In May 2018, 10 students walked into Santa Fe High School for the last time on the day a shooter opened fire at their school near Houston.
More than a dozen others were injured in the shooting, and the event shook Texans to their core as they wondered how to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.
June 6, more than a year after the Santa Fe shootings, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a series of bills that would help make Texas schools safer while providing more mental health support for students.
Through Senate Bill 11, schools will have to meet certain requirements and implement emergency response training for school resource officers and district employees, including substitute teachers.
Education about mental health – including instruction about mental health conditions, substance abuse, skills to manage emotions and responsible decision-making – will now be a part of all curricula. Suicide prevention, including recognizing risk factors and warning signs, will also be implemented.
Some Crossroads school districts have been proactive about school safety and mental health and wellness.
The Goliad school district implemented a student mental and emotional health program before the state required them to do so. The program, called Teen Truth, is an educational service that supports students in being open with their experiences, building confidence and building a more positive school culture.
The program was implemented at the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year after several students died by suicide, said Goliad High School counselor Karie Wimberly. The program, she said, is also a result of students’ wishes.
“The kids told us that they wanted to hear from other kids,” Wimberly said. “They wanted their peers to also help them.”
Through the program, about 20 high school students are trained to help middle school students build resiliency and confidence. Wimberly said the program also helps high school students become better leaders on campus.
“It’s impressive how the program has helped the students in the time we have had it,” she said. “We’ve seen students who started out in the program being mentored turning around and become mentors themselves. It comes full circle.”
Wimberly said she is glad to see mental health initiatives are becoming mandatory and said Teen Truth will only enhance the new curriculum.
“The program is just awesome, and the kids took to it like water,” she said. “I wish more school districts used the program.”
Along with the new safety requirements – such as security cameras and a phone system that allows all teachers and employees to directly contact emergency personnel – come new costs for school districts.
Goliad Superintendent Dave Plymale said he is not sure just how much the new measures will cost the district. The bill states that school districts will be provided an “annual allotment in the amount provided by appropriation for each student in average daily attendance,” but Plymale is not sure of the costs to the school district just yet, as the district is still analyzing House Bill 3, which provides more funding to schools but also changes how state aid is calculated.
Besides Teen Truth, Plymale said, Goliad has been proactive with school safety. The district formed a safety and security committee last fall and first met in December. Several members of the committee are members of the Goliad County Sheriff’s Office and the Texas Department of Public Safety, and a couple are Victoria County Sheriff’s Office deputies who live in Goliad.
The school district also partners with the Goliad County Sheriff’s Office to provide school resource officers. The district is also looking at adding security cameras.
“We had already planned on the required additional training for our teachers and staff during (teacher) in-service (training), which will also be for substitutes, ... in August (before school starts),” Plymale. “We should have a better idea of how both bills affect GISD in the coming weeks.”
Plymale said he thinks the school safety bill will help school districts and does not think the new requirements will be difficult to implement this fall.
“When it comes to the safety and security of our staff, we need to take all precautions as necessary,” he said.
At the Victoria school district, staff and teachers have also been proactive with security planning and social and emotional health programs for students.
Shawna Currie, a spokeswoman for the district, said the district has safety and security teams that assess safety observations and trends and share lessons across the district. There is also a safety and security committee that began updating the emergency operations plan more than a year ago and expects to have a new plan finalized this summer.
The school district has a partnership with the Victoria County Sheriff’s Office. A deputy is assigned to each secondary school in the district as a school resource officer, Currie said. The school resource officers also serve the elementary feeder schools.
The school district also has de-escalation training by certified instructors for professional and paraprofessional staff to respond to students whose behavior is a danger to themselves or others. Staff members also receive training in crisis prevention intervention strategies, she said.
A variety of social and emotional programs to teach students life skills, including how to be safe at home, at school and in the community, are also available in the district.
Though the additional funding for school safety will help, Currie said, the allotment will likely still not cover costs the district will incur to implement the new requirements.
Superintendent Quintin Shepherd said a good example of a cost that would likely not be completely covered is the updating of the district’s phone system, which will cost about $1 million alone.
“(The bill) could be seen as a partially unfunded mandate,” Shepherd said.
Shepherd said there will also be some changes to employee training, such as required digital training for substitute teachers who are hired throughout the school year. The school district, like Goliad, is also studying both Senate Bill 11 and House Bill 3 to determine exact costs.
Despite the unknown costs, Shepherd said he supports the school safety bill and thinks it will help strengthen schools and ease parental concerns.
“I think safety and security has been on the mind of the board and the community since the bond campaign, and the bill resurfaces the level of concern and security that we have for our kids,” Shepherd said. “I don’t know if we can ever do too much for the safety of our children.”