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This East Texas town had to boil its water on Thanksgiving as officials seek a solution to aging infrastructure

"An East Texas town must boil its water on Thanksgiving as officials seek a solution to aging infrastructure" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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ZAVALLA — The nearly 700 residents here must boil their water this Thanksgiving as the small East Texas town grapples with aging infrastructure that has left residents without safe water for 10 days this month.

The working-class town, 23 miles southeast of Lufkin, has had problems with its water system for years, but issues worsened this month when water pressure decreased so much that the city issued a boil-water notice on Nov. 14. Low pressure then turned into a complete stoppage for several days that caused schools and businesses to shut down. In trying to fix the problem, the city identified multiple infrastructure problems, including a malfunctioning vacuum pump and leaks in several water lines.

“It’s almost as if a tsunami has hit us,” said city councilwoman Kim Retherford. “It’s not given us any time to breathe.”

The situation in Zavalla is reflective of issues with water supplies statewide, as water infrastructure has aged and become increasingly vulnerable while the state’s population continues to grow. Rural towns in East Texas are particularly prone to issues with water quality and supply — according to data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, East Texas has experienced more boil-water notices in the past decade than any other area.

Rural communities’ water systems are often run by volunteers or city leaders who lack the technical knowledge to meet growing state and federal regulations. With limited funds, these communities also delay or forgo much-needed repairs.

“Everything you’re experiencing is a 20- or 30-year problem in the making that has come to a head,” Kelley Holcomb, Angelina & Neches River Authority general manager, said during an emergency City Council meeting this week. “You’re not going to get out of this cheap.”

In Zavalla, most of the city’s water has been restored, but the boil-water notice remains in effect. A lab in Nacogdoches will test water samples and determine if the notice can be lifted.

Angelina County Judge Keith Wright stepped in earlier this week and requested that the state assist Zavalla. The Texas Division of Emergency Management fulfilled the request, sending bottled water and deploying the Texas A&M Public Works Response Team.

Bert Nitzke, part of the team from A&M that formed earlier this year, said his team has repaired three leaks and is continuing to check all of the city’s water lines for a loss of pressure, which would indicate a leak.

At the emergency meeting this week, little progress was made in developing a long-term solution to the town’s water woes. The city’s public works director resigned this week, and few people in Texas have the particular license needed to work on the city’s largest well due to its close proximity to surface water.

At the meeting, the City Council voted to postpone assigning a contract to a licensed well-worker, and disgruntled residents expressed frustration.

“I work a lot of hours and all I want when I get home is a hot shower,” one resident said. “I’m here as a community member saying we don’t need to have this problem in the future. We need a team working on this.”

Community members suggested that the city apply for private grants to overhaul the entire water system.

Holcomb suggested that the city begin sourcing its water from Lufkin, a solution he said would take five years to implement.

“You’re not going to be able to solve your problems by yourself,” Holcomb said. “That stuff is old, it needs to be replaced — it needed to be replaced 20 years ago.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/11/23/east-texas-boil-water-notice-thanksgiving/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

What Greg Abbott’s decisive win over O’Rourke means for his third term in office

"What Greg Abbott’s decisive win over Beto O’Rourke portends for his third term in office" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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An unprecedented pandemic that shut down the state economy and killed thousands of Texans. A power-grid failure that left millions freezing in the dark. The deadliest school shooting in the state’s history. The end of a 50-year constitutional right to get an abortion. A restless right flank. And then Beto O’Rourke.

Gov. Greg Abbott is emerging from the most tumultuous two years of his governorship with a decisive reelection victory in hand. His election was among the brightest spots for Republicans nationwide on election night, as the party underperformed expectations of a “red wave.”

After defeating O’Rourke — Texas’ most promising Democrat in recent history — Abbott begins his third term in a strong position, with a rising national profile and a governing mandate in the eyes of fellow Republicans.

Still, Abbott faces high expectations for the next legislative session, unsettled pressures from inside his party and questions about his own political future. Not to mention he is still dealing with the ongoing — and politically fraught — responses to major events of the past couple of years, like the Uvalde massacre that left 19 school children dead.

“He clearly won by double digits,” said state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, referring to Abbott’s 11-point margin over O’Rourke. “I think the people of Texas have spoken and believe in his agenda, and so if you want to call that a mandate, I believe it is.”

Yet this is not the same Greg Abbott who won reelection with ease in 2018. The last two years saw Abbott’s once-impressive approval rating hit its lowest point ever and then recover partially, with the latest University of Texas polling showing a narrowly positive net rating.

It is against that backdrop that Abbott approaches his third term with perceived ambitions for a bigger spotlight. He has shown no signs of slowing down his at times unprecedented efforts to secure the border, and he continues to keep open the possibility he could run for president.

Democrats say the election should have been humbling for Abbott. While he won, they note he had to spend massively to defeat a challenger in O’Rourke, who argued Abbott had become too extreme.

