AUSTIN — In the year since the Uvalde massacre, Texas schools continue to ramp up security, and lawmakers and elected leaders have pushed a number of steps they say make schools safer, but one issue — access to guns — has not budged.
May 24 marks the one-year anniversary of Texas’ deadliest school shooting, where an 18-year-old used an assault-style rifle to kill 19 fourth graders and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde.
Across nearly a dozen school districts in CNHI News coverage areas — from Corsicana, Huntsville and Athens, to Lindsay, Jacksonville and Weatherford — police and school administrators say they have responded by taking a number of steps, including adding additional fencing, creating door check regulations, and using ballistic film for school windows, along with other efforts.
But no bills that would restrict access to guns made their way successfully through the legislature this year, and state officials, including Gov. Greg Abbott, vowed to fight any gun control measures. Instead, lawmakers and elected leaders looked for other solutions, including more armed security and mental health funding. State officials last year transferred $105.5 million to schools to support additional safety and mental health initiatives. This included $3 million for local law enforcement agencies to offset travel expenditures for training, and $50 million for bullet-resistant shields for schools.
The threat of more school attacks remains a real one. One week before the anniversary of the Uvalde shooting, federal authorities learned about a 22-year-old Burleson man who allegedly idolized the Columbine High School shooters has been charged with possessing a homemade bomb. According to the U.S Attorney for the Northern District of Texas, Leigha Simonton, “... we may have averted another tragedy.”
While battles over funding and gun control played out in Austin, school districts continued to take what steps they could.
“We take the safety and security of our students and staff very seriously and we will continue to enhance it and make the needed modifications,” said Corsicana Chief of Police Scott Stephens.
Corsicana schools added additional fencing and upgraded fencing across the district, along with numerous other safety and security measures, Stephens added.
Huntsville recently completed an inspection of all of its exterior doors and created an administrative regulation that requires all exterior doors and interior doors be locked and secure at all times that students are present, said Assistant Superintendent William Roberts.
He added that the district received a $700,000 safety grant and is in the process of soliciting bids for silent panic alarm technology, secure window film for exterior glass, fencing, replacement of some doors and changing of door hardware. He said the district hopes to have most of these safety upgrades completed by the start of the 2023-2024 school year.
Leaders in Lindsay, a rural district with 480 students near Gainesville, said while they already had secure classrooms, they added other measures after Uvalde. Steve Cope, superintendent, said that includes ballistic film for windows, improved camera systems and a buzz-in system for visitors.
“Education has changed a lot in the 28 years I’ve been doing this, but we’ll do what we need to do to protect our children,” Cope said.
Over the past year, Jacksonville campuses also underwent an intruder detection audit. These are unannounced visits conducted by someone in the education service center. In each audit, the individual was stopped at the entrance, said Bill Avera, district chief of police. The district also upgraded its cameras and intercoms at front doors to allow staff to see and speak with people before allowing them entry. It also improved fencing, added bullet resistant safety film on windows and installed a silent panic alarm system, among several other upgrades.
“School safety is, right now, front and center in everybody’s mind,” Avera added.
Other districts, including Athens and Greenville, reported fewer changes since Uvalde, but district leaders said they continued to emphasize important safety practices such as locking and checking both exterior and classroom doors.
“We already had fences around all our campuses so I think the main thing that changed for us was the continuous mindset that there is no room for error or exceptions when it comes to school safety,” said Toni Garrard Clay, Athens communications coordinator.
Many districts have had or recently developed partnerships with local law enforcement to increase their presence on school campuses.
Weatherford school officials, for example, have worked with Weatherford’s Police Department for years to put police officers on all of its secondary campuses every day.
Lindsey Police Chief Jimmy Yarbrough said post-Uvalde, his department — which includes himself and two part-time officers — expanded its network with other local law enforcement to improve communications, particularly with radio traffic and joint training.
Some parents and students said these efforts have helped ease their concerns.
