Abbott vows to ‘keep our students safe’

Superintendent threatens to suspend students who demonstrate against gun violence during school hours

By Rishika Dugyala

The Texas Tribune

Photo by Pu Ying Huang for The Texas Tribune
Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a get out the vote rally in Houston on Tuesday, Feb. 20, the first day of early voting for Republican and Democratic primaries in Texas.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday ordered the Texas Education Agency to take action to ensure the safety of the state’s students following last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 people dead.

In a letter to Education Commissioner Mike Morath, Abbott outlined steps state education leaders should take to prevent tragedies like the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The steps include sharing all available information on school safety programs with districts, ensuring all public schools have completed and submitted their required school safety audits and drafting recommendations for the Legislature on changes to the school safety system.

“All of Texas grieves the tragedy that occurred in Parkland last week,” Abbott wrote in the letter. “As Governor, I take seriously the safety of all Texas residents, and as an American, I mourn the loss of 17 Floridians in a cruel and senseless act of violence. Immediate steps must be taken to keep our students and communities safe, with the understanding that more will be expected in the future.”

Morath wrote in a statement to The Texas Tribune that Abbott’s identified steps can help strengthen campus safety for all students.

“Our schools must always be a safe place for learning,” he wrote. “I have directed TEA staff to begin full implementation of his directives.”

The letter comes a day after Abbott told a crowd of reporters he would support fixing the federal background check database for gun buyers and identifying mental health issues that could lead to gun violence.

Abbott said he would like to discuss a nationwide response on his trip to Washington, D.C., this weekend for a Republican Governors Association meeting. He pointed to legislation pending in Congress that would address the federal background check system, which he said should be considered and passed. Among the proposals is one by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, that would increase government accountability for the system.

Students across the country have also become vocal advocates for gun control, with hundreds engaging in walkouts. Those who survived the Parkland shooting traveled more than 400 miles to the Florida state capitol on Wednesday to demand action, and a nationwide school walkout is being planned for March 14.

And across central Texas, middle school and high school students demonstrated solidarity. On Wednesday, nearly 500 students at three Austin area districts participated in walkouts, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

But on Tuesday, the superintendent of Needville Independent School District in Fort Bend County threatened to suspend students who take part in demonstrations against gun violence during school hours.

In a statement that was posted on Facebook and sent to families in the district, Superintendent Curtis Rhodes (pictured below) wrote that the punishment would last three days and students would face “all the consequences” that come with an out-of-school suspension. “Parent notes will not alleviate the discipline,” he added.

“The Needville ISD is very sensitive to violence in schools including the recent incident in Florida,” Curtis wrote.

“Any time an individual deliberately chooses to harm others, we are sensitive and compassionate to those impacted.”

However, he wrote, “A school is a place to learn and grow educationally, emotionally and morally. A disruption of the school will not be tolerated.”

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