Cristina Ruiz Blanton 2014-08-27 04:55:34
How to prepare for and deal with violence in Texas schools. OVER THE PAST THREE DECADES, THE NATION HAS WITNESSED TERRIBLE ACTS OF MASS VIOLENCE IN SCHOOLS. Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook are etched in the memories of many Americans. The facts of each tragedy are similar: Armed gunmen entered school grounds and began shooting fellow students and staff. These events forced the nation, and schools in particular, to focus on current practices and procedures for student safety and responses to emergency situations. In Texas, schools have attempted to prevent violence on campus through two main avenues: student discipline and emergency operations plans. TEXAS SCHOOLS’ APPROACH TO STUDENT SAFETY With regard to discipline, Texas was quick to adopt zero-tolerance policies in the 1990s, which mandated that students committing certain offenses be subject to expulsion from the classroom or removal to alternative settings. In the 2000s, districts refined these policies by adding mitigating factors—such as age, self-defense, intent, and disability—to be considered before removal from class. More recently, Texas lawmakers and school officials have turned to evaluating disciplinary practices to ensure that students are not just disciplined for misbehavior or acts of violence but are provided the support services necessary to address underlying concerns that might be the source of a student’s aggression. With regard to emergency operations, local control is key. In determining what methods keep students safe and foster a healthy learning environment, school districts consider multiple factors that are unique to their district and the communities that feed into them. Some factors that school districts consider are: the current state of security systems on campus, facility maintenance, behavioral patterns of students, reports of bullying or harassment, and the funds available for employment of additional resources if needed. Studies show that addressing violence in schools begins with evaluating the current state of individual campuses, identifying areas that need improvement, and implementing prevention programs if necessary.1 In Texas, school districts are required to adopt and implement a multihazard emergency operations plan for use in their facilities. The plan must address mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery, and provide for various factors of an emergency, such as employee response training, school drills and exercises, and measures to ensure coordination with local law enforcement, health departments, and other entities.2 Most school districts in Texas have installed surveillance cameras that monitor common areas and security systems that require a visitor or employee to show an identity card to be electronically verified before he or she may enter an area of the campus. Many schools also require visitors—including parents—to present a form of photo identification that is entered into a database to perform a general background check for sex offenders. Additionally, schools have the option of employing safety personnel on their campuses. A district may enter into a memorandum of understanding with another governmental entity to have a peace officer—commissioned and employed by the other governmental entity—placed at the school district on a full- or part-time basis. A school district can also create its own police department by commissioning peace officers. Each option allows for a school district to authorize or require security personnel to carry weapons and comply with training requirements set by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.3 Some school districts in Texas have authorized regular school employees, such as principals, coaches, and teachers, to carry concealed handguns while on school premises to serve as a first line of defense in the event of an active shooter or other threat to students or staff members. Under the authority of the federal Gun-Free Schools Act and the Texas Penal Code, school districts can grant written permission for anyone, including designated employees, to carry firearms on campus.4 School districts that authorize school employees to carry concealed handguns on campus are likely to require the employees to obtain additional training from certified handgun instructors or specialized training programs, such as the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University that includes instruction on how to address active shooter situations, the use of deadly force, and advanced proficiency with a handgun.5 Most recently, the Texas Legislature passed a bill that allows school districts to authorize employees who are not law enforcement personnel to serve as designated school marshals and carry concealed handguns for use in the event of an active shooter or threat of bodily injury to students or staff members. A school marshal appointed by a school’s board of trustees may carry or possess a handgun on the premises of the school but only as provided by written regulations. The school board must require that a designated school marshal may carry a concealed handgun on his or her person unless the primary duty of the school marshal involves regular, direct contact with students; in that case, the school marshal must place the handgun in a locked and secured safe on the premises of the school and within the marshal’s immediate reach. A school marshal may access a handgun only under circumstances that would justify the use of deadly force for the safety or protection of others as provided by law, and the marshal may use only frangible ammunition designed to disintegrate on impact for maximum safety to others.6 TREATING THE STUDENT, NOT JUST THE VIOLENCE At the root of many discussions related to mass violence in schools is the question of whether the perpetrators have suffered from mental health concerns that may have caused or exacerbated their actions. A student who has experienced bullying or taunting, stresses at home, or underlying mental health issues such as depression or bipolar disorder may exhibit “behavior leakage” in the form of intentional or unintentional disclosures of disturbing conduct, such as verbal or written threats, increased aggression toward students and teachers, substance abuse, isolation, and poor coping skills.7 School officials who are sensitive to the student climate are better positioned to become aware of students in need of counseling or other intervention programs. Communication and collaboration with parents and the local mental health community make it more likely that troubled students connect with the support they need to prevent tragic outcomes. In Texas, school districts are provided with information and programs from state agencies that offer training and education for students, staff members, and parents on recognizing students who are at risk of committing suicide; identifying those who are or may be victims of bullying; distinguishing early warning signs and a possible need for early mental health intervention; and intervening effectively with the identified student by providing notice to the parent or guardian. School districts are required to provide training in such categories to school employees, including counselors, law enforcement officers, teachers, and others who have regular interaction with students.8 These programs require time and money—two resources often in short supply in school districts—but prevention is an essential aspect of a comprehensive approach to school safety. NOTES 1. Brandi Booth Ph.D., Vincent B. Van Hasselt, Ph.D. & Gregory M. Vecchi, Ph.D., Addressing School Violence, FBI L. Enforcement Bull. (Fed. Bureau of Investigation, Wash., D.C.), May 2011, at 1, 1-9. 2. Tex. Educ. Code § 37.108(a). Recently, the Texas Legislature created the School Safety Task Force to study best practices for school multi-hazard emergency operations planning and, based on such studies, make recommendations to the Legislature, other state entities, and the governor’s office of homeland security, and consult with school districts and first responders regarding emergency operations planning. 3. Tex. Educ. Code § 37.081. 4. 18 U.S.C. § 922(q)(2)(B)(v); Tex. Penal Code § 46.03(a)(1). 5. The ALERRT program is located and managed through Texas State University in San Marcos in conjunction with the San Marcos Police Department and Hays County Sheriff’s Office and is tasked with providing training on responding to active shooter incidents. The FBI through the White House has designated the ALERRT program as the FBI standard for active shooter training, available at http://alerrt.org/. 6. Tex. Educ. Code § 37.0811. The Protection of Texas Children Act (commonly referred to as the school marshal bill) allows for the appointment of not more than one designated school marshal per 400 students in average daily attendance per campus. 7. Mary Ellen O’Toole, Ph.D., Fed. Bureau of Investigation, The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective (2008), available at http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/school-shooter; Mark R. Leary, Robin M. Kowalski, Laura Smith & Stephen Phillips, Teasing, Rejection, and Violence: Case Studies of the School Shootings, 29 Aggressive Behav. 202 ( 2003). 8. Tex. Health & Safety Code § 161.325. CRISTINA R. BLANTON is a senior attorney for the Texas Association of School Boards’ legal division, where she advises school board members and administrators on legal matters related to school law. Blanton specializes in student discipline, school safety, technology, governance, and election-related matters. She lives in Austin with her husband and two children.
Published by State Bar of Texas. View All Articles.
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