"Governor Abbott's only mandate now is to govern with a steady, bipartisan hand and address issues that actually impact Texans’ everyday lives — not to sprint further down the rabbit hole of culture war extremism that the ever-shrinking far-right base wants him to,” the Texas Democratic Party’s executive director, Jamarr Brown, said in a statement.

Abbott’s campaign did not respond to a request for an interview or comment for this story.

The governor steered the state further to the right over the past two years than he has in his entire tenure. And as he faced controversy after controversy along the way, he made some risky bets — that the power grid would not fail again, for example. And while O’Rourke attacked Abbott as too extreme on abortion and guns — with polls showing voters agreed — Abbott remained intractable, refusing to consider any measures to restrict firearm access or rethink the state’s abortion ban.

Instead, he kept his messaging laser-focused on border security and the economy. Even O’Rourke’s aides admitted afterward that Abbott did a good job keeping the focus on issues that favored him.

Abbott’s campaign did not meet expectations on all fronts, however, with exit polling showing that he failed to achieve his goal of winning a majority with Hispanic voters statewide.

Campaign promises and the next session

Abbott made some specific promises in his campaign that set the stage for the next legislative session, which starts Jan. 10. Chief among them was setting aside at least half of the state’s $27 billion budget surplus for property tax relief, which Abbott pitched as the “largest property tax cut in the history of the state.”

He also emphasized giving parents more of a say in their kids’ education. Most notably, he declared that state funding should follow students regardless of what kind of school they attend, a statement that was a boon to supporters of school vouchers.

“He’s been very clear and very bold in what he expects or what he wants to see done, and I think voters responded to that, and so I think we are ... very hopeful that we see some movement on both of those items,” said Greg Sindelar, CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Austin-based conservative think tank.

Abbott is also poised to continue prioritizing border security in the next session. That could mean maintaining — or expanding — Operation Lone Star, the $4 billion program that at its height deployed nearly 10,000 Texas National Guard troops to the border or other parts of the state to curb migrant crossings. Abbott also initiated a state-funded border wall and grabbed national headlines by sending thousands of migrants by bus to cities run by Democrats.

While Abbott has taken unprecedented action on the border, he continues to elicit griping from some fellow Republicans that he is not doing enough. That was on full display this week, as Abbott reiterated the action he took this summer to treat the situation as an “invasion” under the U.S. Constitution and authorize state authorities to return apprehended migrants to the border. Just like when Abbott announced the move in July, some in his own party said this week it was insufficient because he was not letting state authorities send the migrants back across the border to Mexico.

Abbott did catch a break with Republican Kari Lake’s loss in the Arizona governor’s race. Lake had vowed to fortify the border more aggressively than Texas, and Abbott’s conservative critics, some of whom openly campaigned for Lake, were prepared to pit Abbott against her.

Abbott will also face intraparty pressure over the Texas GOP’s legislative priorities, which include some common ground but also some causes that Abbott has been more reluctant to embrace. Among them: banning “gender modification of children,” or medical treatments for transgender kids. That pressure has intensified on Abbott since Florida recently passed such a ban.

“After double-digit Republican victories in every statewide race, Gov. Abbott returns with a governing mandate,” Texas GOP Chair Matt Rinaldi said in a statement, mentioning Abbott’s promises on property taxes and school choice. “Now Republicans need to deliver.”

Burrows, who chairs the agenda-setting House Calendars Committee, said he expects Republicans to be unified on the “big issues,” like property taxes and parental rights.

Unresolved issues

Abbott’s reelection race was animated by a host of calamitous events Texas has endured since early 2020. Just because he won does not mean the fallout from those events is over.

In Uvalde, questions persist about the widely panned law enforcement response to the May shooting, where police took more than an hour to take down the shooter. Throughout the campaign, Abbott leaned heavily on the fact that special committees were crafting legislative recommendations related to the shooting — recommendations that are expected to be released in the coming weeks.

Another question is the fate of Steve McCraw, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety whose agency has been among those faulted in the Uvalde shooting response. Abbott has not given any indication publicly that he has lost faith in McCraw, but the stalwart Abbott ally has faced calls for resignation in the Uvalde shooting aftermath. He has also been through an exhausting two years as the top agency head overseeing Abbott’s border-security initiatives.

The Democratic state senator who represents Uvalde, Roland Gutierrez, has repeatedly said Abbott should ask McCraw to step down. Abbott unsuccessfully sought to defeat Gutierrez in the Nov. 8 election, endorsing his opponent and tapping his own campaign funds to run attack ads against Gutierrez on TV. But Gutierrez won by a comfortable margin in his Democratic-leaning district, and he has vowed to keep up the pressure on Abbott and McCraw.

On the power grid, Abbott famously declared that everything that needed to be done to fix the grid was done in the 2021 regular legislative session. But one fellow state leader — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — has consistently signaled disagreement, including throughout his reelection campaign.

