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Spring Branch ISD to discuss a book ban today

I don’t post stuff like this often – it’s not really my remit, and timeliness usually works against me – but this one really annoyed me, so here it is. Via Facebook:

PLEASE CONSIDER SPEAKING ON TUESDAY @ 1PM! (If you cannot make Tuesday, consider speaking to the topic at tonight’s board meeting instead)

This is the first book complaint that has been elevated to a level-3 for consideration under our new school board. This book complaint was reviewed by a committee of 7 (1 middle school librarian, 1 middle school teacher, 1 high school librarian, 1 high school teacher, 1 secondary campus administrator, 1 parent that has both a middle & high school students, and 1 district admin. The committee voted unanimously that the age recommendation and content were appropriate and recommended retaining the book at SBISD libraries in both middle and high school.

Level 2 Review: Denise Thompson Bell appealed the decision made by the reconsideration committee so the book was escalated for review by upper administration. Dr. Kristin Craft reviewed the comments and work of the review committee and upheld the decision that the content and age recommendation were appropriate and retained the book in SBISD libraries.

Denise Thompson Bell has since appealed the decision again, escalating this to a level 3 complaint to be heard by the board for final decision. There will be a public comment period and I ask that if you can participate at all, that would be incredibly helpful!

We know that the right to have access to books that are meaningful to a student support literacy efforts and have shown increased rates of reading. Being able to read books on different subject matters refines a student’s critical thinking skills. Parents have always had the right to restrict the reading of their own children, but this personal parenting choice should not be imposed upon the general public.

In most cases, school board meetings should be restricted to those who live in district. In this case, however, it would be beneficial for the board to hear why and how this book is important literature that should remain available to our students, regardless of the district residency of the speaker. If you or anyone you know have been affected by the more subtle aspects of racism that are described in the book, either as the target of racism, or as an individual who has actively worked to educate themselves on anti-racism, then there is benefit to you speaking up. The board needs to know that limiting books on racism and other helpful topics will cause students to feel alienated from their own school district, which will have a deleterious effect on their education and mental well being.

Speakers will need to arrive at 12:30 in order to fill out paperwork and have it submitted PRIOR TO 1pm. Public comment opportunity will be at the beginning of the meeting. Then, the board will sit with their attorney and hear the grievance as presented by Denise Thompson Bell and deliberate. After deliberation, and hopefully consideration of public comment, the decision will be made to either retain the book in SBISD libraries as has been recommended by the specialists that review books and the specialists in our district, place the book on their newly enacted restricted shelf, or ban the book from district libraries altogether.

Spread the word, far and wide! We need speakers to stand up. This will not stop at one book on racism. A book complaint for a book that has a wedding with two brides has already been escalated to level 2, and likely will be appealed again (as John Perez requested). This affects all people, whether or not they have experienced any form of bigotry or not.

I have included information regarding the board meeting in the pics attached, as well as supporting documentation of the complaint and appeal process. Documents acquired via public information request. Hope to see you then!

That’s from a closed Facebook group, so I’m omitting the link since many of you would not be able to see it anyway. The book is called The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person. Here are the pictures mentioned, which include some information about the meeting:

Here’s the public notice and agenda for this meeting; general info about SBISD meetings is here. I said this annoyed me because SBISD normally holds meetings at 6 PM, a time when many working people can attend. This one is for 1 PM, in the middle of many people’s work days, and it was called on Friday afternoon for this Tuesday, so there was very little time for anyone to even hear about it. You probably can’t be there, if you even see this in time, but if you do and you can, you can show up and push back. Good luck to those who do.

Pushing the panic button

This feels like security theater to me, but it’s what passes for progress these days.

All school districts in Montgomery County will soon be using panic alert technology during emergencies, including an active shooter situation, a security measure Texas education officials have proposed to in the wake of the deadly Robb Elementary shooting in Uvalde.

Conroe, Willis, Magnolia, New Caney, Montgomery and Splendora school districts will roll out the Rave Panic Button that will allow users to summon police, medical or fire personnel with the touch of one button on their cell phone.

The Montgomery County Emergency Communication District is partnering with the school districts to fund part of the $170,000 cost for three years.

Andrea Shepard, associate director at the emergency district, said the technology allows a faculty or staff member to push a button for help in an emergency and immediately be connected with 911 dispatchers. The app alerts other faculty and staff on the campus of the threat as well.

“The safety and wellbeing of our students and staff is and will always be our No. 1 priority,” Shepard said. “Our school community should be focused on learning, not worrying about their safety.

[…]

The partnership comes after the Texas Education Agency released more details in November regarding panic button technology to beef up school safety after the shooting deaths of 19 children and two adults in May at Robb Elementary.

Currently, districts in 46 states are using the panic button technology, including several in Texas.

I can understand why schools and school districts find this kind of solution appealing. It feels like you’re doing something, which in an environment where not much is in your control has to provide some comfort. It’s not clear to me what the practical advantage of using this app is over just calling 911, especially if you still have to describe the reason for pushing the button. I’m sure some academic is currently collecting data to try to find the effect of one of these apps – there are several options, apparently, with Montgomery schools choosing a product called Rave – so we’ll eventually see a study or two to tell us. The bigger issue – well, one of them, since the root cause problem is only mentioned at the end of this story – is what happens once the button is pushed.

Uvalde had a similar panic system in place when the gunfire erupted in May. State Sen. Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio) told KHOU that panic buttons work to a degree but won’t solve the gun violence in schools.

“It did work to a certain degree. It warned people and law enforcement there was an intruder,” said Gutierrez, whose districts represents the Uvalde area.

He said the technologies are just a band-aid to the real problem.

“There are remedies on both sides of the aisle but they are not really addressing the real core of the problem, which is we are putting assault rifles in the hands of 18-year-olds,” said Gutierrez.

Calling law enforcement in a more efficient manner is only an advantage if law enforcement’s response is up to the challenge. The example from Uvalde is not promising. Maybe Montgomery County is up to the task. I’m sure Uvalde would have said they were up to it as well, and we haven’t even mentioned DPS and their manifest failures. I mean, I dunno, maybe putting in some effort on the prevention part of the equation might be worthwhile? Just a thought.

Uvalde parents will take their fight to the Lege

They’re not going to get what they want and they know it, but they’re still going to fight. I have so much respect for them.

More than seven months after a teenage gunman killed 21 people at Robb Elementary School, the speaker of the Texas House was in Uvalde for a private meeting with relatives of the victims.

Dade Phelan had never met them. After the introductions in a room at the local community college, a family member started with the group’s main question: Will the Legislature raise the minimum age to purchase an assault-style weapon from 18 to 21?

Phelan was up front with them: No.

The House doesn’t have the votes, he said. And no, he doesn’t personally support it, either.

The tense discussion on Jan. 4 lasted just shy of an hour and a half, and Phelan spent most of it discussing potential mental health legislation, participants said. The families left discouraged, unsure of their next steps in a state where Republicans, most of whom oppose any firearm restrictions, control the Legislature.

It marked an awkward transition for the Uvalde activists, who have spent months advocating for gun control laws. They felt welcomed and heard on lobbying trips to Washington, D.C., and several of them campaigned heartily for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke, who lost his challenge to Gov. Greg Abbott on Nov. 8.

Phelan was one of the few lawmakers to address the Uvalde shooting when the legislative session began Tuesday, promising “sensible, meaningful change.” Republican leaders have focused on bolstering mental health resources and improving the physical defenses of schools — both of which have bipartisan support as the session starts.

But the prospects for any gun regulations in Texas are dim, leaving the Uvalde families convinced that the next mass shooting is only a question of time.

“I just feel like we’re in new territory,” said Kim Rubio, who lost her 10-year-old daughter, Lexi, at Robb Elementary School. “When this happened, there was a lot of talk at the federal level about making changes, so we really hit the ground running toward that. Now, we’re back at square one.”

It’s kind of painful, but you can read the rest. The best the Uvalde parents can hope for is a state ban on straw-person sales, which is already a federal crime. Beyond that, it’s the usual bunkum about guns not being the problem and there being nothing we could do to stop the next school shooter even if guns were the problem, some promises to increase security at schools, and some vague and meaningless words about mental health. The school security measures have some value, and I’d be all right with them for the most part if they were part of a larger deal that included real gun reform, but they’re not. As these parents know all too well, it’s just a matter of time before some other group of parents are in the same unfathomable position they’re in now. They’re trying to do something about that, but they really can’t, not right now. This isn’t a lobbying or legislating matter, it’s a political and electoral one. That’s a bigger and more long-term problem. I wish them all the best anyway.

Department of Education investigating removal of LGBTQ books from Texas school library

Good.

The U.S. Education Department’s civil rights enforcement arm has launched an investigation into a North Texas school district whose superintendent was secretly recorded ordering librarians to remove LGBTQ-themed library books.

Education and legal experts say the federal probe of the Granbury Independent School District — which stemmed from a complaint by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and reporting by NBC NewsProPublica and The Texas Tribune — appears to be the first such investigation explicitly tied to the nationwide movement to ban school library books dealing with sexuality and gender.

The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights notified Granbury school officials on Dec. 6 that it had opened the investigation following a July complaint by the ACLU, which accused the district of violating a federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender. The ACLU complaint was based largely on an investigation published in March by NBC News, ProPublica and the Tribune that revealed that Granbury’s superintendent, Jeremy Glenn, instructed librarians to remove books dealing with sexual orientation and people who are transgender.

“I acknowledge that there are men that think they’re women and there are women that think they’re men,” Glenn told librarians in January, according to a leaked recording of the meeting obtained, verified and published exclusively by the news outlets. “I don’t have any issues with what people want to believe, but there’s no place for it in our libraries.”

Later in the meeting, Glenn clarified that he was specifically focused on removing books geared toward queer students: “It’s the transgender, LGBTQ and the sex — sexuality — in books,” he said, according to the recording.

The comments, combined with the district’s subsequent decision to remove dozens of library books pending a review, fostered a “pervasively hostile” environment for LGBTQ students, the ACLU wrote in its complaint. Chloe Kempf, an ACLU attorney, said the Education Department’s decision to open the investigation into Granbury ISD signals that the agency is concerned about what she described as “a wave” of anti-LGBTQ policies and book removals nationally.

“In this case it was made very clear, because the superintendent kind of said the quiet part out loud,” Kempf said in an interview. “It’s pretty clear that that kind of motivation is animating a lot of these policies nationwide.”

An Education Department spokesperson confirmed the investigation and said it was related to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits schools from discriminating on the basis of sex, gender and sexual orientation. The Office for Civil Rights doesn’t comment on pending investigations, the spokesperson said.

If the investigation confirms violations of students’ rights in Granbury schools, the agency can require the district to make policy changes and submit to federal monitoring.

[…]

Education and legal experts said the Education Department’s decision to open an investigation in Granbury is significant because it sets up a test of a somewhat novel legal argument by the ACLU: the idea that book removals themselves can create a hostile environment for certain classes of students.

“It’s certainly the first investigation I’ve seen by the agency testing that argument in this way,” said W. Scott Lewis, a managing partner at TNG, a consulting firm that advises school districts on complying with federal civil rights laws.

The ACLU of Texas made similar legal arguments in another civil rights complaint filed last month against the Keller Independent School District in North Texas in response to a policy banning any books that mention “gender fluidity.” The Education Department has yet to decide whether to open an investigation in Keller, Kempf said.

Jonathan Friedman, the director of free expression and education at the nonprofit PEN America, which has tracked thousands of school book bans since last year, said the same legal argument could be made in districts across the country where parents, school board members and administrators have expressed anti-LGBTQ motivations.

“It’s not uncommon to see people explicitly saying that they want to remove LGBTQ books because they believe they are indoctrinating students,” said Friedman, who cited a case in Florida in which a teacher called for the removal of a children’s picture book about two male penguins because, she said, it promoted the “LGBTQ agenda.”

Granbury isn’t the only North Texas school district facing federal scrutiny.

The Office for Civil Rights over the past year has opened five investigations into allegations of discrimination at the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake, a wealthy Fort Worth suburb that has been at the center of the national political fight over the ways schools address racism, gender and sexuality. If the Education Department finds Carroll students’ rights have been violated, experts said, the federal agency could require the district to implement the same types of diversity and inclusion training programs that conservative activists have fought to block in Southlake.

Part of the problem here is that Granbury ISD just elected a couple of self-righteous censors to its Board of Trustees, which makes this a bigger political issue. Maybe the voters there will get tired of this fight, or at least of the expense of fighting it, and start to fix their mistakes in the next election. That’s far from a guarantee, of course – it could easily get worse instead. Ultimately, changing hearts and minds is the best long-term solution, but in the meantime doing whatever it takes to protect the rights of the marginalized kids is paramount.

I’m glad to see this, and I absolutely hope these investigations will happen in the other named districts and more, but I fear that the penalties that the DOE is able to impose will be inadequate. Part of that problem is that often the biggest stick that the feds can wield is the threat of withholding funding, but doing that ultimately just hurts the people who most need the help, and doesn’t really affect the politicians in question. There are already plenty of local and state officials who are happy to defy the feds on all kinds of civil rights matters, which they can do because they have voter support and no fear of the potential consequences. The days when officials could be shamed into compliance, or at least into reverting to normative behavior, are over. We need to have a conversation about better and more effective ways to get the modern day segregationists to comply with federal law.

Senate committee makes small Uvalde recommendations

Par for the course.

A special Texas Senate committee that convened in the wake of the Uvalde school shooting made a series of policy recommendations Wednesday regarding school and gun safety, mental health, social media and police training.

In an 88-page report, the Special Committee to Protect All Texans acknowledged “more must be done to ensure the safety of Texas school children” in the wake of the May massacre, which killed 19 students and two teachers. The report was based in part on two days of testimony from police, mental health and education professionals, and gun safety advocates in June.

