"This is very personal to us": Santa Fe survivors are expecting results from the Texas Legislature
After last year's massacre at Santa Fe High School, survivors told lawmakers the school safety measures they want to see enacted during this year's legislative session. How many of them will become law?
The 86th Legislature runs from Jan. 8 to May 27. From the state budget to health care to education policy — and the politics behind it all — we focus on what Texans need to know about the biennial legislative session.
Flo Rice remembers when she could run 30 miles a week as a way to get rid of stress.
But after a shooter opened fire at Santa Fe High School on May 18, killing 10 people and wounding 13 others, the former substitute teacher hasn’t logged her usual five to six miles a day.
When Rice first heard a fire alarm go off that morning, she assumed it was a normal drill. But as she started walking her students — a boy’s basketball gym class — down a hallway toward an exit, they unknowingly walked into the shooter’s line of fire.
“I fell through the exit door,” Rice recalled. “I looked down at my legs and I saw bullet holes in my legs and that was horrifying. I crawled around to the side of the building as best I could because one of my legs was broken.”
Her students escaped the building unscathed. Rice, 56, was shot five times, twice in one leg and three times in the other.
“I still go to physical therapy three times a week,” Rice said. “I’ve progressed from a wheelchair to a walker, and now I’m on a cane. I don’t know if I can ever get back to where I was.”
Since the shooting, survivors like Rice have taken part in the school safety conversation that’s all but certain to make waves at the Texas Capitol over the next several months. Lawmakers have already filed a bevy of bills aimed at preventing — or at least mitigating — another gun tragedy. Victims and their loved ones are hoping that by the time the Legislature adjourns in May, the bills they’ve been advocating for will make it to the governor’s desk.
“We were never politically active before,” said Rice’s husband, Scot Rice. “We did vote — I used to drive Flo to the polls — but now we follow what’s going on every day, and we’re just trying to get our voices heard. This is very personal to us. … Every school needs to be safe.”
“We need to do more than just pray”
At a news conference outside the Houston-area school hours after the shooting, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott proposed school safety measures that earned the support of lawmakers of all political stripes: improving background checks, more resources for school safety personnel and addressing mental health issues potentially tied to gun violence.
“We need to do more than just pray for the victims and their families,” Abbott, a Republican, said at the time. “It’s time in Texas that we take action to step up and make sure this tragedy is never repeated ever again.”
Still, school shootings are relatively rare: From 2013-17, more students died commuting to school than by a gun at the hands of an intruder or classmate, according to James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University. But, he said, school shootings often spur more policy discussions than auto accidents because “the idea is that all the students in that school were at risk.”
“It’s much more profound,” Fox said.
Shortly after Abbott’s announcement, state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, held a press conference and suggested the Legislature could do more to prevent future tragedies — especially after Santa Fe and a tragic shooting at a Sutherland Springs church in November 2017 that left 26 dead.
In addition to the governor’s proposals, Turner said he’s in favor of universal background checks for firearms purchases and a “red flag” law that would allow courts to order the seizure or surrender of guns from people deemed imminent threats by a judge — a proposal that’s essentially a nonstarter at the Capitol.
Days later, Abbott announced plans to host a series of roundtable discussions at the Capitol, where he pledged to meet over the course of three days with shooting survivors, students, parents, teachers and advocates on both sides of the gun debate.
“Working together, we can ensure a safe learning environment for students and safer communities for all Texans,” Abbott said in a news release.
“A big hole in the system”
Grace Johnson, now 19, didn’t get an invitation to Abbott’s roundtables. That didn’t stop her from reaching out to his office and requesting a seat at the table.
When the shooting started at Santa Fe High, Johnson was asleep in a band practice room. She said she heard the fire alarm, ventured into a hallway and saw “people drop and glass shattering,” so she ran back to the band hall and huddled with six others in a nearby attic for an hour until police rescued them.
She said she also wants armed security officers on every public school campus. Without the officers who intervened at Santa Fe, she might not have made it out alive, Johnson said months after the roundtable.
“Our school officer was able to confront the shooter within four minutes, and police weren’t on site by then,” Johnson said. “[The shooter] had enough rounds for the entire school and he had bombs.”
Scot Rice was at the same roundtable and said that when he spoke, it was so quiet “you could hear a pin drop.” He advocated for proposals applicable to his wife, like requiring active shooter training for substitute teachers. As a substitute, his wife didn’t have keys to lock her class, didn’t have access to the school’s email system to communicate with other faculty, and wasn’t trained on how to respond to emergencies like bomb threats or a shooting, he said.
“I honestly don’t know what we were supposed to do in that gym,” Flo Rice recounted in a recent interview with The Texas Tribune.
“Three substitutes were shot that day and two teachers died,” Scot Rice said minutes later. “There’s a big hole in the system.”
He said Abbott sat quietly as each participant spoke at the roundtable. He recalled tears welling up in lawmakers’ eyes as he described what happened to his wife — who was still in the hospital at the time — and left the meeting with a positive feeling that state officials would “step up” and make the necessary changes to prevent another tragedy.
