(Austin, TX) – Following the tragedy at Santa Fe ISD, State Representative James White reached out to Governor Greg Abbott Monday morning regarding his input on student well-being and safety as not only a legislator and former Texas public school student and teacher.
Governor Greg Abbott has mentioned that he would convene a roundtable discussion on ways to improve school security. These meetings will commence Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018 and continue through Thursday. The governor will meet with shooting survivors, students, parents, teachers, advocates, law enforcement, local school officials, Senator John Whitmire (Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chair), Senator Joan Huffman (Senate State Affairs Committee Chair), State Rep. Phil King (House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee Chair), State Rep. Harold Dutton (House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee Chair), Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw, and Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath.
In his letter, Rep. White notes this roundtable and provides input of his experiences and recommendations that the governor should consider in those meetings and in actions we can take now. Rep. White makes the case for improving security while providing a school environment that edifies sound cognitive and emotional development of our Texas children. A copy of the letter sent out by Rep. White is included below.
Please do not hesitate to contact either Saul Mendoza, Chief of Staff, or Shawn Dunn, District Director, with questions regarding this release at 512-463-0490 or 409-283-3700.
May 21, 2018
Office of the Governor
P.O. Box 12428
Austin, Texas 78711-2428
Governor Greg Abbott,
During the aftermath of the tragic and unfortunate school shooting in Santa Fe, you have committed to having roundtable discussions with stakeholders from around our state to discuss the security and the well-being of our schools and students. Thank you for this commitment. While some have mocked or given a sleight of hand to praying to the Almighty, as a man of Faith and a fellow Believer, you have stated, "We need to do more than just pray for the victims and their families.” I agree. Consistent with your response, James 2:14 teaches, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can his faith save him?” James continues, “If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself.” So therefore, you are absolutely correct, pronouncements of prayers and thoughts are hollow, if we do not do the work to secure our schools and students.
I do not know if I will have the opportunity to participate in the roundtable discussions. However, I would like to provide some contributions not only as a member of the Legislature, who has legislated in the criminal justice, mental health, and public safety policy lanes, but as a former Texas public school student and teacher. Putting aside the usual left-right political talking points, we must understand that we are dealing with the human condition. Security, is the first and foremost aspect, but we will not barricade, fence, hardened, legislate, and manpower our way out of this challenge.
Usually, after a school-related mass shooting incident, you will hear narratives on how students in the past had their hunting rifles in their trucks, but they would never think about unleashing deadly lethality in the classroom. Well, I have an entirely different experience. In the early eighties, as a public high school student in Houston, the largest city in Texas, I was a Junior Reserve Officer’s Training Corps cadet at Lamar Senior High School. The JROTC curriculum included a hunter’s safety course and marksmanship training with .22 caliber rifles. We had a competitive sport rifle team. These rifles were not on gun racks in trucks in the student parking lot. Our JROTC instructors secured and stored them, along with the ammunition, in gun safes. We had a rifle range on campus where we conducted our live fire. So therefore, what has changed? In the nineties, the Congress passed legislation creating “gun-free school zones” and legislation that ties federal funding to states having legislation that expel students who bring firearms to schools. Yet, our communities are grappling and grieving from the increasing regularity of school shootings.
In response to the usual canard about the access to weapons or the American “infatuation” with firearms, a recent PEW research report shows that four in ten adult Americans live in a household that has at least one firearm. That is, 57 percent live in a household that does not have a firearm. Other polling data, at the least, exhibit that firearm ownership in America is at least stable over time as our population and the prevalence of school shootings have increased.
After a series of high profile political assassinations, Congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA). Since then, Congress has enhanced the GCA. For example, the passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act amended the GCA and created the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which the Federal Bureau of Investigation launched in 1998. Additionally, in the nineties, the Congress amended the GCA to include restriction of possession and purchase of firearms by anyone convicted of even a domestic violence misdemeanor. A subsequent Congressional change to the GCA through the Violence Against Women Act of 2005 restricts the possession and purchase of firearms by person subject to a qualifying “domestic abuse restraining order.”