The committee made a single recommendation related to guns: Make purchasing a gun for someone who is barred from owning one a state-level felony. Straw purchases of firearms — when a person stands in to buy a gun for someone who is prohibited from having one — are illegal under federal law, though the committee expressed concern that U.S. attorneys too seldom prosecute offenders.

Gov. Greg Abbott in 2019 recommended banning straw purchases under state law in a report his office produced after the El Paso Walmart mass shooting. But the Legislature failed to pass it.

Such a law would not have prevented the Uvalde shooter from purchasing guns. He legally purchased two semiautomatic rifles in the days before the shooting.

On school safety, the committee proposed the creation of review teams to conduct on-site vulnerability assessments of school campuses and share the results with school leaders. It also suggested additional funding for grants to improve security at individual campuses based on needs.

It called for adding training centers for the school marshal program, through which teachers and staff can become certified to carry guns on campus. Since the program debuted in 2013, just 84 of the state’s more than 1,200 districts have joined.

On mental health care, the committee recommended expanding access to the state’s telemedicine system for mental health to all school districts within a “reasonable time frame.” It also implored lawmakers to look for ways to increase the number of mental health professionals to support this expansion, such as allowing practitioners to volunteer; offering loan repayment benefits for professionals, especially in rural areas; offering paid fellowship and internships; and streamlining licensure requirements.

There are more recommendations, but none that will make you say “yeah, that will definitely help”. Certainly, there’s nothing to try to keep high-risk people from getting guns, and nothing to prevent people under the age of 21 from buying them. Most of these recommendations are reactive in nature; one of the few that are proactive is the vulnerability assessment plan, which will expose problems that may or may not be able to be remediated. Why would we expect anything different? Oh, and as a reminder, the single biggest and most effective thing the state of Texas could do to improve access mental health care is to expand Medicaid. Yeah, yeah, I know. Reform Austin has more.

More on the limits of social media monitoring for school violence prevention

Some good stuff from the DMN.

When Social Sentinel representatives pitched their service to Florida’s Gulf Coast State College in 2018, they billed it as an innovative way to find threats of suicides and shootings posted online. But for the next two years, the service found nothing dangerous.

One tweet notified the school about a nearby fishing tournament: “Check out the picture of some of the prizes you can win – like the spear fishing gun.”

Another quoted the lyrics from a hit pop song from 2010: “Can we pretend that airplanes in the night sky are like shooting stars? I could really use a wish right now.”

As police and administrators fielded a flood of alerts about posts that seemed to pose no threat, the company told the school in emails that it had eliminated more than half of all irrelevant alerts. Months later, they said the number had decreased by 80%. By January 2019, the company told schools its service flagged 90% fewer irrelevant posts.

But at Gulf Coast, the problem continued.

One alert from March 2019 read, “Hamburger Helper only works if the hamburger is ready to accept that it needs help.”

“Nothing ever came up there that was actionable on our end,” David Thomasee, the executive director of operations at Gulf Coast, said in an interview earlier this year. The college stopped using the service in April 2021.

Gulf Coast was not the only college inundated with irrelevant alerts. Officials from 12 other colleges raised concerns about the performance of Social Sentinel in interviews and emails obtained by The Dallas Morning News and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Only two of the 13, North Central Texas College and the University of W Connecticut, still use the service.

As schools and universities confront a worsening mental health crisis and an epidemic of mass shootings, Social Sentinel offers an attractive and low-cost way to keep students safe. But experts say the service also raises questions about whether the potential benefits are worth the tradeoffs on privacy.

Records show Social Sentinel has been used by at least 38 colleges in the past seven years, including four in North Texas. The total number is likely far higher — The company’s co-founder wrote in an email that hundreds of colleges in 36 states used Social Sentinel.

The News also analyzed more than 4,200 posts flagged by the service to four colleges from November 2015 to March 2019. None seem to contain any imminent, serious threat of violence or self-harm, according to a News
analysis, which included all of the posts obtained through public records requests.

Some schools contacted by The News said the service alerted them to students struggling with mental health issues. Those potential success stories were outweighed by complaints that the service flagged too many irrelevant tweets, interviews and emails between officials show. None of the schools could point to a student whose life was saved because of the service.

[…]

For one former Social Sentinel employee, it only took three days before they had serious doubts about the effectiveness of the service.

The worker estimated that 99.9% of the flagged posts sent to clients were not threatening. The service often crashed because it flagged too many posts. At least 40% of clients dropped the service every year, the employee said.

Over the course of several months, the employee repeatedly raised concerns with supervisors and fellow employees about flaws in the system, but those complaints were often ignored, the worker said.

The employee, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, said problems with the service were an open secret at the company, and described it as “snake oil” and “smoke and mirrors.”

The News also contacted more than two dozen other former company employees, who either did not respond or said they had signed nondisclosure agreements preventing them from speaking publicly about their time at the company.

At the University of Texas at Dallas, which started using the service in 2018, campus police officers in charge of the service also grew increasingly skeptical of its performance, emails obtained through a records request show.

“Does the company have any data (not anecdotal) to show its success rate in mitigating harm or disaster through its alert system?” UT Dallas Police Lieutenant Adam Perry asked his chief in an email obtained by The News. The chief forwarded the email to a company employee who didn’t answer the question.

Perry said that while the school used the service, the technology never alerted police to legitimate threats of suicide or shootings.

“I think in concept, it’s not a bad program,” Perry said. “I just think they need to work on distinguishing what a real threat is.” UT Dallas ended its use of the service last year.

Ed Reynolds, police chief at the University of North Texas, defended the system, but also estimated that “99.9 percent (of the alerts) were messages we didn’t need to do anything with.” After using the service for about three years, UNT ended its contract with the company in November 2018.

As noted before, the Uvalde school district was among the ISDs in Texas that have used Social Sentinel. Putting my cybersecurity hat on for a minute, there are similar services in that space that do provide good value, but they have been around longer, there’s far more data on cyber threats, and it’s much easier to configure alerts for these services to very specific things, which greatly reduces the noise factor. I do think a service like this could be useful, but what we have now is not mature enough. More data and more analysis to help eliminate likely false positives before they show up in a customer’s alert feed are needed. Even with that, it’s still likely to be noisy and to require fulltime human analysis to get value out of it. For now, the best use of this is probably for academics. After they’ve had some time with it, then school districts and colleges might make use of it.

HISD to get funding for electric school buses

Some good news.

Houston Independent School District is hopping on the city’s net-zero carbon emissions bus, so to speak, thanks to more than $6.2 million in funding from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The funds are part of the EPA’s Clean School Bus Program Fiscal Year 2022 rebate competition, which will award nearly $51 million in funds from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to Texas school districts, and $965 million in total to districts around the country.

Houston’s $6.2 million will go toward 25 new school buses, according to a statement from the EPA. Fifteen of the vehicles will be brand-new electric buses.

[…]

HISD must now submit Payment Request Forms with purchase orders that shows the district has ordered the new buses and eligible infrastructure.

The district is among 13 Texas school districts to receive funding. Dallas ISD, the second largest school district in the state behind HISD, was awarded roughly $7.6 million. Killeen ISD and Socorro ISD received the largest sums among the districts, totaling nearly $9.9 million in funding each.

The first – and last – time I blogged about electric school buses was a decade ago. It’s fair to say this has been a long time coming. There will be another billion dollars in federal funds available for applicants next year as well, so hopefully HISD can bump up that number. Metro has used a different pot of money to get their own electric buses. The more, the better.

If all we ever do are defensive measures, we’ll never make any progress

I’m not saying we shouldn’t do these things, although some of them definitely should be questioned. I am saying we can’t just do things like these.

The Texas Education Agency announced Thursday a plethora of proposals that would, among other changes, require public schools to install silent panic alarms and automatic locks on exterior doors.

Other proposals include inspecting doors on a weekly basis to make sure they lock and can be opened from the outside only with a key. Two-way emergency radios would also have to be tested regularly. Schools would need to add some sort of vestibules so visitors can wait before being let in, and all ground-level windows would have to be made with bulletproof glass.

These proposed requirements come about five months after a gunman killed 21 people, including 19 children, at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. The gunman entered a door that had been closed by a teacher, but the automatic lock failed.

If approved, schools would have to start putting in place these safety measures starting in 2023. Before the end of this year, the education department will collect public comments on the proposed rules.

The state has allocated $400 million for increased safety measures that will be disbursed to districts. In the coming weeks, the education department will make a grant application available to districts. Districts will receive those grants based on enrollment, while smaller, rural schools will receive the minimum $200,000.

Proposing these safety measures is the latest action the state has taken to secure schools in the wake of the Uvalde shooting. In June, the education department announced that it would check all the locks on exterior doors prior to the start of the 2022-2023 school year and review every district’s school safety plans.

[…]

As Texas moves forward with different safety measures, experts have said there is no indication that beefing up security in schools has prevented violence. Rather, they can can be detrimental to children, especially Black and Hispanic children. Black students are overrepresented in all types of disciplinary referrals and are more likely to have their behavior addressed by school police officers than their white peers.

School districts also expressed concerns about the cost, because the Lege is famous for under-appropriating funds for things it mandates, and the ability to get this done by the deadline since every other district will be scrambling to do the same and there will be some competition for resources. I share the concern about how effective any of this is – remember that a lot of school shooters are current or former students at the schools in question and can often get through security checkpoints because of that – and of the negative effects on the children at the schools. We’re still dancing around the questions of law enforcement’s response to mass shooting incidents at schools, as certain key players continue to evade accountability. And we can’t even talk about restricting gun sales to people over the age of 21, for reasons that make no sense. There’s an extremely limited range of “solutions” to this problem that are politically acceptable to Republicans, and as long as they remain in power those are the only “solutions” we’re going to get, whether they have any effect or not.

More on hoax school shooter reports

I don’t know when this ends, but I continue to be worried that they will cause a major problem eventually.

This year has seen a significant number of hoax calls across the country. In the three weeks between mid-September and early October, according to an NPR analysis, local news reports documented 113 false calls across the country. Experts say this increase isn’t surprising given that most school shootings inspire copycats to call in false reports of shootings to law enforcement.

The source of these fake threats remains largely unknown. Law enforcement said some originated from local agitators, while others appeared to come from as far away as Ethiopia, NPR reported.

Regardless of the source, Texas law enforcement agencies say all threats are treated as credible until an investigation proves otherwise. But before threats are deemed hoaxes, law enforcement and parents must grapple with the very real fear that another mass shooting could be underway.

The families with children at Robb Elementary School, where a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers, also clashed with police outside the building on the day of the tragedy. Law enforcement took over an hour to confront the shooter, despite the fact that some officers knew children were calling 911 from the classrooms. Police outside the building prevented parents from entering the school, even putting some parents in handcuffs.

Prior to the shooting in Uvalde, the chaotic scene outside of Jefferson High School last month wasn’t the norm, said Deputy Chief David Hightower with the San Antonio Police Department.

“Now we see an increase in parents wanting to sort of take matters into their own hands in order to retrieve their children,” Hightower said.

He said the protocols for responding to active-shooter threats have not changed since the Uvalde shooting, but the heightened anxiety of parents and officers reflects the trauma still resonating across Texas. As a result of elevated fears, Hightower said there have been more officers assigned to communicating with parents.

One of the most recent examples of false active shooter threats in Texas was on Monday, when there was a false active-shooter call at Central Catholic High School in San Antonio. Police evacuated the roughly 500 students from the campus in response. After the lockdown was lifted, school officials said they would make counseling available for its students.

“Events like this shake everyone to the core,” said Kathy Martinez-Prather, the director of the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University. “It is definitely a situation that is at the top of mind of parents right now.”

Martinez-Prather added students are sharing in the anxiety, which she sees as an opportunity to teach schools about how to remain vigilant. Communicating with teachers and students about how to identify potential threats or concerning behavior is one area Martinez-Prather said schools can target to improve school safety. She also pointed to a guide for parents that details key components of school safety as another communication tool.

See here for some background. I couldn’t get all the ay through that story about the 911 calls from Robb Elementary, it was too upsetting. As I said before, when one of these happened at Heights High School, I think the first job is for law enforcement to make extra sure they not only know what their response procedures are but also that they know how they will operate with other agencies that arrive – at HHS, there was HPD, the Sheriff, various Constables, and I’m sure HISD’s police force in response – and who is in charge. And they very much need to communicate that to the parents, who have a justifiable fear following the tragedy at Robb that they can’t simply rely on law enforcement. That’s a problem in itself, and one of many other things that our state leadership has failed to address after this massacre. It’s on the locals in their absence, and I hope they realize that.

It’s really tough on LGBTQ students right now

Not a surprise, unfortunately.

Schools remain a hostile place for LGBTQ students, according to a new report from the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, which found a decline in access to resources, books and supportive clubs for those students.

Nearly 70% of LGBTQ students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, according to the biennial report released last week. More than 78% said they avoided school functions or extracurricular activities because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable.

The findings come from the 2021 National School Climate Survey, which the organization has conducted every other year since 1999, offering a look into the unique experiences of LGBTQ students at schools across the nation and pointing to possible improvements.

“This year’s report shows we must make additional progress before LGBTQ+ youth are at minimum safe in schools where they can thrive and reach their full potential,” said Aaron Ridings, deputy executive director for public policy and research. “The attacks on LGBTQ+ youth from anti-LGBTQ+ extremists continue to create a chilling effect that threatens the wellbeing of gay and transgender youth across the country. We need leaders in states across the country who will uphold basic civil and education rights and let educators teach and students learn.”

