AUSTIN — AUSTIN -- On May 18, Santa Fe High School was added to a list no school wants to be on -- the list of schools where mass shootings have happened.
Police say a student used his father's rifle and handgun, plus homemade bombs, to wage an attack on classmates. Eight students and two teachers were killed.
The next week, Governor Greg Abbott (R) held three roundtable discussions with officers, safety experts, students, teachers and victims, seeking solutions to prevent another attack. And the next week he unveiled a plan containing 40 recommendations to make schools safer.
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick (R) appointed a special committee to look into those recommendations. It met Monday and Tuesday at the Capitol. Georgetown Senator Dr. Charles Schwertner (R) serves on the committee.
Ashley Goudeau: "Senator Schwertner, first and foremost, what are some of your over all thoughts about this issue that we're facing?"
Schwertner: "Well, what we saw in Santa Fe and also in Parkland, Florida, and Sandy Hook, these are tragedies. And here in Texas, I think it is extremely important that we take a very broad-based view and try to find solutions to improve student and teacher safety. And make sure that these tragedies are not going to happen again. As Chairman of the Heath and Human Services Committee, as a physician, as a State Senator, my focus has been on really the aspects related to identifying those children that might have a mental health break, a psychotic episode, or an outburst of violence that unfortunately, in some cases, winds up that a child loading a gun, taking it to school with the intention of killing his fellow classmates. Those types of things, oftentimes, can be prevented if you find the right tools to put in place, obviously way before that child decides to load that gun."
Goudeau: "I think Texas got a lot of credit and a lot of positive feedback because lawmakers did jump into action right away. The Governor holding those roundtable discussions with stakeholders and then the Senate committee being appointed and diving right into it this week. Talk to us about your overall thoughts, those two days of committee hearings, how do you think things went?"
Schwertner: "Well, I was also privileged to participate in one of the roundtables of the governor's and he had a lot of foresight and leadership in having a very broad-based discussion during those roundtables and there is a 41 page report that's now out that can be viewed by the public online. Now the senate is also taking a lead on this as well and we are looking at it in a step-wise, logical approach about how we can improve the infrastructure, the schools themselves, both internal and external hardening. As well as other aspects of improving school safety. We're going to continue to look at this issue of early identification of those children that might have, or young men, that might have an outbreak of violence or mental health break that would predispose them to having a violent outburst. And then also we need to look at various laws that pertain to things such as gun storage and gun safety."
Goudeau: "Let's dive into some of those suggestions, some of the things you guys talked about. You get back to recognizing these students, identifying these students. There was talk about a training that teachers could take, maybe requiring a training for that, tell me about that."
Schwertner: "Well, you know, obviously the first thing about any problem is first recognizing you have a problem. Back in 2013, I passed a bill that is now law that's called Mental Health First Aid that allows teachers and other educators and school personnel, at no cost on a voluntary basis, to identify, to be educated through a course to identify an individual that might be at risk of having a mental health crisis. And we need more of that. There have been more than 25,000 educators that have been trained across Texas, but there needs to be more. And again, the solution to any problem is first realizing you have a problem. And unfortunately mental health issues, mental health illness, is an area that is surrounded by a lot of times, stigma, that is hard to overcome. It's a lot easier when you talk about first aid, and it's physical first aid, you have a cut on your leg and people see that and they go 'well, you need help!' With mental health issues, it's not something visible, right? It's in your brain. And so people need to be aware that that can happen, first of all, and learn some of these signs and symptoms of an individual going down a path that might lead them to have a psychotic break or a violent outburst."
Goudeau: "Is this something you would like to see all teachers trained in?"
Schwertner: "Well, as a physician and as Chairman of the Health Committee, I would like to see a lot more teachers recognize and take some responsibility, we all have responsibility. I don't think teachers are immune from that responsibility of not just educating but also identifying that school child that might need other help. But yes, I'd like to see more teachers take training regarding identification and mental health illness and mental health issues. But I don't believe it should be mandatory. And I think there should be a lot of local control at the school board level. We have over 1,200 school districts in the state of Texas, I think over 9,000 schools, so I think there should, obviously, be some variation as to how we go about the various pieces of what we can do here in the state to prevent these tragedies from happening in the future."
Goudeau: "Another type of training that's been getting a lot of attention is something a little more drastic and that is training teachers to have firearms and be school marshals within the schools. What are your thoughts on that idea?"