In TV ads and on the campaign trail, Patrick bragged about successfully pushing for the resignation of Abbott’s appointees who oversaw the grid. One of Patrick’s final TV ads promised that he would “continue to strengthen our grid.”

And the on abortion — arguably the No. 1 issue for Democrats in the election — some Republicans in the Legislature have expressed support for adding rape or incest exceptions to the state’s near-total ban. But Abbott has said only that he wants to revisit exceptions to save the life of the pregnant person, and Democrats are deeply skeptical Republicans meant what they said during their campaigns.

More broadly, Abbott will have to navigate an especially tense dynamic among the “Big Three” — the governor, lieutenant governor and state House speaker. Patrick’s loathing of Speaker Dade Phelan has become well-documented, and Patrick is entering the next session more emboldened than ever. The election produced his most loyal GOP caucus yet, and he said Tuesday he is prepared to hit the ground running with the “most conservative Senate ever.”

2024?

As all these issues brew, questions remain about Abbott’s political future. Will he run for president in 2024? Is this his last term?

Abbott has not ruled out a White House bid. However, his chief political strategist, Dave Carney, downplayed the prospect on a post-election call with reporters, noting Abbott has a “huge session” coming up in January.

“We’ve never discussed it,” Carney said of Abbott running for president. “We just focus on our knitting in Texas.”

Like many prospective 2024 candidates, Abbott’s decision could be influenced by former President Donald Trump, who announced his long-anticipated comeback campaign Tuesday. Abbott has been silent on Trump’s announcement.

Abbott campaigned on Trump’s endorsement in his primary but kept him at a distance in the general election, skipping a Trump rally in Texas on the weekend before early voting.

In a post-election podcast interview, Carney said Abbott’s campaign is already analyzing data to better position him for a 2026 reelection campaign. But he said that is “if the governor decides to run again.”

If Abbott seeks — and wins — a fourth term, it would set him up to be the longest-serving governor ever. His predecessor, Rick Perry, holds that record with his 14-year tenure.

Brown, the Texas Democratic Party executive director, noted Abbott barely registers in early 2024 polls for president and said he should focus on doing a better job in his current position.

“I’m not going to make any decisions for the governor,” said Burrows, the GOP state representative. “I certainly think he’s been a phenomenal governor and could do many great things for not only Texas but other places as well.”

Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/11/17/greg-abbott-third-term-priorities/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Greg Abbott expands Texas’ migrant busing plan to Philadelphia

"Gov. Greg Abbott expands Texas’ migrant busing plan to Philadelphia" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday that Philadelphia has been added to the list of Democrat-led cities where Texas will bus migrants, with the first bus set to arrive in the Northeastern city on Wednesday morning.

For months, Texas has sent buses of migrants to Washington, D.C., New York and Chicago in an effort to pressure Democratic President Joe Biden to stiffen his immigration policies, which Republicans say have led to record-high numbers of border crossings.

“Since April, Texas’ busing strategy has successfully provided much-needed relief to our border communities overwhelmed by the historic influx of migrants caused by President Biden’s reckless open border policies,” Abbott said in a statement. “Until the Biden Administration does its job and provides Texans and the American people with sustainable border security, Texas will continue doing more than any other state in the nation’s history to defend against an invasion along the border, including adding more sanctuary cities like Philadelphia as drop-off locations for our busing strategy.”

Abbott’s news release added that “Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has long-celebrated and fought for sanctuary city status, making the city an ideal addition to Texas’ list of drop-off locations.”

In a statement Tuesday night, Kenney said his city welcomed the migrants and that city departments had worked with community partners since the summer to prepare for the possibility of Texas sending migrants on buses to Philadelphia.

“As a proud welcoming city, we will greet our newly arrived neighbors with dignity and respect,” said Kenney, adding that the city had been told a week ago that buses could be sent to the city from Del Rio. “Philadelphians know that diversity is our strength, and we want to acknowledge the generosity and compassion we have already seen from residents and community partners since we were alerted to a possible bus arriving in Philadelphia. It is possible for government and local communities to work together to strengthen systems of support for newcomers and that has always been this administration’s vision and commitment.”

But Kenney also blasted Abbott for continuing the busing program.

“It is truly disgusting to hear today that Governor Abbott and his Administration continue to implement their purposefully cruel policy using immigrant families—including women and children—as pawns to shamelessly push his warped political agenda,” he said.

Abbott’s expansion of his migrant busing program comes a week after he won a third term as governor by handily defeating Beto O’Rourke, the Democrats’ brightest gubernatorial prospect in nearly a decade. Abbott made immigration and border security a foundation of his reelection campaign, promising to build a state-funded border wall, deploying thousands of National Guard service members and DPS troopers to the border, and spending more than $4 billion in state funds on border security.

Through Monday, Texas had bused 13,200 migrants to Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. The Texas Division of Emergency Management, which manages the busing program, has spent $26 million since the program began in April, the agency’s chief, Nim Kidd, told lawmakers on Tuesday.