Conditions have improved for LGBTQ students over the past two decades, according to the organization, though improvement has recently stagnated and researchers found few positive changes this year.

The organization that authored the report said it recommended that schools increase student access to appropriate and accurate LGBTQ resources, support student clubs, provide professional development to school staff, ensure that policies do not discriminate against LGBTQ students and create policies that ban harassment or bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

You can read the report, but honestly I think we have a pretty good idea. Lots of states, including but hardly limited to Texas, have been pushing all kinds of homophobic and transphobic policies, from curriculum changes to book banning to just out and out hateful rhetoric. The current election threatens to make things worse. What did you expect? Sure, things are better now than they were in the past, but there’s no guarantee that will continue. We have a lot of work to do.

Math test scores took a hit during the pandemic

The decline started before the pandemic, but kept on going from there.

Students in Houston and across the nation showed “appalling and unacceptable” declines on the 2022 Nation’s Report Card, adding to mounting evidence that the pandemic impacted young people already facing academic and mental health challenges.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said low-performing students’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress were faltering even before the pandemic and now all performance levels are showing sharp declines. The nation must take swift action and invest more in education to reverse these troubling trends, he said.

“It’s heartbreaking, and it’s horrible,” Cardona said. “It’s an urgent call of action. We must raise the bar in education.”

The U.S. Department of Education administers the NAEP every other year to fourth- and eighth-graders across the country. Comparisons can be made among states, as well as among 27 of the country’s largest school districts. Desegregated results from Houston, Austin, Dallas, and Fort Worth ISDs are available, as are state totals. Score range from 0 to 500.

Results for Houston ISD show:

  • In math, the number of fourth-grade students performing “below basic” on the math NAEP increased 14 percentage points to 37 percent since 2019. On average, Houston ISD fourth-graders scored a 226, compared to 235 in 2019. The national average this year fell to 227.
  • The average score of a white fourth-grader in HISD on the math test was a 260, compared to a 212 for Black students and a 223 for Hispanic students. Additionally, 22 percent of white fourth-graders reached the “advanced” benchmarks of the math test, compared to 2 percent of Black and Hispanic students.
  • About 44 percent of eighth-graders in Houston ISD performed “below basic” on the reading NAEP, an increase from 41 percent in 2019. Their average score was 247, falling 2 points lower than 2019 scores and 8 points lower than the national average. White students averaged a 275, while Black students averaged 236 and Hispanics 244.
  • Additionally, only 4 percent of white eighth-graders in Houston ISD reached the “advanced” benchmark on the reading test.

Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II said support services will be key to improving scores.

“While these challenges are not unique to HISD, providing students and families with the necessary academic and non-academic supports as detailed in our community driven five-year strategic plan, will address many of these needs,” House said in a statement. “We are confident that these investments in our students such as requiring a librarian, counselor or social worker, and supporting our schools with the highest need through our RISE program, will ensure a more equitable, targeted approach increasing positive academic outcomes.”

The first STAAR results post-pandemic weren’t so bad, but there was definitely an impact on poorer students. I feel reasonably confident that we can make up the lost ground, but what we can’t ever get back is those years of those kids’ lives. At a certain point, the effect of the learning loss has real long-term negative effects. That’s a problem that won’t go away.

One more thing:

There’s more to the thread, but you get the idea. Don’t let people go jumping to conclusions around you. The Trib and Texas Public Radio have more.

Reading and writing and DNA kits…

I dunno, man. I just don’t know.

Texas public school systems are set to distribute DNA and fingerprint identification kits for K-8 students to parents who wish to participate.

The state Legislature passed a law in spring 2021 requiring the Texas Education Agency to give inkless in-home fingerprint and DNA identification cards to each public school system in Texas. The kits will be made available at each primary-level campus. The cards are intended to be kept by guardians who can give them to law enforcement in order to potentially help find missing or trafficked children.

In the Houston Independent School District, the largest in the state, kit distribution will begin this week.

“Caregivers are under no obligation to use the kits, but they must be informed by your institution that the available kits will allow them to have a set of their child’s fingerprints and DNA in that they can turn over to law enforcement in case of an emergency,” reads a letter to recently sent to all HISD principals.

Other districts, such as Clear Creek ISD, have already begun to notify parents that the kits are available.

Some families have found the program chilling, considering that police asked parents waiting to find out if their children were slaughtered at Robb Elementary on May 24 to provide DNA samples to help identify the dead.

“When you put it in the light of Uvalde, it’s one of the most macabre things you could think about,” said Bob Sanborn, president of the nonprofit Children at Risk.

Kenneth S. Trump, a national school security consultant, said there may be a value in providing the kits to parents, but said the proximity and timing of the distribution may ring alarm bells for parents and children still reeling from the news of Uvalde.

“On one hand, I see the value in saying, ‘Here’s a tool you can have in case of potential threats,’ ” he said. “But I think we need to be very cautious about crossing the line of do no harm to the point where we are creating more anxiety.”

Messaging from administrators should be clear that the kits are intended to be an extra available resource for parents and guardians in case their children go missing, Trump said.

“Even if it’s about human trafficking or other risks, we need to communicate what is the probability of these events so it’s not creating fear and anxiety suggesting kids are in imminent danger in school,” he said.

I don’t really have much to add to what Messrs. Sanborn and Trump said. I get the reasoning behind that law. It makes sense, though I’d have a lot of questions about data privacy if either of my kids were still in elementary school and could receive one of those kits. But man, thinking about it at all is depressing as hell. I don’t know what else to say.

There’s a wave of hoax school shooting reports around the country

Weird and scary.

When Emmi Conley first heard in September about a rash of hoax calls reporting active shooters in schools, she dismissed it. Conley, an extremism researcher who studies groups and people behind public displays of violence, said she found no indication that these calls were connected to fringe online spaces where these pranks often originate.

But as the number of these reports swelled over time, Conley said she began to discern some very strange patterns — including the possibility that the calls may have come from overseas, and perhaps specifically from Africa.

“The scale and the timeline of the events is highly, highly unusual,” she said. “The calls are consistent. They are coordinated. They are grouped state-by-state and district-by-district, and they’re also sustained. So somebody is putting significant effort to keep these going.”

As Conley began digging further, more questions emerged. Elements of these calls were notably different than what she has typically seen in school-based threats. Nobody has taken credit for these calls, even as they stretched over several weeks, and the technological planning and research behind the calls betrayed a level of sophistication not typically seen.

In a statement, the FBI has said it is aware of the incidents, but has “no information to indicate a specific and credible threat.”

The agency said it is working with law enforcement at every level to investigate the cases. But some news reports, including in Minnesota and Louisiana, have cited local authorities who said the calls may be originating in Africa or, specifically, Ethiopia. The FBI would not comment on this detail.

For Conley, particulars around these calls suggest that the people or person behind them are, indeed, overseas.

“Our big questions now are whose attention are they after?” she said. “Is it the public? Law enforcement? Media? Something else? And why they’re after it?”

The story notes that schools in multiple states have been receiving bomb threat calls since March, and in five states there was more than one such call on the same day in April. This is a form of “swatting”, which is a term that refers to calls that falsely report an act of violence in progress or about to occur. Such calls have themselves sometimes resulted in violence as part of the police response. I’ve written about some recent local examples of similar hoax reports, and while Texas is not mentioned in that NPR story, there’s no reason to think whoever is behind this couldn’t target our state as well. As I said before, this is a grim reminder to school districts and police forces that they need to be thinking about this kind of situation and make sure they have plans in place to respond. Unfortunately, it looks like they need to have a plan in place for dealing with false alarms as well.

Uvalde school district suspends its entire police force

Um, wow.

Uvalde school officials on Friday suspended all of the district police department’s activities following the firing of a recently hired district officer who was revealed to have been among the first state troopers to respond to the deadly school shooting in May.

Lt. Miguel Hernandez and Ken Mueller were placed on leave, and other officers employed with the department will fill other roles in the district, according to a Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District press release issued Friday. Mueller decided to retire, the release said.

The release did not specify why Hernandez and Mueller were placed on leave. A district spokesperson did not immediately return phone and email messages.

The decision arrived 10 days after protesters set up at the UCISD administrative building to demand the removal of officers from campus grounds until investigations into the police department’s response to the shooting are complete.

The district said decisions regarding the future of the department had been pending the results of two investigations, but it suspended the department’s activities Friday citing “recent developments that have uncovered additional concerns with department operations.”

[…]

Upon suspending the police department, the district asked DPS for extra troopers for campus and extra-curricular activities, according to the Friday news release.

Berlinda Arreola, the grandmother of Amerie Jo Garza, a 10-year-old who was among the 19 students killed in the shooting, was walking into her workplace when she received an email with news about the suspension of the school district’s police department. Arreola told her supervisor she had to go.

“Go go go go,” the boss told her.

She went to meet other family members of the victims, who have been gathering outside the school district to protest. Arreola said she hugged everybody.

“This was a huge step,” she said. “But there’s still a lot of, there’s still a lot more that needs to be done and so we’re going to continue the fight because we’re not done.”

I did not follow the story of the former DPS trooper, whose name is Crimson Elizondo, who was hired by the Uvalde police despite being under investigation by DPS for the way she responded to the shooting. You can read the story and click the links to catch up as needed. I’m just trying to think of something remotely analogous to this in my memory, and I cannot. I am absolutely stunned. Texas Public Radio has more.

Another hoax shooting situation

And this one shows another challenge for school districts and law enforcement to reckon with.

After a lockdown at Jefferson High School sent worried parents to the school, the San Antonio Independent School District says it will enhance communications with families in such situations.

On Tuesday, a report of a shooting at Jefferson High School caused the campus to lock down, sparking a chaotic scene outside the school as panicked parents waited for updates. As school district police officers and other law enforcement searched the campus and found the report to be unfounded, verbal disputes erupted between parents and officers. Some parents had to be physically restrained from entering the school. A few parents grappled with police.

The incident showed how parents of school-age children remain concerned about school safety — and law enforcement response — in the wake of the May 24 Uvalde mass school shooting that left 21 dead. School officials said it’s possible the report of a shooting was a hoax.

Superintendent Jaime Aquino sent a letter Wednesday to all district families praising local law enforcement for responding quickly to the shooting report and explaining the district’s lockdown procedures.

“Yesterday, our officers worked seamlessly with the officers from the San Antonio Police Department as part of our unified command protocol,” he wrote in the letter, adding that 29 district officers and 58 San Police Department officers quickly arrived at the scene.

But as the crowd of parents at the scene grew larger, resource officers informed parents they weren’t allowed to enter and that students could not be released because of the lockdown. Parents grew angry and frustrated as they waited for updates on the situation.

An hour and a half after the first notification to parents, the district informed them that no evidence of a shooting had been found, but by that time some physical altercations had broken out on the steps of the high school.

In his letter, Aquino stated that when a school is locked down, students and staff cannot be released “until officers determine that the threat has been resolved, give clearance, and lift the lockdown.”

To improve communication in such incidents, Aquino said the district will send staff to the campus to keep families on the scene informed of what is happening.

See here and here for some background. As before, I don’t blame any of the parents for their reactions. To me, the lesson here is that schools and police need to recalibrate their responses to take into account the level of anxiety parents are (justifiably!) feeling these days. They need to come up with a strategy that allows for quicker and more direct communication to parents, both those who are at the school that has had a (thankfully fake) report of a shooting, and to those who haven’t yet shown up at the school. It’s in everyone’s best interests to do so. I hope HISD is paying attention to this.

Now we’re dealing with hoax shootings

A new thing we need to be prepared for.

Texas and other states have experienced hoax shootings, but experts say these threats shouldn’t be taken lightly. Research shows that if someone is going to commit a mass shooting there is a good chance they’ll drop hints beforehand.

Sometimes it’s just a student testing the system, said Julia Andrews, director of Harris County Department of Education’s Center for Safe and Secure Schools, an organization that develops best practices for school security systems.

“Sometimes, it can mean getting out of school early, avoiding a test or just seeking attention,” Andrews said. “We are now seeing a lot of copycat threats, but we must take all threats seriously.”

However, schools need to be prepared when that isn’t the case, she said.

An analysis of 170 perpetrators of mass shootings found that nearly half leaked their intention to act violently, with 44 percent of them leaking specific details of their plans, according to a 2021 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association, a peer-reviewed medical journal.

For decades, school’s have experienced bomb threats, but this many shooting threats — happening at the same time — is unusual, said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

“For false bomb threats we have those better figured out, but with a false active shooter situation we’re not there at all,”Canady said, “because we’re dealing with this new trend.”

[…]

In recent years, these threats have likely become more prevalent with the rise of social media, said Zachary Kaufman, the co-director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston.

“Social media and (cell) phones have enabled such hoaxes to be made easier, quicker,” Kaufman said, “and seemingly more genuine than ever.”

See here for the background. As the story and my Facebook commenters noted, there were other hoax reports that day (in Waco, Eanes, and Pflugerville) and the next day, in Klein ISD. That feels a lot more precarious and unsettling than a one off to me. I don’t know what to do about it, I’m just flagging it for your attention. I’m glad to see there are people in the field who do have expertise in this. I really hope they won’t be called on to use it very often.

The one big question DPS still hasn’t answered about Uvalde

The Trib gets at something that I’ve mentioned a couple of times.

Ever since the Uvalde elementary school shooting left 19 students and two teachers dead, blame for the delayed response has been thrust on local law enforcement. The school police chief was fired and the city’s acting police chief was suspended.

But the only statewide law enforcement agency, the Texas Department of Public Safety, has largely avoided scrutiny even though it had scores of officers on the scene. That’s in part because DPS leaders are controlling which records get released to the public and carefully shaping a narrative that casts local law enforcement as incompetent.

