Liz Mulroney felt like it was 1999 all over again.
A gunman had killed 19 students and two teachers in Uvalde. The North Texas teacher had flashbacks to watching teenagers jumping out of windows on TV during the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, where two gunmen killed 13 people.
As an English teacher who has taught in Colorado and Texas, Mulroney says her career has been “colored by school shootings and violence in schools.”
Now, one year after the massacre at Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School, Mulroney is among North Texas teachers, parents and students who say they feel powerless in the face of mass shootings that have plagued the state.
Heated debates on school safety have spread like wildfire. High school students across Texas led one walkout after another to demand action from lawmakers. State representatives and senators introduced bills tied to billion-dollar proposals that would bolster security. Gov. Greg Abbott introduced a new safety requirement that seeks to prevent intruder access.
But for the tens of thousands of Texans who teach, learn and work at public schools every day, some say nothing has really changed.
“I feel like we’re still there … it’s still happening,” Mulroney said.
Having a 14-year-old in high school and a husband who works in school construction and design, Mulroney, who lives in Lucas, says conversations on school safety are a constant at the family dinner table. But the overwhelming feeling that crept up when she first went through lockdown training at the beginning of her career still lingers.
“It’s a terrifying thing to have to do when you’re responsible for children,” she said. “You’re not just fighting for your own life, you’re fighting to protect other people’s children’s lives, too.”
Failure to act
Before May 24, 2022, Uvalde was a small, predominantly Latino city in South Texas that few had heard about. Now its name is synonymous with the deadliest school shooting in the state’s history and the second deadliest elementary shooting in the country.
Most of the victims were fourth graders from the same class. The two others were teachers who had taught for five years at the Uvalde elementary school.
The shooter slipped into the building through an unlocked side door and remained in the school for more than an hour before law enforcement shot him. Police’s inaction and failure to act stunned and enraged people across the nation.
In June 2022, Abbott ordered the Texas School Safety Center and the Texas Education Agency to start performing inspections, or safety checks, on school campuses across the state. These inspections should be “in-person, unannounced, random intruder detection audits” and have the goal of finding how quickly an intruder could get into a school building without being stopped.
Abbott noted that the center must ensure “a culture of constant vigilance is ingrained in every campus.”
The governor also promoted an app called iWatch Texas, where anyone can report suspicious activity or “behaviors that may indicate criminal, terroristic or school safety-related threats.” The tool has not been widely used across the state. Over 300 school districts in Texas instead use STOPit, a reporting software owned by a private company.
By October, Abbott created a new position within the TEA, chief of school safety and security, and provided $400 million for school districts to improve their facilities and safety systems.
Meanwhile, school districts across the state had to respond to students, families and employees who were terrified their school could be next.
Dallas ISD mandated all students from sixth through 12th grade to start using clear backpacks to school. They provided a backpack for each student and banned any bag that wasn’t clear or made out of mesh.
“There are usually questions from parents when highly publicized safety events occur at other districts around Texas or the country,” Richardson ISD spokesperson Tim Clark said.
To address frequent concerns, Richardson ISD created an FAQ page on the district’s website. Some of the questions parents often ask are whether the district has employees dedicated to school safety or police officers in every school building. The answer to both questions is yes.
At the Capitol
During this year’s legislative session, lawmakers filed multiple bills on school safety. The legislation proposed adding more armed personnel on campuses and increasing mental health support and security technology.
Separately from the school safety bills, some of the families of Uvalde victims went to the Capitol several times to testify in support of a House bill that would raise the age to purchase semiautomatic weapons from 18 to 21.
A recent survey from the University of Texas at Austin found that 57% of Texans support raising the legal age to purchase any firearm from 18 to 21.
The Uvalde shooter legally purchased the rifle used to kill 21 people just a few days after his 18th birthday. A year before the massacre, he unsuccessfully tried to buy a rifle and ammunition. He was still 17 and couldn’t get a firearm.
The bill has strong opponents, including Abbott.
The debates around the school safety bills have focused on the role of firearms on campuses.
Texas has two programs that allow school personnel to carry firearms: Marshal and Guardian. Both programs require school districts to opt-in. Since the Uvalde shooting, Republican state leaders have been pushing proposals that would arm additional staff.
One of the requirements for the Marshal program is to undergo 80 hours of training and a psychological exam. The same is not true for the Guardian program.
One bill would require every school campus to have at least one armed staff present during school hours.
Another bill that received significant support from the Legislature would offer an incentive of up to $25,000 for school employees willing to carry guns on campuses.
These bills have been highly criticized by Democrats who believe arming school personnel is not a solution to gun violence.
Zeph Capo, president of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said, “We have a problem with guns in the hands of the wrong people.”
A survey by the Texas AFT found that 77% of Texas school employees do not want to be armed or expected to intercept a gunman.
“Using mental health as a diversion from real issues is not the right thing,” Capo said. “Yes, we need to provide more money to mental health, particularly in school time for counselors to actually do counseling instead of test prep and other things.”
But financially supporting changes within districts has been difficult, as the state support is limited. Many districts try to pass bonds locally but fail to do so because residents are afraid of higher property taxes.
In the aftermath of the Santa Fe High School shooting in 2018, the state started to provide an annual per-student allotment for security purposes. Proposed bills would increase the amount from $10 to $100.
Another proposal would require schools to have “silent alert” devices that would immediately contact law enforcement and first responders.
Craig Miller, a retired Dallas ISD chief of police, told The Dallas Morning News that school districts should focus on the fundamentals of safety. “Technology is great, but sometimes we have to take a step back,” he said.
One example is to make sure all doors are locked and numbered so that, when law enforcement enters the building during an emergency, they’ll know exactly where the threat is.
Miller emphasized the importance of behavior threat assessment teams and counseling. If a student is depressed or suicidal, these teams need to be informed.
He believes in a more “common sense” approach to school safety, which includes vetting people before they come into the school and reducing the number of entrance points.
The day-to-day experiences in school grounds haven’t changed much, said Rosemary Curts, a Dallas ISD math teacher.
“We’ve got key cards. We’ve been more vigilant about students having ID badges. All doors stay locked,” Curts said. “But all of that feels like safety theater to me. It doesn’t make me feel safer.”
Curts said the kind of security measures that have been implemented wouldn’t stop a person who wants to shoot up a school.
She believes gun control is the only way to go. “They say people just get [guns] anyway. But if you’re going to make that argument, why do we have laws in society at all?”
Teacher Liz Mulroney’s only child, Trevor, comes up with some sort of survival strategy for almost every room at school.
“I shouldn’t have to worry about that,” Trevor said. “It’s a problem that shouldn’t exist.”
Roughly half of school shootings are carried out by current or former students. Trevor said he worries this leaves schools vulnerable to those who are familiar with the security measures in place.
Instead of heavier security, the 14-year-old said he believes building a sense of community is essential as Texas moves forward.
Malcolm Mulroney, Trevor’s father, designs school buildings, thinking of solutions to this problem. But he said that alone won’t keep campuses safe.
“When will we as a community say, ‘This is not acceptable. It’s not going to happen in my community’?” Malcolm asked.
The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.
The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, Garrett and Cecilia Boone, The Meadows Foundation, The Murrell Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University, Sydney Smith Hicks and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.