The program has been widely criticized as a political stunt by opponents but defended by its supporters as a way to share the immigration burden with other states. State officials have emphasized that migrants get on the bus voluntarily after they have been processed by the Department of Homeland Security. Most are seeking asylum and aim to continue their immigration process once they arrive in their destination cities.

Abbott was criticized by the leaders of destination cities for failing to coordinate the arrival of the migrants when Abbott first started sending buses to their cities. Yet Texas and city officials failed to communicate in the months after Abbott began sending the buses, leaving nonprofits to step up and coordinate the migrants’ arrivals.

Kenney said Abbott had similarly not contacted the city of Philadelphia to coordinate about the arrival of the buses. But in a change to his previous announcements of new destinations, Abbott gave a public, one-day notice to the city of Philadelphia about the bus headed to the city. He also announced publicly where the buses would arrive: William H. Gray III 30th Street Station.

In the past, the migrants would be dropped off without notification, with city officials and nonprofits learning of their arrival on social media or conservative news outlets like Fox News.

But Kenney said the city was alerted about the impending arrival of buses by nonprofit partners in Philadelphia and Texas. The Texas Division of Emergency Management does not coordinate with destination cities and largely leaves it to nonprofit groups to coordinate the arrivals.

One of the nonprofits helping to coordinate the migrants’ arrival said the arrival of buses to Philadelphia has been smoother than in other cities. Tiffany Burrow of the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition said the buses left Texas Monday night with 31 people on board. Burrow said her group has already arranged for nonprofits in Philadelphia to welcome the migrants when they arrive in the city and guide them toward local resources and they have been given an estimated time window for the arrival. She said the city of Philadelphia has also been notified.

But of the 31 migrants on their way to Philadelphia, only three had the city as their final destination. The rest were planning to continue their travel to other states.

Peter Pedemonti, co-director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia, said his group is part of a coalition in the city that has been preparing for the possibility that Texas would send buses to Philadelphia for months. The coalition includes community groups, advocacy organizations, refugee resettlement groups, legal services and the city’s immigrant affairs office.

Kenney’s statement said the city’s immigrant affairs and emergency management offices have been meeting regularly with nearly 15 community groups to prepare for the arrival of buses from Texas. The city is preparing a “triage center” for any arriving migrants who need medical care and has also set up a donation fund for organizations providing services to the migrants.

“We have a pretty solid plan,” Pedemonti said. “We’ll have a group of folks as well as the city being ready to make sure people have food, warm clothes and also seeing if people are continuing on in their journey or need temporary place to stay until they get to their next spot.”

“The heads up was very helpful,” he added. “I’m really grateful for Tiffany and her group for having that coordination.”

Karen Brooks Harper contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/11/15/texas-migrant-busing-philadelphia/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

'Does he learn anything from this?' Experts discuss Beto O'Rourke's future after third loss in four years

Four years ago, Beto O’Rourke became the next great hope for the Texas Democratic Party.

"Beto O’Rourke has lost three races in four years. Is his political career over?" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Starting his senatorial campaign as a little-known congressman from El Paso, he captured lightning in a bottle by barnstorming across the state’s 254 counties on his way to a narrow loss to Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

[Greg Abbott reelected Texas governor, defeating Beto O’Rourke]

Though he came up short, O’Rourke helped sweep in down-ballot victories across the state and helping Democrats pick up 12 seats in the Texas House, two seats in the Texas Senate and boosting newcomer Lina Hidalgo over longtime Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican.

His meteoric rise brought back hope to a struggling minority party that has not won statewide office since 1994, and it attracted a frenzy of national attention that set up his run for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020.

But after dropping out before the primaries and now notching a third consecutive electoral loss on Tuesday, O’Rourke is in danger of being lumped in with Democratic symbols of political failure like Wendy Davis, the former state senator who ran for governor in 2014 and the U.S. House in 2020, and the 2002 “Dream Team” of Tony Sanchez, Ron Kirk and John Sharp, which spent millions of dollars on flashy campaigns for governor, senator and lieutenant governor, respectively. All of these candidates once promised to help flip the state blue, but that ultimately ended in embarrassment.

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“With each new race he loses it becomes more difficult to convince voters and persuade them that he can still win the next race,” said Sharon Navarro, a political scientist at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “That’s a very difficult barrier to overcome for a third-time loser.”

Abbott and his allies are expected to frame Tuesday’s election results as a sign that Texans have soured on O’Rourke and that he has exhausted his political future in the state. O'Rourke was down by 11 percentage points by Wednesday morning with some votes still being counted. He won in 19 counties, fewer than the 32 counties he won when he ran against Cruz.

“This is three statewide failed races,” said Corbin Casteel, a Republican consultant. “He’s a perennial candidate. He hasn’t shown any ability to win outside his hometown and his ideas are just way too radical for Texas and he keeps getting rejected left and right.”

Beto O'Rourke gives his concession speech after being defeated by incumbent Greg Abbott in the race for Texas governor on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in El Paso.

