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Gov. Greg Abbott announces school safety plan and proposed changes to gun laws after Santa Fe shooting

The governor's announcement follows three days of roundtable discussions about school safety last week at the Capitol. He said he was open to a special session to implement some of his ideas.

Gov. Greg Abbott announces new school safety measures in response to the Santa Fe High School shooting at the Dallas Independent School District Headquarters on May 31, 2018.

* This story has been updated throughout. 

DALLAS — Less than two weeks after 10 people were killed in a southeast Texas school shooting, Gov. Greg Abbott laid out a wide-ranging school safety plan — including programs for mental health screenings, expanded school protections and even a few, narrow measures regulating gun usage — and left the door open to calling lawmakers back to Austin to pass some of those priorities.

"If there is consensus on some laws that could be passed, I am open to calling [a special session]," Abbott said.

Many of the proposals Abbott laid out Wednesday (read the full document here) would require legislative approval, meaning a special session of the Texas Legislature would be necessary to implement them before the next school year starts in August. Some will likely be studied in a new Senate committee on school violence and security, which Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick charged Wednesday with addressing Abbott’s ideas by the first week of August.

Perhaps the most surprising movement from the NRA-backed governor was on the issue of red-flag laws, measures that exist in a handful of states allowing judges to temporarily seize an individual’s firearms if that person is considered an imminent threat. Without explicitly endorsing such a measure, Abbott asked state lawmakers to “consider the merits of adopting a red flag law” while “maintaining the highest standards of due process.”

Consideration of a "red flag" law is the first charge that House Speaker Joe Straus gave to the lower chamber's Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence. Straus said he will ask the group to consider other measures aimed at bolstering school safety in the coming days. 

Abbott also addressed the issue of gun storage, recommending that Texas promote but not mandate safe storage practices like locking away guns while they’re not in use. Eleven states require gun-owners to proactively store their guns under lock and key in at least some circumstances; in dozens of other states, Texas among them, gun owners can be held legally accountable if minors access their firearms.

That’s what happened, authorities say, in the case of Santa Fe shooter suspect Dimitrios Pagourtzis, the 17-year-old Santa Fe High School junior who used his father’s guns in his rampage. But his family can’t be held liable under Texas’ child-access prevention law because it only applies to children under 17. Abbott on Wednesday proposed raising that bar to include 17-year-olds, which would bring Texas in line with more than a dozen states whose comparable law includes minors under 18 years of age.

Abbott’s proposals drew expected scoffs from some of his Democratic counterweights, with a condemnation from Lupe Valdez, the Democrat running against him for governor this fall, who said “it is clear that under this leadership we won’t see nearly enough of the changes we need.” And Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said nothing in Abbott’s 40-page plan addresses “the reality that it is too easy for a weapon to end up in the hands of someone wanting to cause harm.”

Still, the plan won what is perhaps surprising praise from groups and politicians who are often Abbott’s adversaries. State Rep. Chris Turner, the Grand Prairie Democrat who chairs his party’s House caucus, said he and his colleagues “support many of the ideas that Gov. Abbott laid out today.” And Texas Gun Sense Vice President Ed Scruggs said the proposal represents the most movement he’s seen on gun violence issues in Texas in decades.

“We’re happy that the conversation has begun. We basically went 20 years without being able to have this discussion,” Scruggs said. “This type of leadership, even on just a few moderate issues, is important.”

Abbott’s announcement, made at the Dallas school district’s headquarters Wednesday, came one day after students at Santa Fe High School students returned to class for the first time following the deadly shootings.

At the heart of the governor’s proposal is “hardening” schools like Santa Fe as targets, both by guarding them with increased police presence and by persuading more school districts to join existing state programs for arming school staff. Abbott proposed several pages’ worth of revisions to Texas’ school marshal program, one of two such systems that combine to arm teachers in more than 170 of Texas’ 1,000-plus school districts.

Schools should not be required to join such programs, Abbott said, but he did propose that the state pay for training for it this summer to ease the burden on individual districts.

The Texas State Teachers Association “strongly [objected]” to that idea in particular.

“Teachers are trained to teach and to nurture, not double up as security guards,” TSTA President Noel Candelaria said in a statement.

“As a teacher you should know to actually read a proposal before judging it,” Abbott soon shot back on Twitter. “The Plan doesn’t mandate arming teachers. It provides funds to schools that choose the School Marshal Plan.”

Santa Fe ISD, in fact, had already approved the school marshal program, but had not yet implemented it.

That program currently allows trained school personnel, whose identities are kept private to all but a few local officials, to carry weapons on campus. Abbott proposed streamlining the training course — currently a “burdensome” 80 hours — and eliminating a restriction that currently requires marshals who directly interact with students to keep their guns under lock and key.

“When an active shooter situation arises, the difference between life and death can be a matter of seconds,” Abbott said. “Trained security personnel can make all the difference.”

State Rep. Jason Villalba, a Dallas Republican who in 2013 authored the bill that created the marshal program, applauded Abbott’s efforts but predicted that two of those suggestions might draw blowback from some stakeholder groups. Parents, he said, would likely be upset if teachers no longer had to lock up their weapons; and the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, which he said suggested an 80-hour training, would likely take issue with “streamlining” it as Abbott proposed. A TCOLE spokeswoman said the agency would comply with whatever changes the Legislature makes to the program but would not offer additional comments.

Villalba — one of a chorus of lawmakers asking Abbott to call a special session — said the ideas offered up today show that such an action is “imperative.”

“Why wait, when there’s broad consensus on protecting our children using some of the programs and measures the governor has proposed today?” Villalba questioned, alluding to the governor’s message that he’d be open to calling lawmakers back if they looked poised to make progress.

The governor also placed heavy emphasis on “preventing threats in advance,” largely through expanded mental health screening programs and on-campus counseling.

Abbott also proposed expanding a mental health screening program already operated through the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. He said he hopes to "eventually" make that program — currently operational in 10 school districts — a statewide system, and said he recommends Texas fund it with $20 million.

The Telemedicine Wellness, Intervention, Triage, and Referral Project, which aims to identify junior high and high school students at risk of committing school violence and intervene before tragedy occurs, has already had 25 students removed from school, 44 placed in alternative schools and 38 sent to a hospital. Abbott had praised that program just hours after the shooting, tweeting that “we want to use it across the state.”

Some of the money Abbott proposes to use is his to give out now, and some programs will be funded by federal dollars. But much of what he’s pitched would require action from the state’s lawmakers — who won’t reconvene in Austin until January 2019 unless Abbott calls them back earlier.

A special session would be a dramatic move during an election year in which Abbott, all top state officials and a majority of lawmakers are seeking new terms. It would be even more rare given how emotionally charged — and politically divisive — issues of school safety and gun control are.

“One of the best things that could come out of this is if we have these discussions more often,” Scruggs said.

Disclosure: Texas Tech University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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