A look back at Texas Legislature’s response to mental health services in the wake of recent school shootings, pandemic

FILE - A memorial for the victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde,...
FILE - A memorial for the victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, is shown on July 10, 2022.(AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
Published: May. 23, 2023 at 3:35 PM CDT
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(KWTX) - Texas lawmakers continue to debate mental health services and school security plans a year after a gunman shot and killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde.

Prior to the deadliest school shooting in Texas history, lawmakers had already passed legislation in response to the deadly Santa Fe High School shooting in 2018. That led to the passage to several bills addressing mental health.

During the current legislation that began Jan. 10, Texas Speaker of the House, Dade Phelan, proposed a $100 million bill for mental health and school safety as a response to Lt. General Dan Patrick’s $50 million proposal. Phelan’s proposal mandates that all students across the state receive access to telehealth sessions, as well as equal mental health funding for school districts across the state.

Amount of the $100 millionSpecific area amount would go to (per year)
$37.5 millionAdditional yearly funding for Texas Child Health Access as the state’s current yearly $25 million funding for the program serves 40% of the state.
$10.5 millionCreate “pediatric crisis stabilization and response” teams across the state to give children and families access to crisis intervention.
$575,000Yearly funding per team for “multisystemic therapy” teams, which offer intervention aimed at reducing the risk of violence. There are currently seven teams in the state, and 140 teams are required to meet the statewide need. Each team would also require a $100,000 cost for first-year training.
$950,000Two additional “coordinated specialty care” teams, including one in the Uvalde area, that treat youth experiencing a first episode of psychosis,
$30 millionExpand the number of pediatric mental health beds in hospitals across the state.
$7 millionProvide all law enforcement cadets and active law enforcement officers research-based active-shooter training developed by the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University.
$7 millionEnsure that the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University can provide all school districts in the state training on active-shooter response and a review of their response plans for these attacks.
$18.7 millionAll of Texas’ public and charter schools to purchase panic alert technology

With the current legislative session still ongoing, the legislature has yet to take decisive action on the latest proposals. Discussions at the state level regarding mental health services for public school students are not new. Below is a breakdown of what has been proposed and passed in recent years.

2019 Session

In the 86th Legislative Session, a total of six bills were passed, including one Senate bill and five House bills. The session ran from Jan. 8 to May 27, 2019, a year after a gunman killed 10 people and wounded 13 others at Santa Fe High School in the Houston area.

According to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) website, Senate Bill 11 requires public schools to conduct behavioral threat assessments for school districts and collect relevant data on its efficacy. This mandate went into effect during the 2020-21 school year.

TEA, working in conjunction with Texas School Safety Center, now provides support and guidance to help public schools implement the behavioral threat assessment.

House Bill 906, passed in conjunction with SB 11, “establishes a public school mental health task force to study and evaluate mental health services funded by the state and provided at school districts or open-enrollment charter schools.”

In addition to SB 11, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a separate mental health bill that increased mental health training for educators and other school professionals, and improved students’ access to mental and behavioral health services, according to a report in the Texas Tribune.

“We’re reducing the stigma that is associated with mental illness, and we’re equipping our counselors, administrators and educators throughout the state of Texas to identify children in crisis — again, all with parental consent,” State Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, told the Tribune at the time.

Texas Mental Health Plan

SB 11 also tasked the TEA to build a school mental health plan, first published in December 2020, and “designed to lay the foundation for future strategies to advance” a long-term solution.

According to TEA, the plan ensures all students have adequate access to mental health resources. This comes through a plan that TEA has made through an overview of short-term and long-term activities in a five-year plan beginning in the 2020-21 school year.

“TEA strategies, goals and activities will guide the agency to effectively support Texas schools with student mental and behavioral health access. TEA is strategically coordinating school mental and behavioral health activities (prevention through intervention) with school safety under the Safe and Supportive School Program (SSSP),” the plan’s website states.

Through the plan made by TEA, a “Multi-tiered System of Supports” (MTSS) was implemented to focus on serving all students through a comprehensive continuum of care through strategies “to proactively identify students who are at risk of developing mental or behavioral health challenges, such as through universal screening and referral systems, and matches student needs to evidence-based interventions.”