Schwertner: "Well, you know, we do actually in the state already have a school marshal plan and a school guardian plan that school districts, and again I think it should be a local control issue at that various school district level. So I put a lot of faith in; if you live out in West Texas and the sheriff's department is across the county and you actually have no local law enforcement presence, certainly a school marshal plan or a school guardian plan might make sense for that school district. So they are the last line of defense, right? The victims are the first line and the last line, unfortunately, of defense and so I think you should have, and we are exploring the complete array of options, to make sure that teacher and students are safe."
Goudeau: "One of the things that I thought was really interesting was talking about designing schools in a way, when we construct schools, designing them in a way that it makes it harder to accomplish these types of massive school shootings."
Schwertner: "Right, and that's controversial. We had discussion by architects, for instance, and there are certainly obviously codes and design theories about how to make a school safer or not safer, and there can be both external hardening such as retrofitting entrances, metal detectors, and then there's also internal hardening about where you locate things and fire alarms and things like that to make it potentially safer. I think it's again though, most important, to focus on recognizing before a child gets to the point of, again, loading a gun and taking it to school with the full intention of killing his classmates. If you can first help that child in an much earlier stage, it's obviously going to prevent those tragedies. When we get to the point of an actual gun being carried by a student into a school I think we've already failed."
Goudeau: "Another thing was storing firearms and that's something you mentioned when we first started talking and it makes some people go 'woah, woah, woah, what exactly are we talking about here?' What would you see, what are you comfortable with when it comes to those rules?"
Schwertner: "Well, there's various laws regarding the storage of firearms. And there's laws that have various levels of penalties. One's a Class C misdemeanor for instance. So there's been discussions about enhancing the penalty structure for firearms that are stored inappropriately. Oftentimes, I think the majority of the time, young men, because most, all these I think all of these shootings have been by young men, they find their firearms usually at their home. And so proper storage is something that is being looked at, as well as proper reporting, for instance, a lost gun on a timely basis to where that can be entered into a data base. When an individual for instance also has been through the courts deemed to be of having a mental illness that has to be reported in a data base. And there's a time base there that needs to be looked at. So we're looking at the laws. And I think it's important, again, that we look at laws and proof-prevention and early intervention as well as design and structure and programs that improve the actual physical structure and safety at the schools."
Goudeau: "Certainly there isn't a one-size-fits-all fix to this and if someone had the answer we'd surely have it by now, but do you feel like the Senate, the committee, will be able to reach a consensus on some ideas that could be put into place sooner rather than later?"
Schwertner: "There is no silver bullet. The governor's report has a number of endeavors that could be put in place, are being put in place by various school districts. For instance, in Georgetown, they have taken the initiative to retrofit the entrances at both high schools before the school year starts this year. There are schools that might want to avail themselves of other school hardening techniques or improvement of overall school safety. They can partner with their local police departments for instance to try to incentivize those officers to take their breaks on campus, for instance, in the parking lot just to improve the visibility of law enforcement. They can have some training courses of crisis intervention for instance or behavioral threats assessment evaluations prior to the school year as well. So, yes there are things that, and I think many school personnel, trustees, the school boards, are taking this very seriously and are being very active in trying to find the correct group of endeavors that might be best for that school and school district."
Goudeau: "We have these ideas but how will we fund them, right, that's always the challenge."
Schwertner: "When I put in Mental Health First Aid Program, which is administered through Department of State Health Services, through our local mental health authorities, I fought for that money back in 2013 and got money at that point. And it's been expanded over the years and there are loan repayment programs for mental health professionals, which is something I actually passed as well and I am going to fight for more of that money to make sure that we can identify but also that we have the proper continuum of care on the back-end to make sure that those individuals can be evaluated by the right individual at the right time and treated."
Goudeau: "Is there anything else you would 'd like to add on the subject?"
Schwertner: "Well, again, as a physician, as a father of three boys in public school and as a State Senator, as Chairman of the Health Committee, my concern and my leadership, I think, can be most developed in how we can recognize those individuals at risk of a violent outbreak or a mental health breakdown that would lead them to potentially seek violent acts. And so I am going to be really laser-focused on that aspect of how we can address and prevent any further tragedy in Texas."
Governor Abbott said he is open to the idea of calling a special session to pass legislation on school safety before the start of the next school year, but only if lawmakers show some consensus on laws that could be passed.