Now, in the wake of a critical legislative report and body camera footage released by local officials, law enforcement experts from across the country are questioning why DPS didn’t take a lead role in the response as it had done before during other mass shootings and public disasters.

The state police agency is tasked with helping all of Texas’ 254 counties respond to emergencies such as mass shootings, but it is particularly important in rural communities where smaller police departments lack the level of training and experience of larger metropolitan law enforcement agencies, experts say. That was the case in Uvalde, where the state agency’s 91 troopers at the scene dwarfed the school district’s five officers, the city police’s 25 emergency responders and the county’s 16 sheriff’s deputies.

The state police agency has been “totally intransparent in pointing out their own failures and inadequacies,” said Charles A. McClelland, who served as Houston police chief for six years before retiring in 2016. “I don’t know how the public, even in the state of Texas, would have confidence in the leadership of DPS after this.”

Instead of taking charge when it became clear that neither the school’s police chief nor the Uvalde Police Department had assumed command, DPS contributed to the 74-minute chaotic response that did not end until a Border Patrol tactical unit that arrived much later entered the classroom and killed the gunman.

“Here’s what DPS should have done as soon as they got there,” said Patrick O’Burke, a law enforcement consultant and former DPS commander who retired in 2008. “They should have contacted [the school police chief] and said: ‘We’re here. We have people.’ They should have just organized everything, said, ‘What are all of our resources?’ And they should have organized the breach.”

[…]

[Despite testimony from DPS director Steve McCraw], DPS has sprung into action time and again when disaster strikes in Texas, which has proved key during mass shootings and public emergencies, local officials across the state said.

More than three decades ago, for example, state troopers helped local law enforcement confront a gunman after arriving within minutes of a shooting at a Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, about 60 miles north of Austin. The shooter killed himself after a brief exchange of gunfire.

“They knew that people were dying, and so they acted,” said Suzanna Hupp, a former Republican state representative whose parents died during the 1991 Luby’s massacre. She said that didn’t happen in Uvalde, adding that “clearly there was a command breakdown there.”

In a 2013 chemical explosion in West, about 70 miles south of Dallas, state troopers immediately took control of the law enforcement response at the request of the county’s emergency management coordinator. And in the 2018 shooting at Santa Fe High School, about 30 miles south of Houston, state troopers quickly fired at the gunman, according to local law enforcement officials who initially responded. The rapid engagement by school police and DPS was key to the gunman surrendering, district and county officials said.

“DPS had a tremendous role in Santa Fe of stopping the killing because they were among the first to arrive and they actually did what they were supposed to,” said Texas City Independent School District trustee Mike Matranga, the district’s security chief at the time of the shooting. He added that, in Uvalde, DPS supervisors “should have essentially asked [Arredondo] to stand down due to his ineffectiveness and taken over.”

Police experts and lawmakers pointed to clear signs that they believe should have alerted emergency responders that no one was in control. Arredondo, who resigned from his elected City Council seat in July and was fired from the school district on Aug. 24, remained inside the hallway on the phone during the shooting. He said he was trying to find a key to the classroom that the gunman was in. Investigators later determined that the door was likely unlocked. The school police chief did not identify himself as the incident commander and told The Texas Tribune he never issued any orders; his lawyer later said his firing was unjust. In a letter, Arredondo’s attorneys said the police chief “could not have served as the incident commander and did not attempt to take that role” because he was on the front lines.

Separately, no command post was set up outside of the school, which lawmakers noted should have been an indicator to responding officers that no one was in charge.

[…]

The disconnect over who should take charge and when exemplifies a need for detailed planning and frequent training between larger law enforcement agencies and smaller departments, police experts told ProPublica and the Tribune.

Larger agencies with more personnel, equipment and training should have agreements with school districts that clearly state that they will assume command upon arriving at critical incidents that include active shooters, hostage situations and explosive devices, said Gil Kerlikowske, a former Seattle police chief and CBP commissioner until 2017. He and other experts said that even if school police are designated as the lead, the role of every law enforcement agency in the region should be specified.

San Antonio, one of the state’s biggest police departments, has such agreements with local school districts and universities that name the bigger city police agency as the incident commander in the event of a mass shooting. After the Uvalde shooting, San Antonio police Chief William McManus met with school officials in his city and reminded them that his agency would take charge in an active shooter situation.

McManus, whose officers arrived in Uvalde after the gunman was killed, said in an interview that because of the confusion at the scene, he felt the need to emphasize how his department would respond to such an incident in San Antonio.

It is unclear what, if any, involvement DPS or another law enforcement agency had with the Uvalde school district’s mass shooting plan because those governmental bodies declined to release such documents or answer questions. The state police did not have a written memorandum of agreement with the school district outlining its role in such situations, according to DPS records.

Who’s in charge in these situations is a question I’ve raised a few times in writing about this, when the legislative report was released and when the HISD board addressed the question. This is an area where I believe the Lege can and should take action, by requiring school districts (and hell, colleges and universities and community colleges) to have some kind of agreement with either local or state law enforcement agencies and ensuring some minimum standards are met. It’s also a big question for DPS to answer: Why didn’t you take over at Uvalde? Steve McCraw has addressed that already, but I don’t think we should believe him. Certainly, not as long as DPS is being sued over its refusal to release its information to the public about their actions, anything McCraw says should be taken as self-serving first and foremost. And those same questions also go to Greg Abbott, who is McCraw’s boss and patron. Both of them have gotten away with doing nothing for a long time. We need to make sure that time runs out.

The proposed HISD charter partnership policy change

I don’t have a lot of time to dig into this, but there are a couple of things I wanted to touch on.

Parents, education advocates and a group of Houston elected officials including three Houston ISD trustees on Monday blasted a proposal by other school board members that would change the district’s policy surrounding charters, calling the measure dangerous to public schools and imploring it be taken off an agenda days before its first reading.

Revisions to the policy, which was initially issued in April 2018, would grant parents or guardians the authority to approve or turn down a partnership with a charter, or other entities permissible under the state’s education code, that is initiated by the district’s administration.

A detail of the proposed changes that garnered opposition would create a pathway for 60 percent of parents or guardians of an HISD school “to be served by a new or existing school,” according to a draft of the proposal, allowing them to initiate such a partnership.

The board of education is scheduled to have a first reading of the proposal on Thursday morning, which has also drawn criticism as it will occur during working hours. While nearly 60 other policies will have a first reading this week it appeared the charter one was the only to have been presented by trustees; it included a line that called the proposed changes “boardmember-proposed revisions.”

Trustees Kathy Blueford-Daniels, Elizabeth Santos and Myrna Guidry stood with a group of parents and elected officials — including Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, and various state representatives — at a Monday afternoon news conference opposing the proposed policy.

“This is not about giving parents voice in our school,” said Ruth Kravetz, co-founder of local advocacy group Community Voices for Public Education that organized the event. “Charter operators will promise the sun, the sky and the moon to get parent buy-in.”

Trustee Sue Deigaard, who represents HISD schools from parts of Montrose to southwest Houston, said the proposed changes could help the district with its deficit, and declining enrollment, as the partnerships give schools systems additional funds through a state law. The policy as it is gives the board and administration discretion over the decisions on such partnerships — and not much say to parents, she said.

HISD, the state’s largest school system, has about 195,000 students and is not projected to increase its enrollment to pre-pandemic levels, administrators told trustees during budget workshops. In 2015, for instance, HISD had about 215,000 students.

“We know from the budget conversations in the spring that we are going to have some really tough decisions ahead, possibly close schools,” Deigaard said in an interview. “I wanted to make sure that the superintendent had that tool if he wanted to use that tool.

She added, “Here’s a sort of grounding value that I had in the process, really multiple grounding values: One was — how do we make sure we open up opportunities but make sure that we’re not doing anything that would be harmful. The other grounding principle was when we make these big decisions, such as a school closure or partnership, how do we ensure that we’re doing it with families and not to them.”

[…]

Deigaard said concerns about the policy were valid but in her view the proposal empowered parents to approve or disapprove such a change.

“I think it’s a very real fear for families to think, ‘Oh, my school is going to get partnered off,” Deigaard said. “If that’s not what they want, this policy says they don’t have to have that.”

This all bubbled up after a tweet on Saturday, which made a reference to this change but didn’t have anything specific. I wound up having a conversation with Sue Deigaard, who has always been very generous with her time when I have questions about complicated school stuff. There are a number of things that motivated this, including the possibility of utilizing underused space in existing schools and giving parents who aren’t currently sending their kids to HISD a reason to do so – she mentioned conversations with parents who want a particular type of program or school option that doesn’t currently exist. Countering the enrollment decline, and taking steps to keep HISD as a primary option for parents were a main message I took away from my conversation with her.

At a fundamental level, I trust Sue Deigaard – who, as I have said in previous posts, is someone I’ve known for a long time, going back to when we were both at Rice – and I don’t believe there’s any appetite within HISD to give a bunch of power and money to charter schools. Your mileage may vary on these points. I’m sure there’s plenty of room for discussion and disagreement about this proposal, as would be the case for any big proposal. The story notes that Superintendent House may not end up supporting it, if there isn’t sufficient public support for it. If so, then so be it. This is a first reading – it may not make it to second reading. I want to hear more about it. From there, we’ll see where it goes.

(Today is “move kid #1 into her college dorm day”, so I’m a little pressed for time right now. I’ll try to know more about this next time.)

First school ratings since 2019 released

All in all, not too bad. But for poorer schools and school districts, it remains a very hard go.

The Texas Education Agency on Monday released its first public school ratings in three years and despite pandemic interruptions, the number of schools that received the highest rating increased.

This year, 27.9% of 8,451 schools evaluated received an A rating. Another 46.1% received a B, 19.4% received a rating of C and 6.7% received “Not Rated” labels. Not all schools and districts are rated because some are alternative education programs and treatment facilities.

The state agency’s ratings — tied in large part to results of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR test — are the latest metrics used to grade how well Texas public schools are performing as students emerge from the worst of the global coronavirus pandemic. Even though students returned to classroom instruction last year, surges in COVID-19 infections both last fall and winter forced some schools to close and revert back to remote instruction.

TEA Commissioner Mike Morath credited local educators with the increases seen, despite those interruptions, in each of the A and B categories and a reduction in the number of schools that received below-average grades, those in the “Not Rated” category.

“These results show our state’s significant investment in the post-pandemic academic recovery of Texas public school students is bearing fruit,” Morath said. “I’m grateful for the driving force behind this year’s success: our teachers and local school leaders.”

The TEA’s ratings are determined by scores in three categories: how students perform on the STAAR test, which is given each spring; improvement in those scores; and how well schools are educating disadvantaged students. Students are tested on different subjects: reading, math, science and social students.

Districts also get an overall rating. There are a total of 1,207 school districts in Texas, and 1,195 were evaluated. Out of the districts evaluated, 33.1% got an A, 54% got a B, 9.4% got a C and 3.5% got a “Not Rated” label.

[…]

In 2019, the last time that TEA put out these ratings, 8,302 schools were rated, and 21.1% received an A, 39.5% received a B, 26.1% received a C and 13.3% received failing grades. In 2019, 1,189 districts were rated. Of those, 25.3% received an A, 56.9% received a B, 13% received a C and 4.8% received failing grades.

Texas continues to show some struggle with getting “high-poverty” schools an A grade. Data shows that only 18% of those campuses in Texas were rated an A. The TEA labels schools as “high-poverty” if their number of economically disadvantaged students surpasses 80%. Of the schools that received a “Not Rated” label, over half of them were “high-poverty” schools.

Texas has about 5.4 million students in its public schools, and 60% of them are economically disadvantaged, meaning they qualify for free or reduced lunch. Out of the 8,451 schools rated this year, 564 campuses received the “Not Rated” label. Most of these “Not Rated” campuses — 499 — serve students who live in some of the state’s poorest communities.

While there is work to be done with Texas’ poorer schools, Morath said, the increase among the A-rated schools — a rise seen after the pandemic interrupted classroom instruction — means the state is on the right track to catch students up to pre-pandemic levels.

This spring’s STAAR results showed big gains in reading. While math scores did increase from the dips seen in 2021, they revealed that Texas students still have work to do to catch up to their pre-pandemic test score levels.

You can see all the results here. The Chron complied results for area schools; HISD overall got a B, but some schools such as Kashmere and Yates high schools were Not Rated, which is the grade given in place of a D or F this year. Those grades will return next year. As I said, all things considered this isn’t bad, but there remains a lot of work to do. We need the Lege to not do anything to screw it all up next spring. Reform Austin has more.

The book ban requests are coming from inside the house

Typical “grassroots” campaign.

Greg Abbott in the 80s

The wave of book reviews and removals that swept across Texas in the last year was driven more by politicians than parents, a Houston Chronicle analysis found, contradicting claims that recent book bans were the result of a nationwide parental rights movement to have more control over learning materials.

The findings, drawn from public information act requests sent to nearly 600 Texas school districts that teach more than 90 percent of the state’s 5.4 million public school students, show there were at least 2,080 book reviews of more than 880 unique titles since the 2018-19 school year. Of those, at least 1,740 reviews occurred during the 2021-22 school year.

Nearly two thirds of those reviews — 1,057 — occurred after state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, asked districts last fall to check their shelves for books on a list he circulated. The books on Krause’s list of roughly 850 titles, predominantly feature LGBTQ+ characters and people of color in main character roles, as well as mentions of racism, the Holocaust, sexual violence, sexuality and abortion.

About a dozen districts account for more than 1,500 of the book reviews, the Chronicle found. Most of the reviewed works remained on shelves, with 269 books removed entirely and 174 instances in which access to titles was made available only to older students. In some cases, districts removed books they deemed out of date but replaced them with more recent titles on similar subjects.