Beto O’Rourke delivers his concession speech after being defeated by incumbent Greg Abbott in the race for Texas governor on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in El Paso. Credit: Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

O'Rourke addressed his political future in his concession speech Tuesday night in El Paso, saying he would remain involved but that he did not "know what form that will take."

"I don’t know what my role or yours will be going forward, but I’m in this fight for life," O'Rourke said, a line that drew more cheers than any other in his speech. “Who knows what's next for any of us, right? But I just cannot thank you enough."

Afterward, O'Rourke supporters said they did not want him to disappear from politics, but they acknowledged he could use a respite.

"I'd honestly like to see him take a break," said Carolina Machado, a 47-year-old school counselor from El Paso. "I think he needs some time to kind of chill and be a family man for a little bit ... but I'd love to see him get back out there and really fight for us as Texans."

Nicole Munoz, a 42-year-old paralegal from El Paso, said she would like to see O'Rourke run for president again. She fought back tears as she talked about how she likes how O'Rourke fights for the "average Joe" and people of color.

Michael Apodaca, the chair of the El Paso County Democratic Party, said one of the best things O'Rourke could do is keep building party infrastructure in the state through his Powered by People group.

"We really desperately need that," Apodaca said, referring to statewide organizing both election years and off-years. "He has the resources, he has the organization, and they’re gonna be ready to go when he calls.”

Political experts say they do not expect O’Rourke to disappear from the scene — though his role in future elections could change, going from candidate to organizer or fundraiser before, possibly, running again.

“For Democrats, you want to ride your fast horse until you get a faster one,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. “Until you find someone better than Beto, what would be the point of exiling him into the wilderness for someone that has the skills and fundraising ability?”

Perennial candidate

At this point, O’Rourke is better known for the races he’s lost than the ones that he won — including serving as an El Paso councilman from 2005 to 2011 and a congressman from 2013 to 2019. After three high-profile losses in a four-year span, O’Rourke will have an uphill battle to convince skeptical voters that he should launch another bid for a major office.

But such a move would not be unprecedented in Texas history. In the 1950s, liberal Democrat Ralph Yarborough ran three unsuccessful campaigns for governor between 1952 and 1956 (the term of office was two years back then) before ultimately winning election to the U.S. Senate in a special 1957 election to replace Price Daniel, who had beaten out Yarborough for the governorship in 1956.

“It does show that while it seems embarrassing and you’ve gotta explain why you can’t win a big race, that you are building name recognition and there may be an election cycle that there’s an opening for you,” Jillson said.

Texas Republicans have also come back from bruising political losses to rise to the highest positions in government. In 1964, George H.W. Bush lost his U.S. Senate challenge to Yarborough by 12 percentage points. But despite the loss, Bush was considered a top prospect for the Texas GOP, which was then the minority party. Bush won the election to Texas’ 7th Congressional District two years later.

In 1980, Bush lost another major election when he was beaten out by Ronald Reagan in the Republican presidential primary. But after joining Reagan on the Republican ticket that year, Bush served two terms as vice president and eventually won the presidency in 1988.

“Different people take different paths to office,” Jillson said. “Grover Cleveland went from mayor of Buffalo to the White House in a little over three years. Things just laid out for him: mayor, governor of New York and first Democrat elected after the Civil War to the presidency.”

“It’s not that a good candidate wins every race and moves up the ladder because the environment within which you’re running even if you are a good candidate can be very difficult and in that race you might lose even if you’ve got all the skills,” he added. “Things have to line up, especially at top levels — senate, governor and presidency. It’s gotta be your party’s year and then you have to have the campaign skills and finances to give yourself a chance to win.”

But Matt Mackowiak, a GOP consultant, said O’Rourke has not made the adjustments he needed to mount a winning campaign since first running for statewide office in 2018.

“It’s not clear that Beto has learned anything from his three losses. He’s learned how to organize, how to raise money and fire up the progressives, but none of those things have delivered victory,” he said.

While O’Rourke certainly had the finances — he broke fundraising records in his senatorial campaign in 2018 and again during the governor’s race this year — political experts say he will have to work hard to overcome the tricky policy positions he put himself in during the 2020 presidential primary if he wants to win statewide office in conservative Texas.

High on that list is O’Rourke’s promise to confiscate assault-style rifles when he famously proclaimed during a presidential debate, “Hell yeah, we’re going to take your AR-15.” The stance has hampered him in gun-friendly Texas, and Abbott has used it effectively to drag down O’Rourke’s favorability.

Abbott also attacked O’Rourke for previous statements he had made in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, which the Republican used to paint him as an opponent of police funding, and for his statements that churches should lose their tax-exempt status if they opposed same-sex marriage.

“He was definitely not as strategic as he possibly could have been every time he went in front of a mic,” Navarro said. “It’s also about the ability to be more strategic in front of a microphone and be careful on issues you speak of [that] can be used in a way that can harm any future campaign.”

