Q: Our district wishes to conduct active shooter drills to promote campus awareness, preparedness, and safety. Did I hear correctly that Governor Abbott signed a bill into law that might impact how we conduct these emergency drills?
A: Yes. Governor Abbott executed SB 168, which amends Chapter 37 of the Texas Education Code to establish various requirements a school district must meet in order to conduct an active threat exercise, including design and development, notification, and data-tracking. Because these drills can at times be traumatizing, the amendment is intended to safeguard the mental health and well-being of school district students and staff before, during, and after the drills.
While current Texas law does not require school districts to conduct active shooter drills, several school districts, in response to tragedies occurring nation-wide, have implemented active threat exercises, such as active shooter drills and simulations, to prepare their campuses and communities in the event of a school shooting. As active shooter drills become more commonplace throughout the state and nation, a debate has emerged questioning the negative impacts such drills have on the mental health of students and school employees.
Governor Abbott signed SB 168, better known as the “School Safety Bill,” into law on June 14, 2021. The School Safety Bill amends Chapter 37 of the Texas Education Code to include required actions by a school district when implementing an active threat exercise. These safeguards are intended to prepare students and staff for worst-case scenarios while limiting the detrimental impacts such drills have had on their well-being in the past. See Tex. Educ. Code § 37.1411.
The School Safety Bill became effective upon the Governor’s signature. As such, before conducting any active threat exercise this school year, public school districts in the state of Texas must ensure that the content of any such drill or exercise be “age appropriate and developmentally appropriate;” “developed by a team of school administrators, teachers, school-based mental health professionals, and law enforcement officers, with input from parents and students;” and ensure that the drill is “designed to support the well-being of students who participate in the exercise before, during, and after the exercise is conducted.” Id. at § 37.1411(a)(5). School districts must also provide adequate notice to participating students, their parents, participating staff, and first responder organizations before conducting any active threat exercise. Such notice must include information regarding “the date on which the exercise will occur;” “the content, form, and tone of the exercise;” and “whether the exercise will include a live simulation that mimics or appears to be an actual shooting incident.” Districts must similarly announce to students and faculty before conducting the drill, if applicable, that the drill will include a live simulation that mimics an actual threat. Districts must additionally create a “safe zone” around the area where the drill will be conducted to keep weapons, other than those carried by qualified individuals like police officers, away from school grounds.
The Education Code further requires school districts who wish to conduct active threat exercises to track and submit data regarding the efficacy and impact of their drills, including any feedback regarding the drills from students, staff, and their family members, to the Texas School Safety Center (“TxSSC”). Additional information and guidance from the TxSSC regarding mandatory and/or emergency drills is available online at Training, Drilling, and Exercising Toolkit and Drill Guidance.
Notably, Governor Abbott also signed HB 3597 into law just four days after executing the School Safety Bill, on June 18, 2021. HB 3597 also amended several provisions within Chapter 37 of the Texas Education Code concerning school safety. Relevant here, the Commissioner of Education must now, in consultation with TxSSC and the State Fire Marshal, adopt rules designating the number and type of mandatory drills districts shall conduct each semester – not to exceed eight drills per semester. See id. at § 37.114(2). The Commissioner’s rules regarding mandatory drills are available online and codified as 19 Tex. Admin. Code § 103.1209.
Please consult with your local school attorney if you have specific questions or seek additional information about the School Safety Bill and its requirements affecting active threat exercises and active shooter drills.