Most districts in the Houston region largely ignored the Krause list or did not conduct reviews because of it.

Krause did not respond to emails requesting an interview, and has refused to reveal whether he and his office created the list or if it came from a third party. In an interview with the Dallas Morning News last November, he called his letter and the list “an inquiry used for fact gathering to see if anything needs to be done,” and said he did not anticipate they would be leaked to the news media.

“We could decide there’s nothing here, let’s move on. And nobody even knows about it. Or it could be we’ve got a pervasive problem,” he said. “It certainly raised the consciousness of parents needing to be involved in their schools. We’ve had some school districts thank us and say, ‘We don’t want inappropriate materials for our kids.’ We wanted to give schools an idea of what books they had in their library so they don’t get caught off guard.”

The Chronicle’s findings, likely an under-count of book reviews because 292 districts did not respond, represent one of the clearest assessments to date of the extent of an escalating, national assault — mostly led by politicians, elected officials and conservative activists — on literature that explores race, LGBTQ+ issues and sexuality.

“It’s a malign campaign to create a moral panic around information young people want and need,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. “It’s resulted in really tragic consequences, not only for young people being denied access to information, but also for people who are made to understand they don’t belong in their communities, at least in the eyes of the individuals who raise these claims.”

The library association registered challenges or removals of 1,597 individuals books across the country in 2021, a record number since the nonprofit began keeping a tally 20 years ago.

See here, here, and here for some background. I would bet that Krause had help from one or more under-the-radar billionaire-funded right wing groups. Why do the work when it’s so easily outsourced? To be fair, some of the book-banning energy does come from deeply committed bigots from the private sector. There’s never an escape from those people. Sadly, it’s the school librarians who are on the sharp end of the stick here. I don’t know what we can do about that. Read the rest of the story and get involved with your neighborhood schools to help them deal with this crap.

It’s not a teacher shortage yet

But you can see one on the horizon.

School districts across the Houston region are trying to fill thousands of teacher vacancies before most will be welcoming students back to classrooms in the coming weeks.

A review of about 18 area school districts’ job listings, including Alvin, Deer Park, Fort Bend, Galena Park, Goose Creek, Katy, Magnolia, Pasadena, Galveston, Humble, Spring Branch and Spring ISDs, as well as Lamar CISD, showed a need for more than 3,400 educators to fill a variety of vacancies as of Monday.

The Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest system scheduled to kick off its year Aug. 22, had about 870 openings for certified teachers listed on its career portal Monday.

Aldine ISD, which serves nearly 67,000 students and employs more than 4,000 educators, currently has 370 teacher vacancies. That number is “way up” from previous years, according to administrators, despite recruiting efforts that include signing bonuses, increased salaries and looking for applicants internationally. Klein ISD is searching for 120 teachers, according to its website. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, the state’s third-largest system, is trying to fill 472 teaching vacancies.

It is a nationwide problem as low pay, long hours and the politicization of education have taken their toll on the beleaguered profession.

“You look across the state and across the country, there are districts even smaller than us with even more vacancies,” HISD chief talent officer Jeremy Grant-Skinner said. “We’re all feeling the challenge together of staffing during this very unique time. We’re feeling like we’re going to get as close as we can.”

HISD, with roughly 195,000 students and 27,000 full- and part-time employees, had about the same number of vacancies at this time a year ago, Grant-Skinner said, before reducing it to about 400 by the time schools opened. To fill those openings until certified educators could be hired, the district sent central administration staffers who held teacher certifications into classrooms. Grant-Skinner said there have been no conversations about doing that again this year.

The 870 openings represent about 8 percent of the 11,000 teachers included in the upcoming year’s budget.

Since then, the district has raised teacher pay, hoping it will help recruit and retain educators. Several other districts, including Katy and Cypress-Fair ISDs, also have boosted teacher salaries.

Emphasis mine. I highlighted that to note that this problem, at least for HISD, is not unprecedented. The gap was more than cut in half least year, HISD was able to fill in other vacancies from within, and they have raised their pay as a way to attract new job seekers. There are obviously a lot of major challenges facing teachers now, most of which are the result of actions taken by Republicans, but it’s too soon to say for this year that the problem is getting worse. That may end up being the case, and it’s good to draw attention to this now, I just want to be a little cautious about getting ahead of ourselves.

That said, there are other danger signs out there that should be taken seriously.

More Texas teachers are considering leaving the profession than at any point in the last 40 years, according to new polling from the Texas State Teachers Assocation.

The survey found that 70 percent of teachers were seriously considering quitting this year, a substantial jump from the 53 percent who said so in 2018, the last time the typically biennial survey was conducted. Teachers attributed their grim outlook to pandemic-related stress, political pressure from state lawmakers, less support from parents and stretched finances.

The survey represented all grade levels and regions of the states. It was skipped in 2020 amid of the pandemic.

[…]

In the survey, which was completed by 688 Texas teachers, 94 percent said the pandemic increased their professional stress, and 82 percent said financial stress was exacerbated. Experts have pointed to better pay as a key way to recruit and retain teachers. Respondents taught for about 16 years on average, and their average salary was around $59,000. That’s about $7,000 below the national trend, according to the teachers association.

Besides salary, Texas teachers on average also receive some of the worst retirement benefits of those in any state, a separate study from June found. Teachers who have retired since 2004 have not received a cost-of-living adjustment, although the Legislature has routinely passed “13th check” bills that send extra annuity payments.

In addition to pay, 85 percent said they felt state lawmakers held a negative view of teachers, 65 percent said the public held a negative view and 70 percent said support from parents had decreased over the last several years.

If your job is more stressful than before, if you don’t feel respected by the powers that be or your stakeholders, and if on top of that you could make more money doing something else, well, that’s a pretty powerful combination. We can take this feedback seriously and try to do something about it, or we can ignore it and risk having to deal with a crisis situation later. Seems like a straightforward choice to me.

Fifth Circuit tosses mask mandate lawsuit filed by disability rights activists

Par for the course.

A federal appeals court on Monday tossed out a lower-court injunction, issued in November, that would have allowed public schools in Texas to ignore Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel of Austin had blocked Abbott’s order as it pertained to schools, ruling that a ban on mandatory face masks improperly endangered students with disabilities and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by denying them the opportunity to participate equally in school.

Texas appealed, and a month later the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked enforcement of Yeakel’s injunction while it considered the state’s case.

On Monday, in a 2-1 ruling, the appeals court sided with state officials, tossing out Yeakel’s injunction and dismissing the lawsuit by the students. The court said the students did not prove that the ban on mask mandates put them at imminent and concrete risk of contracting COVID-19.

“In light of widely available vaccines and the schools’ other mitigation efforts, the odds of any particular plaintiff contracting COVID-19 and subsequently suffering complications are speculative,” Judge Andrew Oldham wrote in an opinion joined by Judge Don Willett. Both were appointed by former President Donald Trump.

In addition, Oldham wrote, the Americans with Disabilities Act only ensures that students have access to school, not that they have access to their desired accommodation of universal masking.

“Schools, in turn, have numerous alternatives for mitigating the risks of COVID-19 so plaintiffs have such access. The schools can adopt policies regarding vaccines, plexiglass, hand sanitizer, social distancing, and more,” Oldham wrote. “Plaintiffs have not even attempted to show that one or any combination of these accommodations is insufficient to mitigate the risks of COVID-19 to a level low enough that plaintiffs can attend school.”

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Eugene Davis complained that Oldham mischaracterized the students’ argument by saying they merely feared an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. Instead, the students argued that state Attorney General Ken Paxton’s dogged defense of Abbott’s ban on mask mandates, including lawsuits against school districts and threats of additional litigation, amounted to disability discrimination.

The students also proved that they had been, or will be, harmed by a ban on all mask mandates, even at schools that determine that limited mask orders were a reasonable accommodation for student health, he wrote.

“While all students bear some health risks by attending school in person during the ongoing pandemic, the district court found, and it is undisputed, that these plaintiffs face a much higher risk to their health because of their disabilities,” said Davis, appointed by former President Ronald Reagan.

See here for the previous update, and here for a copy of the opinion. There are still a lot of state lawsuits over the Abbott executive order that banned mask mandates in school, which largely turn on the question of what the Governor’s authority under the 1975 Texas Disaster Act is; the San Antonio ISD vaccine mandate lawsuit is in that same bucket. This was a federal lawsuit that claimed discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. I still think they had a pretty good argument, but it’s the Fifth Circuit, what are you gonna do? I suppose an appeal to SCOTUS is possible, but perhaps not advisable, as it’s probably not a good idea to give them a chance to mess with that law. Texas Public Radio and the ABA Journal have more.

Cornyn-Murphy gun bill gets final passage

What great timing, huh?

Exactly one month after a gunman shot and killed 19 children and two teachers in a Uvalde elementary school, the most significant new gun laws in decades were headed to President Joe Biden’s desk on Friday after the U.S. House cleared a bipartisan package of reforms requiring greater scrutiny of young buyers, closing the so-called boyfriend loophole and more.

The gun laws, authored by a group of senators including John Cornyn of Texas, easily passed the Democratic-controlled House on a 234-193 vote, just hours after 15 Senate Republicans joined every Democrat in approving the bill in the Senate late Thursday night. Biden is expected to sign the bill into law.

“When I met with families from Uvalde, they asked me how it was possible for the man who murdered their loved ones to get a dangerous weapon so easily,” U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro said in a statement. “Today, Congress has voted to pass historic gun safety reforms that will save lives and keep deadly weapons out of the hands of people who present a clear danger to their communities. We need to make more progress on gun safety, but today’s vote is an important step forward.”

It is the first tightening of federal gun laws since 1994. It bolsters background checks on buyers under 21 years old and restricts access to firearms for dating partners convicted of domestic abuse. The bill creates stiffer penalties for gun trafficking and “straw” purchasing, in which someone buys a firearm for someone prohibited from owning one.

The legislation also provides funding for mental health programs, school security and for states to enact red flag laws or other intervention methods meant to stop shootings before they happen.

Just 14 Republicans voted for the bill in the House, where GOP leaders had urged members to oppose the legislation. Only one Texan was among them: U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales of San Antonio, whose district includes Uvalde. The rest opposed the legislation.

See here for the background. It would be nice to feel good about this, even as watered down as this bill is, but with SCOTUS on a rampage, it’s hard to feel good about anything. The fact that this got initial passage in the Senate on the same day that SCOTUS essentially declared all state gun control measures to be illegal was the kind of irony none of us needed. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before a federal lawsuit is filed to invalidate even this modest effort, and who would take a bet on those plaintiffs losing? But here we are anyway. If we can ever find our way to fixing the courts, we can improve on this and do a lot more besides. One step at a time. The Trib has more.

Cornyn’s gun control bill passes the Senate

Happy to have had my cynicism proven wrong.

Exactly four weeks after a teenage gunman armed with a semiautomatic rifle massacred 19 elementary schoolers and two teachers in Uvalde, the U.S. Senate voted 64-34 Tuesday night to advance a bipartisan compromise that, if enacted, would become the first major legislation on gun safety since 1994.

The legislation does not restrict any rights of existing gun owners — a nonstarter for Senate Republicans. Instead, it would enhance background checks for gun purchasers younger than 21; make it easier to remove guns from people threatening to kill themselves or others, as well as people who have committed domestic violence; clarify who needs to register as a federal firearms dealer; and crack down on illegal gun trafficking, including so-called straw purchases, which occur when the actual buyer of a firearm uses another person to execute the paperwork to buy on their behalf.

The legislation includes $11 billion for mental health services and $2 billion for community-based antiviolence programs. It also includes money to help young people access mental health services via telemedicine, money for more school-based mental health centers and support for suicide hotlines.

Republican John Cornyn, the senior senator from Texas, who was formally rebuked by the Republican Party of Texas on Saturday evening for taking part in the bipartisan negotiations, said he felt confident that senators would see the deal as a reasonable compromise. If it holds up, that would itself be an extraordinary achievement after years in which mass shootings have devastated American communities with numbing reality.

“This is an issue that divides much of the country, depending on where you live, and maybe divides people living in the same household. But I think we have found some areas where there’s space for compromise and we’ve also found that there are some red lines and no middle ground,” Cornyn said on the floor of the Senate. “We’ve talked, we’ve debated, we’ve disagreed and finally we’ve reached an agreement among the four of us but obviously this is not something that is going to become law or fail to become law because of a small group of senators. The truth is we had a larger group of 20 senators, 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats, come together and sign on to an agreed set of principles, and I believe that as the senators see the text that supports those principles, they will see we’ve tried our best to be true to what those agreed principles should be.”

See here for the previous update, and here for a copy of the bill. It still has to pass the House, but I expect that will happen. This bill started out as modest and got watered down further – I mean seriously, we couldn’t just raise the minimum age for buying gun to the same as it is for buying a beer? – and yet it’s the first real advance in a long time. It remains the definition of “better than nothing”, but we’re so used to nothing it feels like more.

To be sure, there are issues.

There’s still a fundamental problem on the Democrats’ part in getting here: They ceded to Republican arguments that the problem is mental health and school safety and not simply the fact that the country is awash in deadly weapons. The extra funding in the bill for mental health support is a good thing, but a good thing that could have been achieved through Medicaid expansion to the hold-out states without pushing the myth that mental illness is intrinsically tied to violence and further stigmatizing it. It accepts school massacres as inevitable by beefing up school security—which does not make Black and brown students safer, since they’re often targets of abuse from cops at school—and creating programs for trauma support in schools for after the attacks occur.

There are some improvements, though none is without a downside. It enhances background checks for 18 to 21 year olds seeking to buy assault weapons. That imposes a waiting period on them from three to 10 days,  which could prevent some impulse massacres. But that provision sunsets in 10 years, ending in 2032.