Key Concepts within a MTSS

The following are key concepts for understanding an MTSS for school mental health:

  1. The supports and services within a MTSS are flexible, providing easy access to needed services at times and places that are convenient to families.
  2. MTSS tiers are layered, rather than distinct or separate. Students who are accessing higher levels of care continue to access any beneficial services and supports within lower tiers. Families and students can access services throughout the tiers, as needed, and do not need to try lower levels of care before progressing to a more intensive level of services.
  3. The MTSS is most effective when schools invest in Tier 1 universal supports. When we build a strong foundation of mental health promotion and prevention, we reduce the need for targeted and intensive services.
  4. Provide more intensive and targeted services and supports at the individual, group, or family level to address mental health concerns.
  5. Teams implementing the MTSS for mental health use dynamic, problem-solving approach to identify problems, analyze the problem, create an action plan, implement the plan, measure outcomes and adapt.
Texas School Mental Health Framework
Texas School Mental Health Framework(Texas School Mental Health)

School Mental Health Task Force

In addition to the Mental Health Plan, HB 906 mandated the TEA to develop a Mental Health Task Force “to study and evaluate mental health services that are funded by the state and provided at a school district or open-enrollment charter school directly to a student, parent or family member or employee.”

The Task Force is also directed to study training provided to an educator and the impact of mental health training and services. It will also be supported by an institution of higher education to collect and analyze data.

TEA is responsible to appoint the members of the Task Force and support the work and goals of the Task Force, as outlined in the legislation and as identified by the Task Force.

Membership includes counselors, school administrators, mental health foundation representatives, mental health providers, and parents of students who receive mental health services.

2021 Session

In the 87th Texas Legislative Session, a total of eight bills were passed, five in the Senate Bills and three in the House. The regular legislative session was held from January 12 to May 31, 2021, but lawmakers returned to Austin for three additional special sessions.

The bills passed focused on social-emotional learning, school counseling, and suicide prevention in education at the height of the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, the Legislature failed to dedicate funding for schools or the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to address learning loss rooted in the social-emotional effects of the pandemic or to prevent students whose behaviors are rooted in trauma from being pushed out of their classrooms,” the organization Texas Care for Children said in a statement.

HB 1525 was amended to allow school districts to use compensatory education funds to provide programs that build skills related to managing emotions, establishing and maintaining positive relationships, and making responsible decisions.

“Over the past several sessions, our team and partners have consistently called on legislators to address the important link between social-emotional development, mental health, and student learning — something that has become even more critical in the wake of the pandemic. We appreciate these legislators working to pass these bills and collaborating with our team and partners,” states TCC.

The Legislature passed SB 179, which gave school counselors more time to focus on counseling students and reduce time on administrative studies.

They also provided targeted increases in funding for programs to help connect students with mental health services in school or in the community through the Texas Child Access Through Telemedicine program and Communities in Schools.

While there were bills passed to help suicide prevention, as well as treatment programs, Texas Care for Children was not satisfied.

“The Legislature also failed to pass bills that aimed to improve access to youth and family peer support services that help keep children and youth with significant mental health concerns in their homes and communities and out of more restrictive and costly settings, like hospitals, foster care, and the justice system,” the organization said at the time.

2023 Session

The current 88th legislative session is still ongoing and the focus on mental health and school safety was magnified in the wake of the school massacre in Uvalde, Texas.

According to a recent Texas Tribune article, advocates have been urging lawmakers “to create a dedicated funding stream for mental health assistance in schools” as the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund from the pandemic era end.

According to the Texas Tribune, Texas schools received more than $19 billion and have been spending the money on everything from improving air ventilation systems to summer school to hiring more teachers.

“However, of the 714 school districts that participated in a statewide survey, over 73% reported using ESSER funds for mental health, primarily to help with rough transitions for students who faced numerous classroom disruptions because of the pandemic,” the Tribune article states.

Now districts are worried that when those funds expire at the end of 2024, little will be available to replace them.

The House Bill 3, authored by Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, is meant to address funding for school safety and mental health.

According to the Texas Tribune, the State Senate on May 21 gave final approval to a priority school safety bill made by Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, that includes “giving the state more power to compel school districts to create active-shooter plans, requires mental health training for certain employees and puts restrictions on those who carry a gun in school,” as reported by the Texas Tribune.

The bill would also require the TEA to develop standards for notifying parents of “violent activity” on campus and set up school safety review teams to conduct vulnerability assessments of all the school campuses once a year.

The bill would also allow each campus to get $15,000 for security upgrades on top of other allotments already included in both chambers’ budget proposals.

The last day of the current session in May 29.