Now, this short enumeration highlights a few points. Understanding that these laws may need further improvements or revisions, when you add federal and state prohibitions on felons, clearly, the legislative trajectory for several decades has been limiting access to firearms. This refutes the conjecture of national and state legislatures “beholden” to the National Rifle Association. For example, there is not a pro-2nd Amendment rights organization listed in the top 25 The Texas Tribune’s political spenders of the 2016 cycle for Texas races. In fact, the NRA, in 1968, voiced guarded support for the Gun Control Act. All of this suggests that before the nineties there was not a nationwide background process or restrictions on convictions involving domestic abuse or protective orders by 2005. Nevertheless, our people experience frequent outrage and shock over the carnage caused by school shootings.
Though laudatory, there are the calls for arming teachers and more security. Yet, statutorily, districts already have the discretion to arm teachers and other district employees and even have license peace officers or create district law enforcement organizations. A recently published report by Texas Appleseed/Texas Care for Children, “Dangerous Discipline” lays out that as school districts are challenged fiscally, they have appropriated more money for security seemingly at the expense of counseling and instructional services. This is not to say that our local districts are not spending the appropriate amount, after all, our local school board members have a community expectation, moral imperative, and statutory requirement to maintain a safe environment for staff and students, but surely we should be aware of the principle of opportunity costs. The students that commit these crimes are enrolled in these schools, they have a statutory requirement to attend these schools, and therefore, their physical presence is expected and welcomed.
Therefore, time elapsed long ago for conjecture and sound bites at the expense of constructive solutions. Our schools are already in a gun control posture. You cannot even have ammunition on or near a school.
Now, some are critical of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s thought that many of our campus buildings have too many entrance and exit points. I know firsthand that when a school district considers a new building project this is a consideration. You can go to every campus in the state and ask the building principal for his or her duty schedule. On this schedule, you will see where the building principal has instructional staff covering entrance/exit points before and after school. This does not count during school. Obviously, the more entrances/exits you have the more staff you need covering them before and after school. Teacher absences due to illness, field trips, and other activities or duties create security challenges. We should not take the Lieutenant Governor’s statement in an over-simplistic fashion. Overall, he is right and we need to broaden his concerns to the general layout and security features of a campus. Therefore, in collaboration with our local school boards, local and county law enforcement, the Texas State School Safety Center, and the Department of Public Safety, and other important stakeholders, we should ensure that any new public school campus building meets a set security guidelines.
For many rural areas, the Legislature and the Governor’s office could facilitate the use of local constables to assist with school security. A local district may not share a location with an incorporated municipality with a police department. Or, the district, if located in the unincorporated area of a county, relies on a rural sheriff department that is already responsible for a large area of the county. Constables already have realized that their rural local school districts have fiscal challenges and they are providing security functions. Therefore, there is no need to mandate that these constables provide these services. They just need resources to facilitate the work they are doing now and the work they can do in the future.
More of my suggestions deal with school climate. For many well-intentioned reasons, we have become too mechanistic and educational-oriented compared to a more individualistic and learning experience orientation. I understand that big business needs a large pool of “trained” workers that will allow it employ labor at an efficient costs. I clearly understand the need for higher education to have future students that know everything, never need tutorial, and will sit compliant in a class of 150 students and soak in an hour long lecture. Education just cannot be about business and college professors. The Texas Constitution is clear on why we have a taxpayer-funded public education system:
“Sec. 1. SUPPORT AND MAINTENANCE OF SYSTEM OF PUBLIC FREE SCHOOLS. A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.”
Our system of public free schools exists in order to preserve our liberties and rights. Mirabeau B. Lamar, the second president of the Republic of Texas and the “Father of Texas Education,” stated, “Cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy.” Instead of looking at our students exclusively as economic units, we must look at them also as future fellow citizens in our republic.