O’Rourke was more disciplined during this year’s gubernatorial run, saying he still believed that people should not own assault-style rifles, but that he was focused on policies that were politically realistic, like universal background checks, red-flag laws and raising the age to purchase assault rifles from 18 to 21 — all of which have the support of a majority of Texans. He also walked a difficult line on immigration, criticizing Abbott’s border policies as “political stunts” but also stressing the need to secure the border and advance immigration reform.

But to Mackowiak, O’Rourke continued to misunderstand the Texas electorate, discussing issues in a way that motivated the progressive Democratic base but alienated middle-of-the-road voters.

“He ran a standard progressive campaign in a red state that might be becoming more purple. His whole strategy was hoping there would be more school shootings and the grid would fail,” Mackowiak said. “He had no message on the economy, and his position on the border is laughable. He didn’t give himself a chance in this race because he never moved to the middle.”

Matt Rinaldi, chair of the Republican Party of Texas, said O’Rourke benefited from how little people knew about him during his senatorial run. But by the time he ran for governor, his policy positions, including those that are controversial among the state’s conservative electorate, were well known.

“He was a blank slate and people put whatever their hopes were on to him,” he said. “But as he spent the tens of millions of dollars in these races running for Senate, president and governor, people realized that he had a very scary message that would lead to increased inflation, greater crime and an open border and they rejected that. They just don’t want it here.”

“He spent a lot of money on messaging but maybe he should move to California or New York,” Rinaldi added. “His message resonates a little better there.”

While Jillson said it would be difficult for O’Rourke to get beyond his past policy positions, it is not impossible. Barack Obama, for example, was able to “evolve” his clear opposition to same-sex marriage in 2008 to support for the issue just four years later — notably during the first year that support for same-sex marriage surpassed opposition.

“His strategy on (guns) should probably best have been, ‘Look, I’m from El Paso, the shooting was very raw and fresh, that’s what I was talking about and it was an emotional response. Here’s what I’m actually going to do,’” said Jillson, referring to the 2019 shooting at a Walmart in El Paso that left 23 people dead. “You have a one- or two-sentence quick response. You have to explain what you said but you don’t have to hold to every syllable of that sentence. You can reframe it now that the moment has passed.”

But Republicans said O’Rourke’s challenges this cycle spread beyond his campaign to an overall issue with a struggling Democratic Party that cannot connect with Texas voters.

“We’re coming up on three decades and you have to ask, what do all these people have in common?” Casteel said, referring to the period of GOP domination in Texas politics. “Promising candidates like Wendy Davis and Beto O’Rourke, what do they all have in common? [Policies like] higher taxes, anti-oil and gas, anti-gun, pro-abortion. It’s just not the values of Texas.”

Experts said O’Rourke could benefit from taking time away from running for office. Instead, he may be of more use to Democrats as a fundraiser or organizer, two areas in which the state party is desperately lacking. Navarro said O’Rourke could help build out that infrastructure to compete with the partisan and fundraising advantage that Republicans have held in the state for nearly three decades.

“He could begin to build a strong Democratic Party structure with what he’s done up to this point,” she said. “Definitely a fundraiser. He has the energy to bring that in and it could be to the success of other future candidates.”

Before running for governor, O’Rourke had started building out his political infrastructure to benefit other Democrats through his political action committee, Powered by the People. After dropping out of the presidential race, he spent much of 2020 trying to help Texas Democrats win a majority in the Texas House — they didn’t — and his group sent $600,000 to the Democrats who decamped to Washington, D.C., in 2021 to try to stop a Republican priority bill that further limited voting rights in the state.

Mackowiak said it’s unclear if O’Rourke will get another shot at a statewide bid and his legacy may be that he served as a catalyst for other candidates during the 2018 cycle, when Texas Democrats desperately needed a boost.

“It’s not 100% negative,” he said. “[But] at some point the Democrats will want to try to run something different.”

But others think O’Rourke could still have another statewide race left in him. With enough time, the political dynamics in the state may shift to be more in O’Rourke’s favor, said Renee Cross, executive director of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. She noted that President Joe Biden ran two unsuccessful campaigns for the presidency 20 years apart before finally winning the White House in 2020, 12 years after his second attempt.

“There is certainly a place for luck in these victories,” Cross said. “Coupled along with various changes that may be occurring or are occurring with our population, I could see a political path but probably not real soon.”

But if O’Rourke wants to have a realistic shot at statewide office in the future, Mackowiak said, he will have to make tough adjustments that he has so far been unable to make.

“The question for me is does he learn anything from this?” he said. “Politically, without something fundamentally changing, it’s hard to see how he can convince anyone he can win office in this state.”

Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Southern Methodist University, University of Texas at San Antonio and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.


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These 20 churches are violating federal law by supporting political candidates: expert assessments

The endorsement of political candidates by religious leaders from the pulpit has grown increasingly brazen, aggressive and sophisticated in recent years.

