Waco-area districts say state school safety plan ‘egregiously underfunded’ | #schoolsaftey

A school safety bill awaiting Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature falls far short of paying for the measures it would require schools to implement, officials at several Waco-area districts said.

Many districts in recent years have already started addressing many of the provisions in the bill, including having armed personnel on campuses and retrofitting facilities to include better fencing and locks. But district officials said to continue making improvements, more money is needed.

The Legislature sent House Bill 3 to Abbott’s desk Tuesday, in the closing days of this year’s regular legislative session. The measure is in large part a response to last year’s shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, in which an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 students and two teachers, and a nearly 90 minute standoff with law enforcement ended in the attacker’s death.

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The bill includes many provisions meant to make Texas schools safer. It has requirements for districts to implement robust active-shooter response plans, implement mental health training for employees who regularly interact with students, employ at least one armed security officer on each campus, undergo semiannual security and safety audits, and upgrade facilities to be safer.

The facility upgrade provisions include building perimeter fencing, adding numbering and locking systems to exterior doors and windows, implementing security film on exterior windows to resist forced entry, and adding communication technology such as silent panic alarms or two-way radios to improve communication between educators and law enforcement in emergency situations.

The bill allots funding to districts to the tune of $10 per student and $15,000 per campus to be spent on safety. Previously, the state offered districts $9.72 per student. The version of House Bill 3 passed by the House raised the allotment to $100 per student, but the Senate approved a version with $10 per student, and the lower funding level remains in the final version sent to Abbott.

Multiple Waco-area school districts said the funding level is insufficient to cover the cost of implementing the bill’s provisions. Rachelle Warren, assistant superintendent for student services and support at Waco Independent School District, said by email that the current safety allotment for the district of more than 13,800 students is not enough to cover the salaries of two school resource officers.

“The Texas Legislature has been talking about school safety since 2017,” Warren said. “We have yet to see any significant investment that funds proactive safety measures and improves mental health support for our students. It was our hope that any bills passed during this legislative session would have included flexible funding to make schools safer. While HB 3 includes a funding mechanism, it isn’t sufficient.”

Warren said Waco ISD has already implemented many provisions aimed at school safety, including recent provisions such as a requirement for clear backpacks, metal detectors and “AI technology” meant to monitor people entering schools. Warren also said the district conducts regular safety audits of its facilities.

Warren said this summer, the district plans on enhancing many of its facilities with additional fencing, intruder-resistant film on windows, keycard access on campus doors and silent panic alarms.

Warren said Waco ISD also places a high importance on promoting the mental well-being of students and staff.

“Students, staff members and their families have access to Care Solace, a free resource available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, that will help identify verified mental health, behavioral health, and substance use treatment options matched to an individual’s needs regardless of circumstances,” Warren said.

Midway ISD Superintendent Chris Allen said House Bill 3 is “egregiously underfunded.” He said the bill only seems to address school safety, but falls short of its goal due to a lack of funding. Midway, a district of more than 8,700 students, would receive a “good chunk” of money from the state, but it would not be enough to cover all of the provisions in the bill, Allen said.

He said several Midway ISD campuses already have school resource officers, but with the new mandates, five more would need to be hired. Allen said it would cost $500,000 per year to pay the salaries for the new officers, which would add to the $600,000 per year the district already spends on officers.

Allen said the district has already implemented panic alarms in every classroom in the district, installed more security cameras and added keyless locks on exterior doors. It has also started performing safety audits weekly and lockdown drills several times a semester so that students are prepared in case of a emergency.

“Every classroom in the district has the ability to initiate a lockdown,” Allen said. “Our exterior doors also have prop alarms to let us know if a door has been left open for too long.”

Allen said the district is also working on installing security film on windows, and said the school board has explored the possibility of implementing a School Marshal program to alleviate the economic pressure of hiring more school resource officers. The program implemented in 2013 allows districts to authorize an employee to carry a firearm on campus, with a required 80-hour state training program and a district-implemented policy defining the marshal’s role.

He also said the district has required its employees to undergo mental health training for several years now.

Axtell ISD, a district of fewer than 850 students, has spent $1 million on safety measures over the past nine years, Superintendent JR Proctor said. Upgrades have included electronic locks on all exterior doors and implementing a School Marshal program.

Proctor said Axtell ISD will only receive $46,000 under House Bill 3. He said the lack of funding in the bill shows school safety is not truly a priority for legislators. Proctor said the district’s number one priority is student safety, but without more funding, the district must spend money meant for other things on safety.

China Spring ISD Superintendent Marc Faulkner said via email the funding in HB 3 is “an embarrassment.” He said the bill will provide less than $100,000 for the district of a little more than 3,000 students to upgrade facilities and make the environment safer for students.

Faulkner said China Spring ISD security provisions implemented in recent years include armed security officers on campuses, rifle shields so officers can engage an active shooter and alarms that alert if a door is propped open.

He said the district is waiting on a grant from the state to help pay for fencing, window film and door replacements.

Robinson ISD safety coordinator David Wrzesinski said the new mandates in House Bill 3 are good for improving safety, but echoed concerns of other districts about the lack of funding in the bill.

“There was an optimism since the state had so much money in their coffers, that we were going to be getting a lot of money coming down for safety, because we’re kind of behind the money that’s been provided,” Wrzesinski said. “We had some new mandates come out this year that we had to comply with, that we’re going to be doing this summer, which is updating some fencing. We’ve got to bring them all up to at least a 6-foot or 8-foot fence. We’ve got to install safety film. Just those two things here in our district alone are $150,000, minimum.”

Wrzesinski said Robinson ISD, a district of about 2,400 students, has already implemented many of the safety provisions in House Bill 3, including retrofitting exterior campus doors with electronic locks and having armed security personnel on campus.

He said the district has a School Marshal program, and volunteers undergo monthly firearm training and complete tactical training once or twice a year.

Wrzesinski said the programs Robinson ISD has already implemented are good, but an increase in funding is needed to keep updating them as time goes on.

“When you put systems in place that cost that same amount of money every year, you want to make sure that you get funding for it in the future,” Wrzesinski said. “We think our entire program — what we’re doing with training, what we’re doing with the hardening of each one of our campuses, and our Marshal program — gives us the best opportunity for our students and staff to be as safe as we can be. I think most safety professionals will say that there’s not a 100% guarantee. But we’re doing most of the best practices that are out in the industry right now. And we feel really good about the things that we are doing.”

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