Abbott announces school safety plan

By Brandon Formby

and Emma Platoff

The Texas Tribune

Less than two weeks after 10 people were killed in a southeast Texas school shooting, Gov. Greg Abbott laid out a 40-page, 40-strategy plan for preventing future school shootings, and left the door open to calling lawmakers back to Austin to pass some of those priorities.

“If there is consensus on some laws that could be passed, I am open to calling [a special session],” Abbott said. A special session would be a dramatic move during an election year in which he, all top state officials and a majority of lawmakers are seeking new terms. It’s even more rare given how emotionally charged — and politically divisive — issues of school safety and gun control are.

Some lawmakers have demanded that Abbott, who has the sole authority to call and set agendas for special sessions, take such action. Most Texans responding to a poll taken before the Santa Fe shooting said they support stricter gun control laws.

Much of the plan Abbott laid out Wednesday would require approval from the Texas Legislature, which will not reconvene until January 2019 unless Abbott intervenes.

Abbott’s announcement, made at the Dallas school district’s headquarters Wednesday, came one day after Santa Fe students returned to class for the first time following the deadly shootings. Thirteen people were also injured in the attack.

At the heart of the governor’s proposal is an expansion of the existing School Marshal Program, one of two existing systems for arming school personnel. More than 170 school districts of the 1,000-plus in Texas already have some type of system for arming educators and other staff. Santa Fe ISD, in fact, had already approved the plan but had not yet implemented it.

Abbott said he would not propose requiring schools to join that program but that the state should pay for the training associated with it.

“When an active shooter situation arises, the difference between life and death can be a matter of seconds,” Abbott said. “Trained security personnel can make all the difference.”

Abbott also raised narrow, gun-related proposals, including the tightening of Texas’ safe gun storage and laws.

Suspected shooter Dimitrios Pagourtzis, a 17-year-old junior at the high school, has been in custody in Galveston County since the attack at Santa Fe High School. Authorities say he used his father’s guns.

Current Texas law holds parents accountable when their minor children — under the age of 17 — access their loaded weapons. Because Pagourtzis was 17, his family won’t be liable under that law, though they are being sued under other, more general liability statutes. Abbott proposed raising that age to include 17-year-olds, a measure that would bring Texas in line with dozens of other states that have stricter child-access prevention laws.

Abbott also proposed expanding a mental health screening program already operated through Texas Tech University. He said he hopes to “eventually” make that program — currently operational in 10 school districts — a statewide system, and said he recommends Texas fund it with $20 million.

The Telemedicine Wellness, Intervention, Triage, and Referral Project at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, which aims to identify junior high and high school students at risk of committing school violence and intervene before tragedy occurs, has already had 25 students removed from school, 44 placed in alternative schools and 38 sent to a hospital. Abbott had praised that program just hours after the shooting, tweeting that “we want to use it across the state.”

Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune Gov. Greg Abbott announces new school safety measures in response to the Santa Fe High School shooting, at the Dallas Independent School District Headquarters on May 30, 2018.