ProPublica and The Texas Tribune have found 20 apparent violations in the past two years of the Johnson Amendment, a law that prohibits church leaders from intervening in political campaigns. Two occurred in the last two weeks as candidates crisscross Texas vying for votes. The number of potential violations found by the news outlets is greater than the total number of churches the IRS has investigated for intervening in political campaigns in the past decade, according to documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

Under the law, pastors can endorse candidates in their personal capacities outside of church and weigh in on political issues from the pulpit as long as they don’t veer into support or condemnation of a particular candidate. But the law prohibits pastors from endorsing candidates during official church functions such as sermons.

Violations can lead to the revocation of a church’s tax-exempt status.

Descriptions of the 20 videos we identified are below. ProPublica and the Tribune had three experts review each of them. They agreed that the cases below violate the law. The experts were Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a tax and election law expert at the University of Notre Dame; Ellen Aprill, an emerita tax law professor at Loyola Marymount University’s law school; and Sam Brunson, a law professor at Loyola University Chicago.

We’re Not Endorsing a Candidate, but…

In these cases, pastors said they were not endorsing candidates, but their actions equated to an endorsement, according to the experts. Some acknowledged that the law did not allow them to endorse before making their statements.

Mercy Culture

Location: Fort Worth, Texas

Pastors: Landon Schott, Heather Schott and Steve Penate

Context: Pastors at Mercy Culture expressed support for political candidates in at least three sermons this year. All three instances violated the Johnson Amendment, according to the experts. During one such instance on Feb. 6, the Schotts and Penate spoke in favor of Nate Schatzline, who is running for a seat in the state House. “Now, obviously, churches don’t endorse candidates, but my name is Landon and I’m a person before I’m a pastor. And as an individual, I endorse Nate Schatzline,” Landon Schott said. Schatzline’s appearance ended with Schott stating: “We declare Mercy Culture Church is behind you. We declare Mercy Culture Church is praying for you. We declare Mercy Culture Church is supporting you.” Early voting for the March 1 primary began eight days after the church service. Schatzline qualified for a runoff, which he won on May 24. He will face Democratic nominee KC Chowdhury, a Democrat, in Tuesday’s general election.

Expert assessment:

Brunson: “If it’s part of the religious services, his disclaimer doesn’t work and it’s a clear violation of the Johnson Amendment (albeit an almost clever, and definitely self-aware, attempt to avoid that). Penate saying ‘do something with us’ is absolutely an endorsement. If they’re doing it in their capacity as pastors, this violates the Johnson Amendment.”

Church and candidate response: Mercy Culture, Landon Schott and Heather Schott did not respond to questions or requests for comment. Both Penate, a church elder who said he was not speaking on behalf of the church, and Schatzline stated in separate interviews that they did not believe any laws were broken. “Mercy Culture has never endorsed anyone,” Penate said. “Mercy Culture has never told anyone to vote a certain way. Never.”

Unite Church

Location: Anchorage, Alaska

Pastor: Josh Tanner

Context: On Jan. 16, Tanner introduced his congregation to Kelly Tshibaka, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, and let her speak about how she expressed her faith during her career in government. “OK, so I want you to know that we’re not just gonna be doing an endorsement for Kelly today, even though I am endorsing Kelly for U.S. Senate. And you can vote for whoever you want. I’m just letting you know who I’m voting for. It’s gonna be her.”

Tshibaka was among the top candidates to advance to the November general election. She will face incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Democrat Patricia Chesbro on Tuesday.

Expert assessment:

Aprill: “That the pastor says he personally endorses the candidate at an official function of the church makes the statement campaign intervention.”

Church and candidate response: Unite Church, Tanner and Tshibaka did not respond to requests for comment.

“Uncle Bill”: A New “Family”-Based Strategy

Some churches coordinated with one another to provide their congregations with a list that singled out specific candidates and omitted others.

Gateway Church

Location: Southlake, Texas, northwest of Dallas

Pastor: Robert Morris

Context: Morris is among a group of Dallas-area pastors who have coordinated to highlight certain candidates running for public office. Since 2021, Morris has shown his congregation the names of specific candidates for office at least three times. In each of those cases, Morris violated the Johnson Amendment, according to experts. (Morris also showed the names during an Oct. 23 service.) During an April 18, 2021, sermon, a day before the start of early voting, Morris displayed the names of nine candidates running in nonpartisan races for school board and City Council on a screen. “And so we’re not endorsing a candidate,” Morris said. “We’re not doing that. But we just thought because they’re a member of the family of God, that you might want to know if someone in the family and this family of churches is running.” All but one of the candidates whose names were shown either won their race or qualified for a runoff.

Expert assessment:

Mayer: “This is a new (at least to me) technique, to join a group of like-minded churches and then identify to the congregation anyone who is a member of any of those churches who is a candidate for elected public office, as opposed to just identifying members of your congregation who are candidates. But this technique, even with the disclaimers made by the pastor here, is still a violation of the Johnson Amendment. While the pastor tries to avoid the violation by making various disclaimers and saying he is just giving the congregation the names and they can do what they want when they vote, those are not sufficient to cure the violation. But they do provide an argument that there is not a violation and so muddies the waters a bit, even though I believe that argument ultimately fails legally.”

