From Houston Public Media:
This Friday, nearly 800 new laws from this year’s legislative session take effect, including House Bill 3, which requires all public schools in the state to have an armed officer on campus during school hours as well as meet other state safety guidelines. While the legislature is providing some funding to implement the new mandate, school districts across the state are struggling to hire enough officers.
The bill was a response to widespread demands for safer schools after the school shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, in May 2022 left 19 children and two teachers dead. Both chambers of the Texas legislature identified school safety as a top priority this session.
In addition to requiring an armed guard on all campuses during the school day, the bill also creates a safety and security department within the Texas Education Agency as well as requires the Texas School Safety Center to conduct reviews of campuses around the state at least once every five years, in order to ensure facilities and protocols adhere to state safety standards. It also requires each campus to develop a detailed emergency operations plan.
However, school districts are having a difficult time hiring the required security personnel.
By mid-August, Fort Bend Independent School District still had unfilled positions for officers at 20 percent of its campuses. Meanwhile, Houston ISD and Katy ISD are both seeking good cause exemptions from the law, since not all positions could be filled by Sept. 1.
Meanwhile, Fort Worth ISD is also seeking a good cause exception, and other districts in north Texas are scrambling to comply, largely due to lack of funding.
“All school districts that do have police departments, and not all do, but all school districts that have police departments, by my understanding, have struggled to fill spots,” said Steve Bassett, deputy superintendent of Fort Bend ISD. “There has been some funding that’s come with these mandates, but it’s not nearly enough.”
The state allotted a total of $15,000 per campus to fulfill the requirements of HB 3, while the going rate for armed security guards with the necessary training can hover around $85,000 in parts of the state.
Fort Bend ISD itself is one of the largest school districts in Texas, with just under 80,000 students. It has been allotted around $1.5 million to enact House Bill 3. Bassett said that’s around $1 million short.
“When you’re talking about security guards, for us to have a security guard to fill all the spots we have at elementary schools, that’s going to cost over $2.5 million,” he said.
Bassett said the district is looking at having to either deficit spend or ask voters for a slight property tax increase on the November ballot to make up the difference.
Lakshmi Ramakrishnan is a parent of two middle schoolers in Fort Bend ISD. She said she wishes the legislature had focused on other issues facing the state’s public schools, such as teacher shortages.
“I am not a huge fan of the resources that would go towards armed guards on every campus, given that the legislature pretty much failed to send money down to the districts to pay for things like bus drivers or teachers,” she said.
Over the course of last school year, one of her kids had three different teachers for one class, due to high turnover. Ramakrishnan also believes the state legislature’s underfunding of House Bill 3 is ironic, given lawmakers’ heavy focus on property tax relief this session.
“You can say, ‘We’re going to give you this tax relief,’ but my district is going to have to ask me to pay more,” said Ramakrishnan. “I just feel like it’s a waste. It was a wasted opportunity in this legislature to address the most pressing need.”
Many parents support the presence of armed guards on campus. However, some are worried armed security officers may not be an effective way to make schools safer. There is no clear data supporting the theory that armed guards deter or lessen the impact of school gun violence.
Meanwhile, there is data showing that students of color and students with special needs are more likely than their peers to be arrested or disciplined by law enforcement in schools. Research from the U.S. Department of Education indicates Black girls are four times more likely to be arrested in school than their white counterparts, despite not being any more likely to misbehave.
“Any time you’re increasing the security staff, and in this case, requiring them to carry a firearm, what you’re also doing is increasing the risk to students who require some sort of behavioral intervention, and that scares me,” said Celeste Barretto, a parent of three students of color in Houston ISD, including one with special needs. Barretto is also an educator as well as a volunteer with ONE Houston, an education advocacy group.
She worries House Bill 3 could put her kids at greater risk of a negative experience with law enforcement, especially her son with behavioral challenges.
“I don’t feel like he’s safer with personnel on campus that are armed,” said Barretto.
Like Ramakrishnan, Barretto sees this year’s legislative session as a missed opportunity when it comes to public education.
“When I think about what our community is asking for and then feeling like our legislature’s not giving us what we asked for, but instead, giving us something else that is just clearly bad policy – that’s an outrage,” she said.