Parents in Ellis County and across the nation are seeking answers on how to prevent school shootings. Locally, State Representative John Wray and Ellis County District Attorney Patrick Wilson are taking legislative steps to increase school safety and penalties for school shooters.
When Wilson reviewed potential charges for the 16-year-old Italy High School shooter, he found that since the victim was 15 years old, the juvenile could — at most — be charged with a second-degree felony.
“Had the assailant killed anyone, shot a public servant such as a teacher or shot anyone under the age of 15, he would likely be facing a first-degree felony, which carries a sentence of five to 99 years in a correctional facility,” Wilson explained. “We need to close this hole in the law and punish those guilty of school violence to the fullest extent possible.”
Wilson and Wray are drafting legislation for the uniformly punish anyone who commits an act of violence with a firearm on a primary or secondary school campus.
Wray will offer the bill in January 2019 and hopes to have it pass during the 86th Texas Legislature. Wray said he “feels good about it.”
Secondly, Wilson and Wray are in the midst of planning a forum that will include district leaders and law enforcement agencies. Together they want to collaborate and articulate what the issues are and understand each other’s obligations and limitations.
Wilson said he has spoken with Italy ISD Superintendent Lee Joffre and brainstormed the question, “If schools and law enforcement have done everything in their power, and a shooting still occurs, is there something else that can be done to prevent this?”
Wilson related how districts handle student behavior to a pendulum swinging. He said a generation ago there was a zero-tolerance policy for specific destructive behaviors on campus. But district leaders say there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer.
“Has maybe the pendulum swung back too far away? We have to embrace everybody no matter what when taking affirmative action. Maybe we will figure out where the pendulum is right now,” Wilson noted.
Wilson also wants to examine discipline resources in the schools to see if there's a need to implement stronger tools.
“Maybe it’s a collaborative approach. Maybe there needs to be greater information sharing between various institutions — law enforcement, schools and maybe mental health,” Wilson suggested.
“There are a lot of privacy obligations imposed upon school districts and health providers," Wilson added. "Maybe those privacy restrictions need to be lifted just a little bit to facilitate greater communication with these various institutions."
Wray mentioned he is interested to hear why districts are taking particular approaches to school security with school resource officers (SRO), district police departments or having zero police presence on campuses.
“What I would like to hear from our local [education] folks is if they feel they can clearly identify somebody that’s a threat or makes them uncomfortable — or if they feel they should further report it to some chain of command. Are they empowered to do that,” Wray questioned.
He wants to know if any impediments to Texas law prevent districts with certain approaches, or if they feel there’s an easier way to implement school safety. He also wants to figure out if funding for security is an issue for districts.
Wilson recalled how questions were raised about law enforcement after the Florida shooting. People thought law enforcement could have done more at a local and federal level. But from a law enforcement perspective, Wilson said authorities couldn’t act until after a crime is committed. He wants to distinguish the gap in this grey area.
“We are free to express certain thoughts and ideas within the confines of the law. So that becomes very difficult circumstance to navigate in a free society,” Wilson explained.
The topics Wilson and Wray brought up are ideas they want to explore along with district leaders and law enforcement agencies. Wilson mentioned that some of the answers to these questions are complex but need to be discussed before more legislation is drafted.
In a press release, Wray and Patrick closed by stating, “These are the first steps toward preventing and alleviating threats and violence from touching the lives of our students, teachers, and administrators. We are opening a dialogue in Ellis County and the state of Texas to facilitate change. Ultimately, we cannot forget all those affected by these horrific tragedies. Our hearts are heavy for all the lives cut far too short, and for their families, friends, and classmates.”