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Bill Calls for Emergency Alarms at Texas Schools

Legislation filed by state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, would require Texas school districts to equip their campuses with electronic emergency alarms that could contact the police directly in the event of a school emergency.

Austin Police Officer Cory Ehrler monitors the entrance to Ridgetop Elementary School after classes start on the Monday following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. As the 83rd legislative session approaches, Texas lawmakers are considering making firearms more available to teachers and other school personnel.

While some state lawmakers have filed school safety bills aimed at increasing gun access or regulation on school property, one legislator is taking a different approach to protecting Texas’ schoolchildren.

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, on Friday filed House Bill 1353, which would require school districts to equip their schools with electronic emergency alarms that notify police in the event of a school emergency, like a school shooting similar to what occurred in December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

"If [emergency buttons] are good enough for convenience stores and banks, they are good enough for Texas schools," Rodriguez said.

He added that installing an emergency system that notifies police could drastically cut response time to emergency situations at schools.

According to a CNN timeline of events at Sandy Hook, initial calls for help were made at approximately 9:30 a.m., and police and first responders arrived to the school about 20 minutes later.

Keller Police Chief Mark Hafner said so-called panic buttons may alert police more quickly, but he warned of a potential downside: technical failures because of inactivity.

“Those buttons sit there a long time,” Hafner said.

The legislation calls for three or more emergency buttons to be located at each school. One of the buttons must be in the principal’s office, one in another location and one as a mobile version worn by a designated school employee.

Catherine Clark, associate executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards, expressed concerns about how schools would fund the emergency systems. She said local school boards can already decide to install emergency buttons if they choose, and that an “unfunded mandate” would not be the answer.

“I can't imagine why we would need legislation for something we can already do,” she said.

Rodriguez said that although there is not yet a funding mechanism for the bill, he does not foresee the expense being “extreme,” and he said he would work over the next weeks to find adequate funding options.

Another school-safety bill, filed by state Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, would create something similar to the federal air marshal program, which places armed officials on flights to protect against attacks. 

While school districts can already decide if they want to allow teachers to carry concealed handguns, Villalba’s legislation would allow a school to designate one faculty member as a “school marshal.” The chosen faculty member would undergo a training and certification process to learn how to defend the school as a last line of defense during an attack. 

Villalba who said his legislation was about more than just letting teachers have guns, added that he thought the bill "crafted a middle ground."

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst came out in support of state funding for a program that would train select school employees to carry concealed handguns and respond to active-shooter situations.

“[The emergency system bill] is a much more sensible conversation than the nonsense talk about arming teachers,” said Harley Eckhart, deputy executive director of the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association.

Eckhart said that although the funding aspect of the bill is a large concern, he sees it as a better alternative for school safety than other proposals by lawmakers to bolster school safety with firearms.

Rodriguez said allowing guns on school property would “open up a lot more problems.”

“Schools should be a place for learning,” he said. “Having guns on campus distracts from that.”

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