The bill includes $750 million that could help states that don’t have red flag or crisis intervention laws implement them. These laws allow for courts to order weapons removed from people determined to be a danger to themselves or others. The grant money, however, is in the form of Byrne JAG grants and can be used for a variety of law enforcement and judicial programs, including mental heath courts, drug courts, and veteran courts. This is a win for Republicans whose states don’t have and won’t pass red flag laws. They want their states to still be able to access the money, so other “crisis intervention” programs will receive it and guns don’t necessarily have to be removed from people in crisis.

The loophole that allows dating partners convicted of domestic violence to keep their guns is partially closed. Current law only bars individuals who have committed violence against a spouse, live-in partner, or someone with whom they share children from owning guns. The ban has been expanded to anyone convicted of domestic violence against someone they have a “continuing serious relationship of a romantic or intimate nature” with, including “recent former” dating partners. It does not stipulate what “recent” means. It is not retroactive, so survivors from past attacks can’t petition to have their abuser’s weapons taken away. It also allows people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence to get their guns back in five years if they don’t commit other crimes.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline calls it “partially closing” the loophole, and a “significant step,” but advocates warn that there’s still a loophole in the “recent” language. “He doesn’t need to be ‘recent’ to cause harm,” Susan B. Sorenson, a University of Pennsylvania professor who studies family violence, told The Washington Post. “Feelings, not all of them positive, live on long after a relationship has ended.”

One of the more significant parts of this bill just flat won’t mean anything in a lot of states.

But even if it passes, federal funding for the bill’s most-discussed provision is unlikely to persuade many of the 30 states that don’t have red flag laws—most of them Republican-led—to adopt them. Some of these states have repeatedly voted down red flag legislation; at least one has formally outlawed their implementation. This means the federal gun control bill, aimed at reining in the epidemic of mass shootings, could have limited impact in a large swath of the country.

[…]

In a deadlocked Congress that has struggled to pass bills to keep kids fed and local governments running, the Uvalde shooting spurred momentum for this package to come together, though it falls short of many Democrats’ goals. The House, with its stronger Democratic majority, was able to pass a slate of gun control measures immediately after the Texas shooting that would have blocked semiautomatic rifle sales to people under the age of 21, created stricter gun storage regulations, and outlawed the sale of magazines holding more than 15 rounds of ammunition. That package stood no chance in the evenly divided Senate, where most bills have to garner the support of at least 60 senators because of the filibuster. An idea to create a national red flag law emerged in the hours immediately following the Uvalde shooting, but Democratic lawmakers saw both logistical challenges to that proposal and political ones.

Thus, optional funding for states to create their own red flag laws seemed like the safest bet to get anything across the finish line with Republicans wary of taking any action on guns, lest they lose their re-elections. Tellingly, several of the GOP senators in the bipartisan Uvalde-response contingent are retiring.

But while the incentive money could be used to help states that already have red flag laws, half a dozen state lawmakers and experts tell Mother Jones it is unlikely federal funding will persuade states that don’t already have red flag laws to create them.

This includes the state where tragedy prompted the bipartisan legislative framework in the first place: Texas. “I don’t believe any federal requirements or incentive would get Texas to move on this,” says Texas state Rep. Diego Bernal, a Democrat in favor of stricter gun control.

He draws a comparison to Texas, joined by 11 other historically red states, opting not to take federal funds in order to expand Medicaid healthcare access to more poor residents: “If we’re not willing to take tremendous amounts of federal money, at no expense to us, in order to insure our uninsured residents, then I don’t see any daylight for financial incentives to get us to adopt a red flag law.”

I haven’t seen any discussion of what kind of legal challenges might get filed against this bill, assuming it does pass as now I believe it will. You know the NRA, which opposes the Cornyn/Murphy bill, will not sit quietly, and there are plenty of wingnut Attorneys General and Trump judges out there. That’s an issue for another day, I suppose. For now, be glad we got what we got, and let’s keep working to make it possible to get more in the future. The Chron has more.

HISD approves its budget

First one for the new Superintendent.

Houston ISD trustees on Thursday unanimously approved a $2.2 billion budget that will give teacher raises some have called long overdue and fund the upcoming school year when the district is expected to begin implementing a strategic plan aimed at making the state’s largest school system more equitable.

All nine trustees voted in favor of the proposed budget following a presentation from Superintendent Millard House II about how parts of the budget will meet board goals, which a few trustees had asked about. A roughly $100 million deficit will end up being reduced to some $30 million at year’s end through unspent funds, mostly from job vacancies, administrators have said they anticipate.

“We cannot hope to serve the needs of our children by being close-fisted on the most important determinant of their success: high-quality professional educators,” Trustee Elizabeth Santos, who frequently advocates for educators from the dais, said in a statement posted on Twitter after the vote. “This budget honors our kids by honoring our teachers, support staff and principals. It is past time for HISD to be the district that sets the standard in our region. I’m proud to be part of the team that gets us there.”

The compensation package, backed with the help of federal COVID-19 relief money the district received, will boost the salary of a starting teacher to $61,500 from the current annual pay of $56,869. Employees at the higher end of salary ranges will see about $3,000 more each year, those salaries reaching the mid- and high-$80,000s.

Other employees are also expected to receive raises as the district will update its master pay table.

The spending plan also set the financial framework for the first full year of House’s five-year strategic plan. Campuses will be required to staff librarians or media specialists, nurse or nurse assistants, and counselors.

In addition to the $2.2 billion operating budget, the district expects to pay another $374 million in debt service. Central administrators this spring cut $60 million in what House has called the first step toward financial sustainability. The cuts did not affect the police force, financial or legal services, House said.

See here and here for some background. HISD was known to pay its teachers less than other area districts, and it has seen some teachers leave as a result, so the pay raise was needed. We’ll see how those first pieces of the strategic plan go. I’m generally optimistic, but there are always some bumps in the road. Now that this has been settled and HISD appears to be in fairly stable shape for the near term, it’s probably time to start talking about the next capital bond issuance. The last one was in 2012, and there are surely numerous buildings that need work, and that’s without mentioning the urgency of better ventilation as a COVID mitigation. I don’t know if there’s time to get a bond item on the ballot this year, but if they wait until next year at least it’s a city election year and we’ll have an open Mayor’s race, so they won’t have to sweat as much to get their voters to the polls. Hope you’re working on a plan for this, HISD.

Social media monitoring is not a solution to school shootings

While current Republican “solutions” for gun violence include door control and arming teachers, one “solution” that has been in place for the past few years has been monitoring social media for signs of gun-related threats. That was in place in Uvalde, and it was not effective.

After a shooter killed 21 people, including 19 children, in the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, last week, the United States is yet again confronting the devastating impact of gun violence. While lawmakers have so far failed to pass meaningful reform, schools are searching for ways to prevent a similar tragedy on their own campuses. Recent history, as well as government spending records, indicate that one of the most common responses from education officials is to invest in more surveillance technology.

In recent years, schools have installed everything from facial recognition software to AI-based tech, including programs that purportedly detect signs of brandished weapons and online screening tools that scan students’ communications for mentions of potential violence. The startups selling this tech have claimed that these systems can help school officials intervene before a crisis happens or respond more quickly when one is occurring. Pro-gun politicians have also advocated for this kind of technology, and argued that if schools implement enough monitoring, they can prevent mass shootings.

The problem is that there’s very little evidence that surveillance technology effectively stops these kinds of tragedies. Experts even warn that these systems can create a culture of surveillance at schools that harms students. At many schools, networks of cameras running AI-based software would join other forms of surveillance that schools already have, like metal detectors and on-campus police officers.

“In an attempt to stop, let’s say, a shooter like what happened at Uvalde, those schools have actually extended a cost to the students that attend them,” Odis Johnson Jr, the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, told Recode. “There are other things we now have to consider when we seek to fortify our schools, which makes them feel like prisons and the students themselves feel like suspects.”

[…]

Even before the mass shooting in Uvalde, many schools in Texas had already installed some form of surveillance tech. In 2019, the state passed a law to “harden” schools, and within the US, Texas has the most contracts with digital surveillance companies, according to an analysis of government spending data conducted by the Dallas Morning News. The state’s investment in “security and monitoring” services has grown from $68 per student to $113 per student over the past decade, according to Chelsea Barabas, an MIT researcher studying the security systems deployed at Texas schools. Spending on social work services, however, grew from $25 per student to just $32 per student during the same time period. The gap between these two areas of spending is widest in the state’s most racially diverse school districts.

The Uvalde school district had already acquired various forms of security tech. One of those surveillance tools is a visitor management service sold by a company called Raptor Technologies. Another is a social media monitoring tool called Social Sentinel, which is supposed to “identify any possible threats that might be made against students and or staff within the school district,” according to a document from the 2019-2020 school year.

It’s so far unclear exactly which surveillance tools may have been in use at Robb Elementary School during the mass shooting. JP Guilbault, the CEO of Social Sentinel’s parent company, Navigate360, told Recode that the tool plays “an important role as an early warning system beyond shootings.” He claimed that Social Sentinel can detect “suicidal, homicidal, bullying, and other harmful language that is public and connected to district-, school-, or staff-identified names as well as social media handles and hashtags associated with school-identified pages.”

“We are not currently aware of any specific links connecting the gunman to the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District or Robb Elementary on any public social media sites,” Guilbault added. The Uvalde gunman did post ominous photos of two rifles on his Instagram account before the shooting, but there’s no evidence that he publicly threatened any of the schools in the district. He privately messaged a girl he did not know that he planned to shoot an elementary school.

Any kind of surveillance involves a tradeoff between privacy and security. So far, the security gains from software like this are small, while the loss of privacy – which to be clear here is the privacy of children – is significant.

For privacy advocates, the lack of evidence for the technology’s effectiveness means that there are no sufficient grounds for the potential violations of privacy that come with its use. Hye Jung Han, a researcher at Human Rights Watch specializing in child rights, told The Verge that using surveillance technology on children could cause unwarranted harm:

“Could you imagine schools using toxic materials to build classrooms, even if it hadn’t met any safety standards? No,” said Han. “Similarly, to use unproven, untested surveillance technologies on children, without first checking whether they are safe to use, exposes children to an unacceptable risk of harm.”

Multiple requests for comment sent to Navigate360 — which acquired Social Sentinel in 2020 — did not receive a response.

The Uvalde school district was confirmed to have purchased monitoring capability from Social Sentinel in 2019–2020, though it is unclear whether the subscription was still active at the time of the shooting. However, even if it had been, the technology would have been unlikely to flag any of the shooter’s posts. There are now numerous reports of concerning activity surrounding the shooter’s online activity: he allegedly made frequent threats to young women and girls via chat apps, sent images of guns to acquaintances, and reportedly discussed carrying out the school shooting in an Instagram chat. But Social Sentinel is only able to monitor public posts and would not have had access to any content shared in private messages.

At the same time, there are significant privacy concerns with the software. In 2019, the Brennan Center for Justice outlined a range of civil and human rights concerns stemming from expanded social media monitoring in K-12 schools, among them the questionable effectiveness of the technology in combination with a tendency to disproportionately impact students from minority communities. In the same year, reporting by Education Week also covered the dramatic expansion of digital surveillance in schools, highlighting the large number of false positives generated by Social Sentinel’s technology. (Alerts were reportedly triggered by tweets about the Mark Wahlberg movie, Shooter and from a student pleased their credit score was “shooting up,” among other things.)

Of all US states, Texas has been the most enthusiastic about the use of digital surveillance for school children. A 2021 investigation by The Dallas Morning News found that no state has more school districts contracting with digital surveillance companies than Texas. But of the Texas districts that did take out these contracts, results were apparently mixed: a number of school districts that had paid for Social Sentinel told the Morning News that they had declined to renew contracts, describing a service that provided few actionable alerts or flagged mostly irrelevant information.

But while Social Sentinel advertises an ability to monitor a broad range of platforms, there’s some suggestion that its surveillance capabilities are dictated more by the accessibility of data sources than by their importance. A client presentation from the company shared by the EFF lists a range of social media sources for monitoring, including Instagram, YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, Tumblr, WordPress, and even Meetup.

Data obtained by BuzzFeed News confirmed this through data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, which showed the company skewed heavily towards Twitter monitoring. Of the 1,206 Social Sentinel alerts provided to BuzzFeed, 98 percent (1,180) related to tweets — even though Instagram, YouTube, and even Facebook are more widely used by younger demographics. But the conventions of Twitter — where the vast majority of posts are publicly visible, even unintentionally — mean that it is comparatively easier to monitor, providing a wealth of social media data on tap that can be assimilated by companies looking to boost their surveillance credentials.

The DMN reports that some of the school districts that kicked the tires on Social Sentinel later decided it wasn’t worth it.

Uvalde is among at least 52 school districts and three colleges in Texas that have used the Social Sentinel service, according to records from GovSpend, an organization that tracks state and local government spending. It has also been used by dozens of colleges and hundreds of school districts nationwide.

Uvalde purchased Social Sentinel in August 2019, according to GovSpend. A document from the 2019-2020 school year lists the service as one of the district’s “preventative security measures.”

“UCISD utilizes Social Sentinel to monitor all social media with a connection to Uvalde as a measure to identify any possible threats that might be made against students and or staff within the school district,” the document reads.

The district made two payments to the company totaling more than $9,900, the data show.

Several Texas districts that have used Social Sentinel complained the service was mostly ineffective. The News reached out to every school district that used Social Sentinel, including Uvalde, for comment last year. Clear Creek ISD, a district outside of Houston, used the service in the 2018-19 school year but soon canceled.

