Texas School Safety Center defends delays in accountability

ByTed Oberg and Sarah Rafique via KTRK logo
Thursday, September 15, 2022
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The school safety center defended its decision to work with districts rather than require public hearings for not submitting emergency plans on time.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- With hoaxes of school shootings impacting at least four schools across Texas this week, campus police and administrators were forced to utilize their district's state-mandated emergency operations plans.

Although the Texas School Safety Center says every district now has a basic plan in place, our 13 Investigates team is uncovering new concerns about why the center didn't require public hearings for districts who didn't turn in their plans by the first deadline.

The center, which is part of Texas State University, is in charge of collecting and reviewing every public school district's emergency operations and active-shooter plans. But, in a 2017-2020 District Audit Report, the center admits hundreds of districts didn't have the required plans.

RELATED: Lack of school safety audit follow-up leaves lawmaker near speechless

An anonymous letter, sent to a state senator on Aug. 26 and obtained by 13 Investigates, raises concerns about whether the center covered up school districts' lack of action.

The center on Thursday defended itself against accusations that it wasn't fast enough to hold school districts accountable, saying it decided on a more collaborative approach with noncompliant districts.

Bobby Mason, Texas State's Assistant Vice President for Institutional Compliance and Chief Compliance Officer, said he received the anonymous letter last Tuesday and started an investigation, which included interviews with four staffers as well as "reviewing significant supporting documentation."

"We take all allegations of noncompliance extremely seriously, so when we received the letter, we reviewed the letter," Mason told 13 Investigates' Ted Oberg. "We were unable to substantiate those allegations outlined in the letter."

Still, our investigation found hundreds of Texas school districts didn't submit proper plans on time and yet only one district was forced to admit that in public in a hearing, which is the only non-compliance penalty under the law.

The anonymous letter, which appears to be from someone who considers themselves a whistleblower, was sent to lawmakers in August and alleges the center's director ignored pleas from employees to inform districts they were out of compliance and require them to hold a public hearing.

The letter says on June 4, 2020, districts were given 90 days to submit their Emergency Operations Plans to the Center.

There were 303 schools that didn't comply, but the Center refused to notify the Texas Education Agency of the noncompliance, the letter claims. It also mentions 10 schools didn't submit a plan and another 87 submitted deficient plans, but just one district was notified that it needed to hold a public hearing due to its noncompliance "despite numerous pleas from Center employees" that all of the districts be notified.

Mason admits the center didn't follow the law when it came to notifying districts, but says it still communicated with districts to help them submit their plans.

"We were able to document there was communication between the center and the school districts as it relates to complying and those responses. Were they fully compliant with the letter of the code in that first phase? As I said in my letter, I would say they did not fully comply," he said.

He said since the law was new, and this was the first time districts had to report their emergency operations plans, the Texas School Safety Center staff, together with the Governor's office, opted for collaboration instead of strict accountability in that first round of reporting.

"What I was told is that this first round approach was going to be a collaborative, supportive effort," Mason said. "This statewide review of these (Emergency Operations Plans) has never been done so this is a massive undertaking and so the approach was ... an effort to try and help schools comply. If I can make it easy for somebody to comply, then they normally will. If they make it more difficult to comply, it makes it harder for everybody involved."

The letter also questions why a list of best practice training modules for active shooters wasn't developed and shared by the center faster. Although the letter says it wasn't shared until the day of the Uvalde shooting, the audit proved it was actually done six days earlier, but that's still two and a half years after the law went into effect in September 2019.

"I did not see a deadline anywhere in the requirement from a compliance standpoint of when those courses had to be done," Mason said. "From the board meetings, it's obvious that this center was keeping their board appraised and working aggressively to be able to implement and get that registry online."

Lawmakers have not yet weighed in on the concerns outlined in the anonymous letter or the initial review of it by Texas State's compliance department, but have already promised changes to the way the center operates.

The center this week started a second review of school plans, and this time, the focus is on those active shooter responses specifically.

"They've got an opportunity to demonstrate that they can execute this process with the hindsight of the first round of reviews," Mason said.

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