By Lisa Tang
A year after the Santa Fe High School shootings killed 10 and injured 13 in the Houston area, state lawmakers have put teeth in their promise to help school districts statewide fortify safety.
Palestine school districts will receive about $100,000 for safety measures – roughly $30,000 to the Palestine Independent School District and an estimated $70,000 to Westwood. Those measures include more mental health services to children.
It's all part of the millions of dollars that SB 11 legislation, signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott this month, will send to school districts around the state.
The passage, and signing, of Senate Bill 11 and other bills to fortify school safety follow the Santa Fe shooting last year. Student Dimitrios Pagourtzis, 17, killed 10 and wounded 13 others with a shotgun and a .38 revolver. The weapons were owned legally by his father at their home south of Houston.
Shortly after the shooting, the governor and some lawmakers participated in roundtable discussions with students, families, and other stakeholders.
Local school districts have avoided weapon-related violence. During the 2018-2019 school year, however, anonymous notes and emails were treated as serious threats, leading to precautionary lockdowns at Palestine and Elkhart high schools.
In April, an unloaded pistol was found inside a Southside Elementary student’s backpack. The weapon was removed and parents were notified. No one was harmed.
Palestine schools do not plan to arm employees, but they will add school resource officers to all campuses, with help from the Palestine Police Department, and add surveillance cameras and alarms.
District administrators have already secured key entrances and exits, trained educators on preventive measures, placed a school resource officer at Palestine High School, and used a grant to connect students with mental health services.
Meantime, Elkhart and Westwood districts have adopted the Guardian Plan, which arms select staff members in case of an attack. Westwood adopted the Guardian Plan in 2013; Elkhart schools added it in 2018. Westwood and Elkhart leaders also said they have “developed relationships” with local law enforcement agencies.
Westwood Superintendent Wade Stanford said Westwood’s Guardian Plan relies on extensive screening and training of staff who might use the weapons. “The Guardian Plan is constantly under evaluation, and will stay intact,” he said.
School districts are, increasingly, also considering design changes on their campuses to make them more secure.
Westwood's proposed $39-million bond plan, for example, takes into account the increased security needs of the 21st century. The re-building project, overall, calls for far fewer entrance points into schools. The new configuration also would enable office staff to see outside the building, and reduce the time students spend walking outside to classes and the cafeteria.
Overall, the legislation mandates improving security at entrances and exits, identifying potentially dangerous students, and training all employees in emergency response, including substitute teachers and resource officers. It allows school districts to choose from a range of preventive measures and develop their own solutions for safe schools.
In a related effort, Austin lawmakers recently approved a $1-million media campaign to promote firearm storage in homes. The law will help prevent youth from access to firearms, a measure that might have prevented the Santa Fe shooter from access to his father's weapons, which were not secured.