“The Clear Creek Independent School District discontinued the use of Social Sentinel in its first year,” Elaina Polsen, Clear Creek’s chief communications officer, told The News last year. “The District determined the service just did not meet our needs, and we were receiving far stronger information through our anonymous tip line.”

Representatives from Keller, Lewisville, Mineral Wells and Schertz-Cibolo school districts also said the service provided them with few alerts or alerts that contained mostly irrelevant information.

HISD does not appear to have been a user of Social Sentinel, so we’ve got that going for us. There are other companies with similar products out there, so be on the lookout for that kind of pitch. It’s not out of the question to me that a tool like this could be effective at some point (we would still have to debate the privacy impact, and I can just about guarantee that it won’t be good), but we’re not there yet and it may be awhile before we can reasonably broach the subject. In the meantime, I dunno, maybe ban assault weapons again like we did in the 90s? Worked pretty well back then, and it didn’t involve snooping on things kids were saying among themselves. Just a thought.

(FYI, I first heard about Social Sentinel and its connection to Uvalde on the What Next podcast. I went looking for the DMN story from there, and found the others in the same search.)

Please don’t ever talk to me about “a good guy with a gun” or “hardening the schools” again

The police were there but did nothing.

A gunman who killed 19 children and two teachers at a South Texas elementary school walked unopposed onto school grounds, state law enforcement officials said Thursday — and once he was inside, it took police an hour to stop him.

In the days after the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, officials with the Texas Department of Public Safety said the shooter encountered a police officer employed by the school district before charging through a back door — and gave conflicting accounts about whether the officer fired at the gunman.

Agency officials now say there was no police officer on campus when the shooter first arrived — but did not explain why they first believed there was.

The gunman crashed a truck in a ditch near the school at 11:28 a.m., fired at two passersby on the street, then entered the school 12 minutes later through a back door before police arrived, DPS officials said Thursday.

“He was not confronted by anybody,” Victor Escalon, a DPS official, said during a press conference Thursday. The agency is leading the investigation into the shooting along with Uvalde police.

The law enforcement response to the active shooter call has drawn mounting scrutiny in the days since the massacre. State law enforcement officials have given vague and conflicting answers on what exactly happened after the gunman arrived at the school, and parents have criticized police for not acting quickly enough to stop the shooter.

At a Wednesday press conference in Uvalde, DPS Director Steve McCraw said that a school police officer “engaged” with the gunman before he entered the school but did not exchange gunfire with the gunman. Other DPS officials were quoted in media reports saying there was an exchange of gunfire at that moment.

That was Wednesday. By Friday, they had gotten the story straight, and the local PD screwed it all up.

The head of the Texas Department of Public Safety criticized the police chief of the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District on Friday, saying he acted too slowly in responding to the elementary school gunman who killed 21 people, including 19 children.

Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said the incident commander — identified by the San Antonio Express-News as Uvalde CISD police chief Pete Arredondo — believed the situation was no longer an active shooter, but that of a barricaded suspect.

But 911 calls, reviewed by Texas Rangers, reveal that at least two people inside the Robb Elementary School classroom called police and reported that there were children inside who were alive.

Meanwhile, the shooting continued periodically.

“With the benefit of hindsight, of course it was not the right decision,” McCraw said. “It was the wrong decision.”

He said once the shooting continued, the incident commander — who he did not identify directly — should have switched back to an active shooter response.

“We believe should have been an entry at that as soon as they (could),” McCraw added. “When there’s an active shooter, the rules change.”

Meanwhile, inside the classroom, children made terrified calls to 911, whispering and asking for help.

All of this has made Greg Abbott mad because he had been out there praising the Uvalde PD’s response before being clued in about how inept they were. He should maybe be mad that all of his party’s “solutions” for stopping mass shootings at schools just don’t work.

Four years after an armed 17-year-old opened fire inside a Texas high school, killing 10, Gov. Greg Abbott tried to tell another shell-shocked community that lost 19 children and two teachers to a teen gunman about his wins in what is now an ongoing effort against mass shootings.

“We consider what we did in 2019 to be one of the most profound legislative sessions not just in Texas but in any state to address school shootings,” Abbott said inside a Uvalde auditorium Wednesday as he sat flanked by state and local officials. “But to be clear, we understand our work is not done, our work must continue.”

Throughout the 60-minute news conference, he and other Republican leaders said a 2019 law allowed districts to “harden” schools from external threats after a deadly shooting inside an art classroom at Santa Fe High School near Houston the year before. After the Uvalde gunman was reportedly able to enter Robb Elementary School through a back door this week, their calls to secure buildings resurfaced yet again.

But a deeper dive into the 2019 law revealed many of its “hardening” elements have fallen short.

Schools didn’t receive enough state money to make the types of physical improvements lawmakers are touting publicly. Few school employees signed up to bring guns to work. And many school districts either don’t have an active shooting plan or produced insufficient ones.

In January 2020, the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District received $69,000 from a one-time, $100 million state grant to enhance physical security in Texas public schools, according to a dataset detailing the Texas Education Agency grants. The funds were comparable to what similarly sized districts received.

Even with more funds and better enforcement of policies, experts have said there is no indication that beefing up security in schools has prevented any violence. Plus, they said, it can be detrimental to children, especially children of color.

“This concept of hardening, the more it has been done, it’s not shown the results,” said Jagdish Khubchandani, a public health professor at New Mexico State University who studies school security practices and their effectiveness.

Khubchandani said the majority of public schools in the United States already implement the security measures most often promoted by public officials, including locked doors to the outside and in classrooms, active-shooter plans and security cameras.

After a review of 18 years of school security measures, Khubchandani and James Price from the University of Toledo did not find any evidence that such tactics or more armed teachers reduced gun violence in schools.

“It’s not just guns. It’s not just security,” Khubchandani said. “It’s a combination of issues, and if you have a piecemeal approach, then you’ll never succeed. You need a comprehensive approach.”

I was on the board of our elementary school’s PTA in 2012, when the Sandy Hook murders happened. Our school adopted the “only one entrance” idea then, so even though there were other entrances to the school, you had to go through this one, and be buzzed in, if you wanted to visit. That could easily be defeated by an attacker, of course, but it’s in line with the official Republican response. The other ideas, you know, about limiting access to extremely deadly automatic weapons that can fire dozens of rounds in a few seconds, we’re still waiting on that.

Again, there’s plenty of reporting and analysis out there. You don’t need me to regurgitate it all. What we need, all of us, is a change in political leadership in this state, plus at least two more Democratic Senators, to maybe have a chance to move this forward. (We’ll also have to deal with the radical Supreme Court, but with those two more Democratic Senators, bigger things are on the table.) We’re not going to get anything from the Greg Abbotts and Dan Patricks. We have to get them out of power to have a chance.

UPDATE: Here’s two more things for you to read if you haven’t had enough yet.

The STAAR is back

Missed this last week.

For the first time since the pandemic began, Texas public schools will be rated based on how students score on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness — more commonly known as the annual STAAR test.

It’s the latest big step toward normalcy for the state’s 8,866 public schools — which includes 782 charter schools — since the COVID-19 pandemic forced school closures in early 2020.

But this year’s ratings come with a few changes. For this year only, schools will receive an A-C rating. Districts and schools that score D or F will receive a “Not Rated” label instead. Schools who fall in those bottom tiers will also evade possible sanctions from the Texas Education Agency during the 2022-2023 school year.

The news comes as thousands of students in grades 3 through 12 are taking the exam this spring. Last year, students had the option to take the STAAR test and results were not held against them or the district.

The ratings, those letter grades affixed on school buildings across the state, are typically released by the Texas Education Agency in August. But when the coronavirus began appearing in the United States more than two years ago, schools were shut down and as a result, standardized testing school testing was canceled for the year.

The new A-C rating this year will allow districts that still have a D or F from 2019 to have a shot of getting a better grade.

[…]

Last year, STAAR results showed that the pandemic had a significant impact on student learning with far lower scores than before the pandemic, especially when it came to math. Also, schools that relied more heavily on online class instruction had students who scored significantly lower than those school that were able to open and offer in-person instruction.

There’s fear that this year’s test scores may be impacted again because of pandemic-related school closures and teacher absences that occurred during surges in infection caused by the delta and omicron variants of the coronavirus.

Even though the rating system has been changed this year, not everyone is a fan of the school rating system to begin with.

Matthew Gutierrez, superintendent of the Seguin Independent School District, near San Antonio, believes the STAAR will be helpful to gauge students’ academic level, but the letter grades should’ve been postponed this school year as well because of the continued COVID-19 disruptions. Seguin, along with other districts, had teachers and substitutes out with COVID-19 during the omicron surge this past winter.

“We had students who went days without support from their certified teacher,” he said. “You had situations where you were combining classrooms and having really creative staffing, so it’s not optimal for learning.”

Gutierrez is also concerned about the “Not Rated” label. He said if a district scored an F in 2019 and then a D this school year, that district won’t get credit for that progress.

Yeah, last year’s STAAR results weren’t great. They might be better this year, but as a whole we’re likely still pulling ourselves out of the ditch caused by the pandemic. We could just do like last year and skip the grades, since we’re essentially giving the schools that don’t get good results a break. I’m not sure what the point of this halfway-accountable system is, and I’m also not sure that we missed anything by not going through this rigmarole the past couple of years. It’s been a hard year for everyone. Let’s accept that and make it a little easier on ourselves.

A bunch of well-financed wackos won school board races in Tarrant County

Not great.

All but one of the 11 Tarrant County conservative school board candidates, who were backed this year by several high-profile donors and big-money PACs, defeated their opponents during Saturday’s statewide election, according to unofficial election results. The one candidate backed by the groups who didn’t win outright advances to a runoff election in June.

The 10 candidates won the school board races for the Grapevine-Colleyville, Keller, Mansfield and Carroll school districts.

The candidates’ sweep shows a large swath of voters across the county responded to their calls to eradicate so-called critical race theory from classrooms and remove books discussing LGBTQ issues, which concerned parents have described as “pornographic.” Education experts, school administrators and teachers all say that critical race theory, a university-level concept that examines the institutional legacies of racism, is not taught in classrooms.

The victories also show that the staggering amounts of money that were poured into the once low-profile and nonpartisan local races are producing their intended effect. PACs organized by parents, as well as a newly-formed PAC from a self-proclaimed Christian cell phone company, collectively raised over half a million dollars for the local races this year. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on top political consulting firms that bolstered an anti-CRT platform with flyers saying the candidates were “saving America.”

See here for some background, and here for the cumulative election results. Turnout was way up from 2018 and I’m sure the money and the hot-button issues played some role in that, but it was also the case that many of those races were uncontested four years ago, and I daresay the population of these suburbs is a lot higher now, so the turnout as a share of registered voters (we don’t have that data on the 2022 report, it may be there after the official canvass) may be up by a smaller amount. I don’t mean to diminish what happened, I’m just trying to give some context. Anyone who knows more about the area or those races, please feel free to chime in.

It’s also instructive to compare to the 2020 election, where you may recall that the May races were postponed until November of that year due to COVID. Not all of those ISDs had races in 2020, or at least races that were reported by the Tarrant County election office, but Grapevine and Mansfield did, and the turnout comparison is of interest – I’ve listed the races in ascending order of total voters:

Grapevine 2018 = 6,666
Grapevine 2022 = 12,001
Grapevine 2020 = 45,453

Mansfield 2018 = 4,022
Mansfield 2022 = 11,035
Mansfield 2020 = 74,523

The 2020 totals for Grapevine and Mansfield are exaggerated a bit, as there were 10K undervotes in Grapevine (so about 35K actual voters there) and 23K undervotes in Mansfield (51K actual voters). It’s still the case that the November elections had vastly more participants, even in this charged and big-money environment. I don’t know how the Grapevine and Mansfield wingnut candidates might have done in a turnout context like that, or like what this November would be, which is to say less than 2020 but still considerably more than May, but those were the closest races among those reported in this story. For sure, it was easier for those outside agitators to have a more effective channel to the voters, without a much-bigger-money top of the ticket drowning them out. Against that, it may be that the default voter in those districts would have leaned towards the wingnuts anyway, just based on what they might have absorbed by osmosis. I say this all to note once again that the right wing activists once thought that forcing school board elections to be held in November of even-numbered years would partisanize them in their favor. I don’t think they think that now, and you can cite these races as evidence for it.

Some Dallas-area school board races are really crazy

We’re going to see more of this, I’m afraid.

New political action committees targeting North Texas school board seats are spending big money on conservative rallying cries ahead of Saturday’s elections.

Some Richardson voters, for example, received mailers decorated with baby blocks with the letters CRT. “RISD schools can’t teach the basics if they’re too busy teaching ‘critical race theory’ nonsense,” the flyers read.

It’s yet another sign of how local school board races are now the front lines of Republican culture war issues, such as those on race, gender, library books and parental choice.

At least 10 conservative PACs are trumpeting “taking back” school boards as they funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars to influence local races.

Some are tapping the same consulting groups, including GOP heavy hitter Axiom Strategies, which worked with Sen. Ted Cruz and helped on Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s strategy in Virginia.

Last month, Axiom received more than $100,000 from at least four local conservative PACs and a handful of the candidates they endorsed for school boards in Richardson, Keller, Highland Park and Southlake. Those funds largely went toward mailers, according to April 29 campaign finance filings.

“Usually those [races] would be below the radar screen for national-level political operations,” said Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University (SMU supports The Education Lab). “But so many of the really hot-button contentious issues over the last couple of years have been fought out at the school board level that it’s not surprising to start to see some of that.”

Axiom vice president Nick Maddux said in a statement that his firm works to win tough races across the nation.

“High-intensity school board campaigns have become the new norm,” he said.