“I would not send my boys to school if I did not know that the district was doing everything possible to keep them safe,” said Nolan Waters, parent of three Weatherford students.
Immediately after Uvalde, calls erupted for stronger gun control, particularly around the question of access to assault-style weapons such as the AR-15, which was used in Uvalde.
Uvalde parents drove three-plus hours one way to the Texas Capitol every week this legislative session to push lawmakers to pass more than three dozen gun bills.
State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat who represents Uvalde, put up 21 bills this session to represent the 21 lives lost at the school. Bills ranged from ending qualified immunity for law enforcement to creating a Uvalde Victims’ Compensation Fund. All of his bills were left pending in committee.
Only one Uvalde-specific bill — HB 2744 — which would have raised the age to purchase an assault rifle from 18 to 21, made it out of committee. However, the bill died days later. It was authored by Uvalde state Rep. Tracy King.
“Uvalde families didn’t fail. Texas politicians did,” tweeted Kimberly Mata-Rubio, mother of Uvalde victim Lexi Rubio, after the bill that would have raised the age to buy an assault rifle in Texas failed. A frequent visitor to the Capitol, she also tweeted out after the legislation failed: “We were up against a brick wall but the dent we left is notable. We’ll be back. You (messed) with the wrong parents and moms and dads across this state will remember.”
“HB 2744 may have died, but our hope has not,” Brett Cross, parent of Uvalde victim Uziyah Garcia, said in a statement. “Texan parents are coming together in a way never seen before. … As always, we will not be silenced, we will not stop.”
Instead of addressing gun control, lawmakers have looked toward increasing school security funding and the presence of police officers on school campuses.
- House Bill 249, by state Rep. Glenn Rogers, R-Graford, would establish a school security officer volunteer program for honorably retired veterans and ex-police officers. This would enable registered volunteers to carry handguns on school property and during school-sponsored events.
- The house school safety bill — HB 3 — offers campuses $100 per student and $15,000 per campus for security purposes. The bill package is roughly $1.6 billion, but experts say the allotment is not enough to even change doors in some districts or pay for a trained officer on each campus.
- A separate, senate-approved school safety bill, SB 11, puts about $800 million toward school safety and creates a safety and security department within the Texas Education Agency. The department will be responsible for ensuring districts establish active-shooter protocols. The bill also strengthens truancy laws to detect students who may need a counselor. State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, the lead author of the bill, did not return calls for comment.
HB 249 was still pending as of press time, while HB 3 and SB 11 passed.
Top Texas Republican leaders including Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, have insisted the solution is to improve mental health resources, but some of those measures, too, are still pending in the legislature.
Since Abbott took office in 2015, the state has invested $25 billion in mental health resources. Still, Texas remains last when it comes to access to mental health services, according to 2023 rankings by Mental Health America, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Abbott and Patrick did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story. However, after the recent shooting at a shopping mall in Allen, Abbott said again that the issue was mental health, not guns.
“One thing that we can observe very easily, and (it) is that there has been a dramatic increase in the amount of anger and violence that’s taking place in America,” Abbott said. “What Texas is doing in a big way, we are working to address that anger and violence by going to its root cause, which is addressing the mental health problems behind it.”
Lawmakers did pass a bill that requires investigators to check to see if 18-to-20-year old’s have anything in their mental health histories that should prevent them from buying a gun. This bill is to ensure the state meets new federal compliance put in place after Uvalde. It now heads to the governor’s desk.
“This bill will go a long way to ensuring that our state databases, our state and federal databases are linked and that the process is more efficient and effective in keeping firearms out of the hands of dangerous Texans who do not need to have them,” said state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Allen.
Even with these proposed changes, Gutierrez, of Uvalde, said they are not enough to keep students in classrooms safe.
“The fact is, unless you’re going to go after the common denominator, which is guns and access to guns for young people, which is the leading killer of young people, and you’re not going to regulate that, our kids are not any safer,” he said.
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