Special session needed on campus safety

June 6, 2018 GMT

Gov. Greg Abbott should call a special session of the Texas Legislature this summer to address school and gun safety.

It is too important an issue to delay action until the 86th Legislature convenes in January.

Waiting means this pressing issue will be competing for priority attention with the multitude of other matters awaiting a legislative body that only meets in regular session for five months every two years.

In every legislative session, hundreds of bills die in committee without making it to the floor of the House or Senate for a vote. Texas cannot afford a repeat of the last session when it comes to school safety.

In 2017, state lawmakers spent much of their valuable time in Austin grandstanding on political issues and failed to address the state’s public school finance woes, which everyone had agreed was a top priority.

That was allowed to happen even though legislators received a strongly worded recommendation from the highest court in Texas advising them to address the inadequacies of the school finance system. Regrettably, today, four school semesters later, the issue remains unresolved.

Abbott has indicated he may call lawmakers into session if legislators agree they can reach a consensus on bills, but he says he does not want it to be a debating session.

We agree. This issue merits bipartisan attention and cannot be allowed to be used for political posturing with an eye toward the next election.

In the 40-page plan Abbott released last week — following three days of roundtable discussions with survivors of recent Texas mass shootings, mental health experts, law enforcement, educators and others — he proposed a range of initiatives that would enhance safety on public school campuses.

Abbott’s suggestions have opened an important public dialogue on the issue and prompted much debate. There will never be a unified voice on issues such as gun regulations, red flag laws and arming school teachers, but there are plenty of areas in which common ground can be found.

Abbott does want to address mental health issues among public school children and establishing two classes of school counselors — one to deal with academics and another to handle students’ mental health. This has benefits — though, by and large, people with mental illness are not violent or dangerous.

The mental health of children in schools has been a concern for years, but the issue has never been properly addressed. It’s a good launching point for a mutually agreeable agenda for a special session, provided the outcome doesn’t stigmatize those with mental illness.

But the need exists. A report presented to the Legislature in January 2017 by the Texas House Select Committee on Mental Health indicates 1 in 5 school-age children in the U.S. have symptoms that meet criteria for mental illness.

Children with untreated mental illness are more likely to fail school, interface with juvenile justice and engage in high risk behavior, according to the report.

He also proposes training teachers to help them assess potentially dangerous students and intervene before matters escalate.

And Abbott is proposing more security presence in schools, zero tolerance for students engaging in violent behavior at school, and strengthening firearm storage laws.

Some campus security proposals will need to wait until the regular session so legislative committees assigned to study them specifically and in detail can report back, but there is much that can be done now.

Let’s not wait for the next school shooting.