By Ed Sterling,
Member services director for the Texas Press Association.
Gov. Greg Abbott on Feb. 21 sent a letter to Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath ordering immediate action to ensure the safety of children in Texas schools following the multi-fatality shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school on Feb. 14.
Abbott listed steps for Morath and other state education leaders to take to respond to and prevent such tragedies, including:
— Catalog and share all available information from the Texas School Safety Center on school safety programs and distribute this information to all school districts, charter schools and education service centers across the state;
— Ensure that all Texas public schools have completed their statutorily required school safety audits and have submitted confirmation of these audits to the Texas School Safety Center;
— Publish on the Texas Education Agency website and via agency press release a list of any school districts that have not completed the statutory requirements referenced in point two above within 45 days; and
— Work with the Texas School Safety Center, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the governor’s office to draft recommendations to the Texas Legislature on changes to the school safety architecture of our state.
“All of Texas grieves the tragedy that occurred in Parkland last week. As governor, I take seriously the safety of all Texas residents, and as an American, I mourn the loss of 17 Floridians in a cruel and senseless act of violence. Immediate steps must be taken to keep our students and communities safe, with the understanding that more will be expected in the future,” Abbott said.
State laws allow marshals
Acknowledgement of the threat of school shootings came years ago in the form of House Bill 1009, a law passed by the 83rd Texas Legislature in 2013.
The law allows public school districts and open enrollment charter schools to appoint school marshals.
In 2015, the 84th Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 386, to include public two-year junior colleges in the list of institutions that can appoint school marshals.
And, in 2017, the 85th Texas Legislature passed House Bill 867, a law that allows private schools to appoint school marshals.
According to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, “The sole purpose of a school marshal is to prevent the act of murder or serious bodily injury on school premises and act only as defined by the written regulations adopted by the school board/governing body.”
Abbott spares prison inmate
Shortly before state prison inmate Thomas Bartlett Whitaker, 38, was scheduled to die by lethal injection on Feb. 22, Gov. Abbott signed a proclamation commuting the death sentence to life in prison without possibility of parole.
Abbott, in making the proclamation, agreed with a recommendation by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Whitaker was convicted and sentenced in 2008 for conspiring to kill his parents and brother, but he did not shoot the gun that caused the murders of his mother and brother.
DPS drone program debuts
The Texas Department of Public Safety on Feb. 15 announced the launch of its “unmanned aerial systems” program.
Small, unmanned aerial vehicles, generically referred to as “drones” will be used for a variety of public safety missions across Texas, including flight missions related to officer safety, search and rescue, disaster support, aerial observation support, crash reconstruction, crime scene photography and communication tower inspections.
So far, the DPS said, the program’s fleet includes 17 unmanned aerial systems costing the state an estimated $70,000 and paid for with existing funding, grant funding or seized funds.
AG pursues elder fraud
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Feb. 23 announced that his office joined the U.S. Department of Justice and the National Association of Attorneys General in “the largest coordinated sweep of elder fraud cases in history.”
The multi-state actions charged a variety of fraud schemes, ranging from mass mailing, telemarketing and investment frauds to individual incidences of identity theft and theft by guardians.
“Anyone can be a victim of fraud, but senior citizens are targeted more often by scammers seeking to exploit someone for a quick buck,” Paxton said. “Today’s action is one of many steps my office has taken in the fight to protecting elderly Texans whose financial well-being is compromised by nefarious characters,” he added.
Joining Texas in the coalition are the U.S. Department of Justice, Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Oregon and South Dakota.