For example, our accountability system and funding is driving an educational program that is coarsen and mechanistic. From elementary to high school, we need to value music, art, theatre and other fine arts learning. In other words, our youth do not have enough opportunities to constructively and positively express themselves.
As the People of East Texas transitioned me from the classroom to the Legislature in 2010, I was experiencing how the impact of the emergence of the hyper-testing culture (STAAR). We are not taking advantage of the full consultative power of our school counselors. Instead of counseling students, our counselors have become glorified test administrators. They are not able to devote the requisite time to counseling their students on their careers, their futures, or even their current emotional challenges.
This devaluation of counselors’ skill set is reflected in staffing statewide. According to the American Counseling Association, the recommended student-to-counselor ratio is 250:1. In Texas, the statewide average ratio is 470:1! Research studies indicate that high schools that maintain one school counselor for every 250 students have shown lower disciplinary incidents, as well as better graduation and school attendance rates.
Even though they will legitimate the current testing regime, none of the purveyors had to negotiate a similar battery tests, though they all are very accomplished and successful. They will argue about what youth are doing in Norway, China, Japan, or Taiwan and compare their competitiveness with Texas youth. However, here is the fact: This is the United States and in particular, Texas. We are not Norwegian, Chinese, Japanese, or Taiwanese. We are Texan. People from around the world cannot get to Texas soon enough. If our students are not competitive with other foreign students, it is not because of testing. It is because we need to heighten our priority of early education, increase the compensation of our best teachers, and develop a 21st century school calendar.
The current testing regime injects an unhealthy and unproductive level of stress in the school environment. It undermines value of teaching. Educators and coaches do this work for relationships. Yes, when you are in the classroom you must convey and instill knowledge and skills. If you are coaching baseball, basketball, football, of course, you need to win games. But educators exhibit success through relationships and the success of students is an expression of these quality relationships.
Assessment play an important and narrow role. Students need assessments in order for them to know how they are progressing. Teachers need assessments for self-evaluation and where they need to take their students. Principals need assessments in order to determine the professional development needed for his/her teachers. The superintendents and local board members need assessment instruments to assist with personnel and resource allocation. Parents need assessments in holding their children accountable and gaining a grasp on how their children are progressing. The taxpayers use assessments to know if their local school districts are returning value. Legislative policymakers need assessments to allocate resources in order to maximize student achievement. In other words, we have plenty of assessment tools already on the shelf and a streamlined accountability process has a potential to give us a more beneficial analysis of student academic achievement and an improved academic environment. Years after the initial implementation of STAAR big business, stakeholders in higher education, and other public school analyst and critics continue to express discontent over their perception of college and career readiness. Yet, weekly, I hear reports of businesses expanding and relocating to Texas.
We must foster a safe and wholesome environment for our youth and staff. The architecture and feel of our campuses should reflect the spirt of being an oasis of learning and a stimulation of intellectuality. We cannot develop the future citizens of Texas by barricading them in a fear box during the most formative twelve years of their life. Globalism, technology, the economy, along with other societal phenomena are challenging the roles of every fundamental institution: the family, church, and government. It is imperative that the government work with other institutions in transforming to the expectations and pace of the 21st century.
In sum, simplistic pejoratives that blame the NRA or merely propose a response that is already statute (School Marshals and School Guardian) is a disservice to the victims of these dastardly acts and marginalizes that fact the perpetrators of these shootings have sat in our classrooms, ate in our lunchrooms, and even stood along the sidelines as an athlete. Our local school districts have designed wonderful educational edifices, stadiums, and amusement parks. Working with our local and state law enforcement officers, we can ensure that these campuses are in the appropriate security posture. We can continue incentivizing our rural constables to enhance school security. Above all, state and local officials must foster school environment that edifies sound cognitive and emotional development.
For God and Texas,
House District 19
P.O. Box 395,