Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators
/ATPE/media/News-Magazine/18_news_Spring_SchoolViolence_Feature_1.jpg?ext=.jpg /ATPE/media/News-Magazine/18_news_Spring_SchoolViolence_Feature_1.jpg?ext=.jpg

Taking Action to Keep Students Safe

Columbine High School. Sandy Hook Elementary. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Santa Fe High School.

In 1999, the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado ushered in a new era of school gun violence. Thirteen victims died. Then, in 2018, Texas’s Santa Fe High School found itself near the top of a statistic where no one wants to be number one. In an effort to prevent future tragedies, a growing number of ATPE members and their colleagues are stepping forward to ask questions, get training, and take action to keep students safe. Here are their takeaways.

Keep It Local

For some ATPE members, school safety begins at the state Capitol. ATPE State Vice President Tonja Gray was one of the ATPE officers selected to participate in a roundtable discussion convened by Governor Greg Abbott in the days following the Santa Fe shooting. Participants talked about metal detectors, school resource officers, marshal plans, and guardian plans, but Gray says one important thread emerged. “We have to remember there’s no one size fits all,” she says. “What works in Mesquite may not work in Hawley. We need to let the districts decide for themselves what will work best for them in their home communities rather than saddling districts with state or federal mandates.”

Gray also highlighted what she described as the elephant in the room: STAAR testing. “STAAR testing is number one on every teacher’s list,” she says. “If you want safety to be number one, you have to take STAAR out of the number one slot. There’s only so much time in the day.” Gray also noted that many school counselors statewide have been serving as test coordinators, leaving limited time for trained counselors to focus on students’ mental health and well-being.

Resource Links

Following the roundtable sessions, the governor released his School Safety Action Plan. Read it here:


And if you want to get involved, visit ATPE’s Advocacy Central, which serves as a direct line of communication with your legislators.


Make Mental Health a Priority

As a former superintendent, Dr. Shannon Holmes, ATPE’s executive director, is acutely aware of the classroom teacher’s daily reality. Teachers are not only asked to achieve excellence in the classroom and meet the goals of STAAR testing, but they are also often serving in the role of “social worker,” dealing with issues from hunger and homelessness, to immigration and healthcare. Holmes believes mental health issues are at the root of school violence. “Going to school is partly about learning the content and partly about learning the system—the coping mechanisms. School is about kids learning to navigate life, whether it’s overcoming conflicts with other students or completing a college entrance application. The kids’ mental health has to be one of our highest priorities.”

Resource Link
Youth Mental Health First Aid is designed to teach educators, school staff, caregivers, parents, family members, peers, neighbors, and health and human services workers how to help adolescents between the ages of 12 to 18 who are experiencing challenges with mental health. The course outlines common mental health challenges for youth, reviews typical adolescent development, and teaches a five-step action plan for how to help young people in both crisis and non-crisis situations. Topics covered include anxiety, depression, substance use, eating disorders, disorders in which psychosis may occur, and disruptive behavior disorders such as ADHD.
The training is free for public school employees, and information is available at

Give Kids a Voice and Build a Network

Dr. Cissy Perez is the assistant superintendent in West Oso ISD and serves on the board of the Texas School Safety Center. Created in 1999 following the Columbine shooting, the center is located at Texas State University in San Marcos. Its priorities include addressing school violence, assisting students in the wake of natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey, and helping prevent suicides.

“I think our accountability system and curriculum have not kept up enough with this new generation of children who are growing up in a social media world,” says Perez. “Kids are not learning to cope with loss, with imperfection, in our curriculum. It’s about passing an English test or a math test. We’ve got to get to the root of the problem, whether kids are shooting themselves or shooting others. Kids don’t want to die, and they don’t want other people to die. They just want to get rid of the pain.”

When the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting happened in Florida, Perez was the principal of Ray High School in Corpus Christi. She knew students needed a way to channel their sense of fear and frustration, so she hosted a legislative town hall meeting. “I had 200 students in the library, and I invited three of our legislators. I wanted to make sure our students had a voice. We need to hear from the kids to solve the problems happening in their world.”

Perez emphasizes that real solutions are a shared responsibility. She hopes educators will learn to detect warning signs. “Principals and superintendents can sometimes feel alone,” she says. “But there are people who can tell you what’s working and what’s not. Use the Texas School Safety Center and network, network, network.”

Resource Link
The Texas School Safety Center is the state’s hub for research, training, and technical assistance for K-12 schools and community colleges. In addition, the center also builds partnerships among youth, adults, schools, law enforcement officers, and the community. Their annual conference and statewide workshops offer live training, and extensive resources are available online. Learn more at

Create Strong Facilities and Relationships

In Splendora, just north of Houston, superintendent Dr. Jeff Burke says he’s worked to “harden the facilities.” In districts across Texas, this includes locks, barricades, metal detectors, cameras, security staff, police dogs, and more. He also says that it’s what happens inside the building that matters most. “We do Rachel’s Challenge, which came out of Columbine,” he says. “We work hard to create a positive culture, to make people feel valued, and to give them a voice. We try to make sure no kids feel isolated, and our tri-county counseling services provide extra help.” The district also uses the RAVE app to connect students and staff in emergencies.

Resource Links
Rachel Joy Scott was the first person killed in the Columbine High School shooting on April 20, 1999. In her final school essay, she wrote, “I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction of the same. People will never know how far a little kindness can go.” After her death, many students shared stories with Rachel’s family that highlighted just how profound those simple acts of kindness could be. Today, Rachel’s Challenge operates as a nonprofit organization dedicated to “Making schools safer, more connected places where bullying and violence are replaced with kindness and respect; and where learning and teaching are awakened to their fullest.” To implement Rachel’s Challenge on your campus, visit
The RAVE app for K-12 is described as a “mobile panic button.” It helps students report threats anonymously before a tragedy happens, and it can instantly notify staff and first responders of an incident. Information is available at

Rely on the Experts

In Texas City, just down the road from Santa Fe, superintendent Dr. Rodney Cavness sat down to discuss school safety and found himself surrounded by curriculum and technology experts, but no safety experts. With support from his school board, he hired a former secret service agent who served on the presidential detail to manage his security program. “In the past, we’ve led from the rear,” he says. “Every decision was based on where somebody else made a mistake. We need to quit forming committees of people who have no knowledge of security and admit we’re not safety and security experts. There is no excuse for not protecting people the best way you can.”

While Cavness admits no plan is perfect, his district takes advantage of every resource, from technology to threat assessment training to “boots on the ground,” and relies on his expert’s guidance. “He’s super disciplined,” says Cavness. “He’s intelligent. He has the highest level of investigation skills. And he’s a weapons expert. Some people may think we’ve gone overboard, but I think we’ve just scratched the surface. We’re talking about people’s lives here.”

Resource Link
This spring, the Texas School Safety Center is hosting school threat assessment workshops to help educators recognize dangerous behavior and take preventive measures. Find a workshop near you, or take advantage of the online program, at

Continuing the Discussion

To keep schools safe, educators, law enforcement partners, and their home communities must listen, treat each other with respect, and trust that every person speaking out has the best interests of students at heart. “The education community must work together to make student safety a top priority,” says Holmes. “Our public schools should be a safe place where students learn and grow. Students—and educators—deserve to feel safe in their classrooms.” 


Author: G. Elaine Acker