“I had a lot of confidence in the system,” he said.
Johnson and Scot Rice said there was some disagreement at the roundtable over ideas to “harden” Texas schools, particularly by requiring them to install metal detectors on their campuses. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — who donated 10 metal detectors to Santa Fe High School after the shooting — first pushed this proposal, but it has since garnered support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
At the roundtable, Scot Rice said he’s skeptical of how beneficial metal detectors would be because they're only as effective as the people hired to operate them. And, Johnson added, they’re expensive.
“You can get metal detectors donated, sure, but the cost starts to add up once they need work,” she said.
Hearing from victims like Johnson and the Rices was “one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do from an emotional level,” said Republican state Sen. Larry Taylor of Friendswood, who represents Santa Fe ISD. He said “there was pretty much a consensus” at that third meeting: “We want to have a quicker response when [shootings] happen, but the primary thing is you want to prevent it from happening in the first place.”
Days after the roundtables concluded, the governor laid out a 43-page school safety plan that he hoped would do just that. In addition to his earlier proposals, Abbott outlined suggestions like mental health screening programs in schools, on-campus counseling and gun storage laws. While some of his suggestions were put in place immediately — like paying to train campus staffers who want to become school marshals — others had to wait until the Legislature came back nearly eight months later.
“I’m in agreement with [the governor’s] plan,” Flo Rice said. “It’s full of great ideas, but whether all of it will get implemented is a different story.”
“This will be a long process”
With Dimitrios Pagourtzis, the Santa Fe High School student charged with capital murder in the shooting, back in court for the first time in six months and the 2019 legislative session underway, survivors said they hope to see the policy proposals they tearfully advocated for months ago finally become law.
During his state of the state address, Abbott cited school safety as one of his six emergency items and reassured Texans that the Legislature would take steps this year to ensure a tragedy like the one at Santa Fe wouldn’t happen again. In a nod to the roundtables, the governor said it was “time to turn ideas into action.”
“No student should be afraid to go to school. No parent should be fearful when dropping their child off at school,” Abbott said at the Capitol on Tuesday. "We must do all we can to make our schools safer. Working together, we will deliver on this promise to our parents, to our students and to our teachers.”
Unlike other bread-and-butter policy issues like property taxes and school finance, there hasn’t been one comprehensive bill filed to tackle school safety. Instead, elected officials have filed a hodgepodge of bills addressing the issue — most of which align with the proposals outlined in Abbott’s plan.
Lawmakers from both chambers have filed bills to alter the marshal program. Several would eliminate the lock-and-key requirement, and others would eliminate the cap on how many marshals each school can have — currently set at one for every 400 students.
State Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, has filed a bill that would require mental health be included in the curriculum at public schools and another allowing districts to appoint mental health service providers to help design on-campus mental health care programs.
“We know from what we’ve seen in these incidents that have happened — particularly with young people — that clearly they were under some mental health crisis,” Thierry said. “You can’t address school safety without looking at the mental health aspect of it.”
Taylor, the Friendswood senator, said he’s working on a bill that would outline best practices for schools in case of emergency. One provision would require schools to set up a system to notify parents in the event of a bomb threat or shooter, and another would require a dedicated alarm system in schools for such threats.
State Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, who also represents Santa Fe, said he’s working on legislation that would ensure substitute teachers — like Flo Rice — receive the same training as full-time teachers “so they can react seamlessly to any type of emergency event.”
“That’s a deficiency that’s been identified,” Bonnen said. “The biggest message we’ve received is that we want all of our schools to be following best practices and standards for school safety.”
Thierry also filed a bill requiring metal detectors or wands in all Texas public schools, but several lawmakers said they oppose a “one-size-fits-all” approach to hardening Texas schools.
“We’ve got to give flexibility to what a hardening of the assets would look like,” said state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock. “We cannot get into the local ISD’s business on what their community considers a good security measure.”
Bonnen added it’s likely the Legislature won’t pass anything “overly prescriptive” in regards to school safety legislation.
“You have over 1,000 districts in the state with a huge variety of size and geographic differences,” he said, “so many of the specifics that will be implemented will be decisions that will be made at the local level.”
Other measures outlined in Abbott’s 43-page school safety plan haven’t gained much traction in the Legislature. While Abbott's proposal asking the Legislature to “consider the merits” of a red flag law drew the ire of some Second Amendment hardliners, some Democrats say they believe gun control shouldn’t be off limits.
“I don’t wanna take anything off the table at this point,” said Turner, the Grand Prairie Democrat. “I hope the Legislature will pass smart and effective laws this session to see that we don’t have another Santa Fe, and that we do it in a way that honors the victims and gives that community a voice.”
For the next few months, Flo Rice is staying optimistic. But she acknowledged it could take time beyond the 140-day session before meaningful change occurs.
“We’re not going to get everything done overnight,” she said. “This will be a long process, but the more things we get passed — for me personally — the better the healing process is going to be. I just hope I can see some changes in the future that will protect other kids.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston 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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