HOUSTON (CN) — Fresh off a year in which U.S. school shootings occurred with horrifying regularity, a Texas state lawmaker has proposed legislation that would require public school districts to install metal detectors in all campus buildings in Texas.
Shawn Thierry, a Democrat, attorney and native Houstonian, said she introduced House Bill 797 Monday with her daughter in mind.
“I have a 6-year-old daughter who attends public school in Houston,” she said. “And this is something that I worry a great deal about when I drop my own daughter off.
“I can identify with the fear parents feel. Even as a legislator, one of the schools in my district recently contacted me and told me there was a student who brought a 9mm to school with 16 bullets in the clip.”
Thierry represents Texas House District 146, which zigzags from south of downtown Houston to the city’s southwestern edges. Of the district’s more than 174,000 residents, 75 percent are black or Hispanic.
House Bill 797 would amend the Texas Education Code to require public school districts and charter schools to install walk-through metal detectors or use handheld metal detectors at the entrances to all buildings in which students attend class or school-sponsored activities.
School finance reform is a priority for Gov. Greg Abbott and state lawmakers this session. Texas public schools have been struggling since the state cut $5 billion in education funding in 2011, forcing school districts to raise property taxes to pay their teachers and keep the lights on.
Critics say the cost of metal detectors is prohibitive. A 2018 report from the Texas Association of School Boards estimated the price tag for Texas schools at $46 million.
The association’s spokesman Dax González said Texas could easily pay for the machines from its $12 billion rainy day fund, but questioned whether the state would cover the continuous costs of staff to run the machines and search students.
Thierry said the Legislature’s focus on school financing dovetails with her bill.
“We are currently addressing our school finance system and overhauling the way we fund our schools. And so I think that the time is now to go ahead and tackle school safety,” she said in a telephone interview.
Thierry said HB 797 is the “school hardening” component of a three-pack of bills she has proposed to improve school safety.
The other bills would allow school districts to design on-campus counseling programs, and add lessons about mental health to curriculum.
Monty Exter, a lobbyist with the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said he opposes such one-size-fits all approaches to school safety because security problems vary widely. He said urban school districts typically have their own police departments, while the closest police force might be 30 miles away for rural districts.
“So you’re looking at potentially needing very different solutions depending on the environment,” Exter said. “And the best folks to determine what’s going to work for them locally are the local school board and the local administration in combination with parents and teachers.”
The Texas Charter School Association agrees.
“We need to make sure that we are putting regulations and requirements in place that are appropriate for each individual school,” its CEO Starlee Coleman said in an email. The association represents 85 percent of the state’s charter schools.
Exter said he believes installing metal detectors at his daughter’s elementary school in Austin would endanger her and her classmates.
“It’s always going to take a little while to get folks through a metal detector if you have one set up at the entry point,” Exter said. “There are 1,000 kids at that school who are all showing up in the morning at roughly the same time. So if you are creating this pool of kids who are now outside the school, that’s actually an easier target than kids being inside the school.”
But Thierry said the logistics would be similar to airports and courthouses, where people enter the building and queue up to pass through metal detectors. “I think there’s a way to do this safely,” said Thierry.
Replying to concerns that metal detectors are not right for all Texas school districts, Thierry recalled a sunny Friday morning in May 2018 in a town 35 miles southeast of Houston. “It never happens until it does. People didn’t expect the incident to happen in Santa Fe.”
A Santa Fe High School student in his trademark black trenchcoat walked into a first-period art class that day with a sawed-off shotgun and a .38 caliber handgun and fatally shot eight students and two teachers and wounded 13 others.
Santa Fe Independent School District installed nine metal detectors at its high school and six at its junior high school before classes started in fall 2018. It also installed panic buttons in classrooms, hired five more full-time police officers and started a policy in which all students and staff have to wear identification badges whenever they are on campus.
The district is surveying students to get their opinions about its use of the metal detectors, its spokeswoman said in an email.
The Santa Fe rampage was one of 25 school shootings in the United States in 2018. They were not all deadly. In nine of those incidents, no one was injured or hurt, according to the Washington Post.
Though no U.S. school shootings have been reported in the first two weeks of 2019, two high school students, in Pennsylvania and Louisiana, have been caught with handguns at school.
And this year promises to bring soul-searching and handwringing about how within 20 years school shootings have gone from incomprehensible to horribly commonplace.
April 20 will be the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre, when two seniors walked into the school in Littleton, Colo. wearing black trenchcoats with guns strapped to their bodies and shot and killed 12 classmates and a teacher, setting a grim benchmark for 21st century shooters.
The man who shot up Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida last February with an assault rifle and killed 17 people reportedly studied the Columbine rampage before his spree surpassed Columbine as the deadliest ever attack at a U.S. high school.
Thierry, who is African-American, said one reason she is calling for metal detectors at all public schools because she wants her bill to be equitable. “What I am trying to prevent is the loss of even one life,” she said.
She said she believes her daughter and all Texas schoolchildren can benefit from metal detectors, just as adults do. “All I want is for our kids to have the same protections that the rest of us as legislators have in the state Capitol, or when we walk into any other government-funded building,” she said.
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