santa Fe High School. The consortium works with school districts to connect students with mental health professionals through telemedicine — if a parent consents. Lawmakers are discussing how to accelerate the expansion of that program, which was not yet available in Uvalde at the time of the shooting.
Look for more on school safety in the summer issue of The Classroom Teacher in July.