Patriot Mobile Action, tied to a Texas-based cellphone company, spent more than $400,000 supporting conservative candidates in four North Texas school board races, NBC News reported. The PAC endorsed 11 candidates in Keller, Mansfield, Carroll and Grapevine Colleyville, according to its website.

It still has over $100,000 cash on hand, finance records show.

Meanwhile, several PACs are collectively spending tens of thousands of dollars with a group called Edgerton Strategies, a group with little online presence. It is registered to a lawyer in Wyoming but run by Erik Leist, a Keller father who does marketing work. He said he got involved with the different groups based on word-of-mouth.

Leist previously did communications work with a KISD parent who challenged a library book and disputed the district’s process for reviewing it.

Heading into the final stretch, the KISD Family Alliance PAC got a financial bump: A $10,000 donation from Monty Bennett, CEO of Ashford Inc. The hotelier is a major Republican donor.

While trustee races are technically nonpartisan, their work has become increasingly politicized over the past two years as ideological battles raged over COVID-19 protocols and how schools should discuss race and gender.

There’s more, but you get the idea. It’s not just in the Dallas area that these large sums of PAC money are pouring in to support wingnut candidates – John Coby has been documenting this for CCISD races. There’s been a bit of coverage on this in the Chron, but not nearly as detailed.

There was a time in the aughts during Tom Craddick’s Speakership when some Republicans wanted to mandate school board elections be held in November of even-numbered years, on the theory that this would necessarily make them more partisan, and that would work in Republicans’ favor. Clearly, they didn’t need the races to be in November for the partisanship. I don’t know what to expect today, but I won’t be surprised to wake up tomorrow and find out that a lot of terrible people are now on a bunch of school boards. Unfortunately, these are the times we are now in.

Abbott sees another opportunity to hurt children

He is definitely making this a habit.

Gov. Greg Abbott wants to “resurrect” a court challenge over a 1975 Texas law withholding state funds from school districts for kids who were not “legally admitted” into the United States. That law was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1982.

He made the remarks in an interview Wednesday on the Joe Pags radio show.

“The challenges put on our public systems is extraordinary,” Abbott said before referencing Plyler v. Doe, the ruling that overturned the Texas law. “I think that we will resurrect that case and challenge this issue again because the expenses are extraordinary and the times are different than when Plyler v. Doe was issued many years ago.”

In that case, the court ruled that “education has a fundamental role in maintaining the fabric of our society,” and withholding it from the children of immigrants in the country without paperwork “does not comport with fundamental conceptions of justice.” People living without documentation in the country remain people “in any ordinary sense of the term” and are thus entitled to the same basic rights as anyone else in the country.

We’re going to see a lot more of this, because people like Abbott have realized that SCOTUS is now a cheat code for achieving whatever policy ends they want, without having to legislate them. You could say that the policy he seeks to achieve here is the reversal of one that had been done via the court and not the legislative process. The difference is that the litigants in the Plyler case had to win on the merits and could have lost. They didn’t get to count on having a majority on the court that was ideologically on their side and willing to use their power towards that end.

If you can’t see what a public policy disaster it would be, not to mention a moral catastrophe, to prevent children from getting an education, I’m really not sure what to tell you. As Stace says, it’s yet another reason to vote Abbott and the rest of his crew out of office in November. TPM, Daily Kos, the Texas Signal, and Amanda Marcotte have more.

Southlake keeps on Southlaking

On brand.

Seven months after teachers at the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake, Texas, went public with their concerns about an administrator’s advice to balance books on the Holocaust with titles that show “opposing” perspectives, district employees this week discovered that a new clause had been added to their annual employment contracts, listed under the heading: “Non-Disparagement.”

“You agree to not disparage, criticize, or defame the District, and its employees or officials, to the media,” it read.

Four Carroll teachers, speaking on the condition that they not be named because they feared retaliation, said they were disturbed by the new contract language.

“Only a district that is knowingly doing something wrong would choose to silence its entire staff,” one of them wrote in a text message to a reporter on Thursday.

“I hadn’t yet decided if I was going to leave, but it seems the district decided for me!” another wrote.

Officials for both the National Education Association and the Texas State Teachers Association, unions that represent teachers nationally and across Texas, condemned the contract language as an attempt to silence teachers.

“This is the first time we have heard of a school district putting that language into a teacher contract,” said Clay Robison, a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association. “It is a rejection of a teacher’s fundamental First Amendment rights. A teacher also is a taxpayer, who is entitled to criticize a public school district.”

Michael Leroy, a labor law expert at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said that prohibiting public school employees from criticizing their district “is absolutely indefensible under the Constitution,” adding that the new clause in Carroll’s teacher contracts is “clearly unconstitutional. I mean, that’s not even a close call.”

Nondisparagement clauses are more common in the employment contracts of private companies, which are not subject to the First Amendment, Leroy said.

[…]

Leroy, the University of Illinois law professor, said the nondisparagement clause appears to violate a half-century-old U.S. Supreme Court precedent that established the right of government employees to speak on matters of public importance, even if it means criticizing their employer.

In that 1968 case, Pickering v. Board of Education, the court found that a school district in Illinois violated a teacher’s First Amendment rights when it fired him for writing a letter to a local newspaper criticizing the school board for prioritizing funding for athletics over teacher salaries.

“If a teacher, and for that matter if a public employee, is speaking on a matter of public concern, it is protected speech,” Leroy said, noting that the only time he’s seen government employees asked to sign a nondisparagement clause has been in settlement agreements after public employees have been fired, not as a condition of their employment.

Two other labor law experts agreed that a blanket ban on teachers criticizing a public school district is probably unconstitutional.

A Carroll teacher, texting a reporter from her lunch break, summarized her reaction to the new contract language this way: “It seems like if we say anything to anyone then we’re screwed. What happened to freedom of speech?”

See here for the previous example. Maybe they need Elon Musk to buy Carroll ISD, if he has any cash left over after Twitter.

Lawsuit filed over Llano County libraries

This is going to be something to watch.

Seven Llano County residents filed a federal lawsuit Monday against the county judge, commissioners, library board members and library systems director for restricting and banning books from its three-branch public library system.

The lawsuit states that the county judge, commissioners and library director removed several books off shelves, suspended access to digital library books, replaced the Llano County library board with community members in favor of book bans, halted new library book orders and allowed the library board to close its meetings to the public in a coordinated censorship campaign that violates the First Amendment and 14th Amendment.

The plaintiffs — Leila Green Little, Jeanne Puryear, Kathy Kennedy, Rebecca Jones, Richard Day, Cynthia Waring and Diane Moster — insist their constitutional rights were violated when public officials censored books based on content and failed to provide proper notice or an avenue for community comment.

When the plaintiffs attempted to check out several removed books, they said, they were denied access.

“Public libraries are not places of government indoctrination. They are not places where the people in power can dictate what their citizens are permitted to read about and learn,” the lawsuit states. “When government actors target public library books because they disagree with and intend to suppress the ideas contained within them, it jeopardizes the freedoms of everyone.”

Plaintiffs’ lawyer Ellen Leonida said she plans to file a preliminary injunction this week to get books back on shelves and access to the digital library distributor, OverDrive, reinstated while the lawsuit is pending. Leonida also wants the lawsuit to serve as a warning that small groups like the one in this case cannot control the availability of books without legal resistance.

“They can’t censor books, unequivocally, based on viewpoints that they disagree with,” Leonida said.

[…]

In November, Bonnie Wallace, who eventually became the vice chair of the new Llano County library board, emailed Llano County Judge Ron Cunningham with a list of 60 books on Krause’s list that were available in Llano libraries, according to emails referenced in the lawsuit and obtained by The Texas Tribune. Later that day, Cunningham directed library system director Amber Milum to remove “all books that depict any type of sexual activity or questionable nudity.”

In addition to library books’ removal, Cunningham told librarians to stop ordering new publications in November, according to the lawsuit.

Listed as the lawsuit’s defendants were Cunningham; Llano County Commissioners Jerry Don Moss, Peter Jones, Mike Sandoval and Linda Raschke; Milum, the library director; and library board members Rochelle Wells, Rhonda Schneider, Gay Baskin and Wallace.

I had to reread this and then check Google to make sure I got this right: We are talking about the PUBLIC LIBRARIES in Llano County, not the school libraries. Do you want Commissioners Court deciding what books you can read? I didn’t think so. Here’s some local coverage with more details.

The lawsuit, “Little et al v. Llano County et al,” is a direct result of recent actions taken by Llano County officials within the library system, including the recent removal of books from library shelves, switching the library system’s online reading services from OverDrive to Bibliotheca, the dissolution and creation of the county’s Library Advisory Board, and the March 9 termination of the head librarian of the Kingsland Branch Library.

The lawsuit is being filed on behalf of plaintiffs Leila Green Little, Jeanne Puryear, Kathy Kennedy, Rebecca Jones, Richard Day, Cynthia Waring, and Diane Moster, all of whom are Llano County residents and users of the library system.

[…]

The complaint claims county officials violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights laid out in the First Amendment, which protects freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, and the press.

Some examples outlined in the legal document are the removal of 12 books, including “In the Night Kitchen” by Maurice Sendak, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson, and “Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen” by Jazz Jennings; the suspension of new book acquisitions; and the decision to discontinue use of the online reading service OverDrive, which now operates as Libby.

The complaint also states that the rights laid out in the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees U.S. citizens the right to due process, are being violated.

That part of the complaint argues that the aforementioned actions were done secretively and without due process as laid out in the county’s adopted policies and guidelines published by the Texas Library Association and other industry experts. It also references the county Library Advisory Board’s recent decision to close meetings to the public.

“Bringing legal claims under both the First and Fourteenth amendments allows Plaintiffs to ask the judge not only to order defendants to put banned books back on the shelves and reinstate OverDrive access, but also to mandate certain procedural protections be put in place to ensure that defendants can’t engage in this kind of censorship again in the future,” said Amy Senia, an associate with BraunHagey & Borden.

Evidence provided in the legal document includes direct quotes from emails and other correspondence sent between county officials, advisory board members, and library staff.

The story provides a PACER link to court documents. You lawyers out there, please weigh in on this one. There was a recent Washington Post story about how the fervor for banning books in schools had metastasized into doing the same at public libraries, with Llano County as the focus; there’s a reprint of it here. My favorite detail is that the “new library board stacked with conservative appointees” includes several people who don’t even have library cards. Because of course they don’t. I think you can guess how I’ll be rooting in this one. Daily Kos and the Chron have more.

UPDATE: Speaking of school libraries, there’s some action on that front as well.

The ACLU of Texas last week sent a letter accusing San Antonio’s North East Independent School District of violating the First Amendment by permanently banning 110 books from its school libraries last month.

The April 20 letter, first reported locally by the Express-News, also accused the district of violating its own polices with the book removal. The ACLU demands that the district return the tomes to its shelves, apologize for its “grave missteps” and commit to educating its students on the United States’ “history of racism.”

“All books recommended for removal must be placed back on North East ISD shelves as swiftly as possible,” the ACLU writes. “If the district seeks to review any books for removal in the future, it must follow its written policy for doing so.”

I’ll keep an eye on that as well.

Early voting for the May 7 elections begins tomorrow

We all have at least one election to vote in, so get ready to get out there.

On May 7, Texas voters will have the opportunity to weigh in on two proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution, as well as a number of other contests, from local propositions to city council seats.

Early voting for the May 7 elections runs from Monday, April 25, through Tuesday, May 3. As always, polls will be open on Election Day, Saturday, May 7, from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m.

[…]

To vote by mail in Texas, you must be 65 years old or older, sick or disabled, out of the county on Election Day and during the early voting period or confined in jail but otherwise eligible.

The last day to apply for a mail-in ballot for the May 7 election is Tuesday, April 26 (received, not postmarked).

This will be a good chance to see if any counties have learned from the March mail ballot debacle and taken steps to reduce the number of rejected ballots. That responsibility very much falls on the political parties as well, and the May 24 primary runoffs will be the bigger test for them. I will be keeping a close eye on this.

(By the way, tomorrow is also the deadline to register to vote for the primary runoffs, if somehow you are not currently registered to vote.)

A list of early voting locations for Harris County for the May 7 election is here and the interactive map is here. Note that fewer locations than usual are available, as this is going to be a low turnout affair, so check to ensure your regular spot is open. I note that the West End Multi-Service Center, on Heights Blvd just south of I-10, which I’ve been using lately as it’s a reasonable bike ride from my house, is not available this time. Check before you head out and save yourself some trouble.

What’s on your ballot for this election? Everyone gets to vote on the two constitutional amendments that were placed on the ballot during the last special session. Prop 2, which increases the homestead exemption from $25K to $40K, is worth a Yes. Prop 1, which approves a property tax cut for elderly and disabled homeowners, is your call. Wherever you are and whatever other races there may be, this one is for all of us to vote on.

In Harris County there is the special election for the remainder of the term in HD147, which is between Jolanda Jones and Danielle Bess. Those two are also in the primary runoff on May 24 – yes, I know, this is weird and confusing – and it really only matters if the same person wins both races. For higher stakes there is the special election in HCC District 2, with four candidates running to replace Rhonda Skillern-Jones. You can listen to the interviews I did with each candidate. For HD147:

Jolanda Jones
Danielle Bess

For HCC2:

Charlene Ward Johnson
Baby Jayne McCullough
Kathy Lynch Gunter
Terrance Hall

Also in Harris County, there are several school bond referenda:

In Fort Bend County, there are two races for Fort Bend ISD, in District 3 and District 7. Note that one of the candidates for District 7 is a problem.

In Montgomery County, there are a bunch of special purpose district elections. If you live in Montgomery, check very carefully to see if one of those includes you.

There are undoubtedly plenty of others, but I’ve only got so much space and time. Check your local elections office webpage for further details, and get out there and vote.