Church response: Lawrence Swicegood, Gateway Media executive director, said in an emailed statement:

“At Gateway Church:

We DON’T:

  • Support any specific political party
  • Endorse political candidates

We DO:

  • INFORM our church family of other church family members who are seeking office to serve our community.
  • ENCOURAGE our church family to vote as God leads them.
  • PRAY for our elected officials regardless of their political party, or affiliation.”

First Baptist Grapevine

Location: Grapevine, Texas, northwest of Dallas

Pastor: Doug Page

Context: On April 18, 2021, Page showed his congregation the same list of candidates as Morris. “This is not an endorsement by us. We are not endorsing anyone. However, if you’re part of a family, you’d like to know if Uncle Bill is running for office, right? And so that’s all we’re going to do is simply inform you,” Page said.

Expert assessment:

Mayer: “This is a violation of the Johnson Amendment for the same reasons as the Gateway Church violations.”

Church response: “As is clearly stated in the sermon clip you provided, these candidates were named for information only, not for endorsement. First Baptist Grapevine does not and will not endorse candidates for public office. Our primary focus is the gospel of Jesus Christ and seeking to follow His will for our lives,” Page said in an emailed statement.

Dueling Endorsements

For these nonpartisan races in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, pastors from different churches endorsed opposing candidates.

Koinonia Christian Church

Location: Arlington, Texas

Pastor: Ronnie W. Goines

Context: The first race involved candidates for the Mansfield school board. In a May 1 sermon, Goines implored his congregation to vote for Benita Reed in a local nonpartisan race on May 7. He said that Reed was the most qualified candidate in the race because she has worked in education for almost 30 years, but that scare tactics were being used against her. He then showed a mailer targeting Reed that read, “MISD put ‘woke’ politics over the safety of our children.” Then, Goines said, “All we got to do, people, is let’s go make a long line outside the polls and get this woman elected.” He later said: “Koinonia, we need, Dr. Reed needs a thousand votes. She needs a thousand votes. We got right at 10,000 members.”

Expert assessment:

Aprill: “This is a direct campaign intervention. He says, ‘She needs a thousand votes.’”

Church and candidate response: Reached by phone, Goines directed the news organizations to the church’s spokesperson, who did not respond. Reed did not respond to emailed questions.

MoreChurch

Location: Mansfield, Texas, southwest of Dallas

Pastor: Truston Baba

Context: None of the candidates received more than 50% of the vote during the May 7 election, leading to a runoff between Reed and Craig Tipping. During a June 12 sermon, Baba encouraged his congregation to vote in the runoff election. He then praised Tipping. “And so, Craig, thank you for running. Thank you for being obedient to do what God’s called you to do. And I’m gonna support you. And I hope that people from More Church will not just complain but will actually get out and vote. You know, we go to the booth, and we go to get these little stickers. ‘I voted.’ Y’all know you get the ‘I voted’ sticker? Come on. There’s a big one. Get out. Get the sticker. Let’s vote and help make a difference locally. Come on. Give a hand for my friend Craig today.” Tipping, a physical therapist, won on June 18.

Expert Assessment:

Aprill: “Having only one candidate appear is partisan. This pastor states at an official event that he supports the candidate. As noted earlier, that violates the prohibition. Moreover, the pastor’s comments are an endorsement of the candidate generally.”

Church and candidate response: Neither More Church nor Baba responded to requests for an interview or emailed questions. Tipping did not respond to emails requesting comment.

Life-Changing Faith Christian Fellowship

Location: Frisco, Texas, north of Dallas

Pastor: Dono Pelham

Context: The second set of dueling sermons involved two candidates in a nonpartisan race for Frisco City Council. On May 2, 2021, Pelham told his congregation that his wife, Angelia Pelham, had qualified for the runoff. He encouraged them to vote in the June 5, 2021, election in which Pelham faced Jennifer White, a veterinarian who described herself as the only conservative in the race. “I’m not about to endorse, but you’ll get the message,” Pelham said.

Expert Assessment:

Brunson: “He’s basically endorsing his wife, and I think it would be hard to argue anything different.”

Church and candidate response: Dono Pelham said in an emailed statement that he did not endorse his wife in the runoff. Angelia Pelham said she and her husband were “very clear and very intentional” about not violating the Johnson Amendment.

KingdomLife Church

Location: Frisco, Texas

Pastor: Brandon Burden

Context: Six days before that runoff election for the Frisco City Council, Burden supported White from the pulpit. Burden told churchgoers that God was working through the congregation to take the country, and particularly North Texas, back to its Christian roots. He framed the race between White and Pelham as one against Frisco Mayor Jeff Cheney. Cheney had urged residents to put party politics aside and vote for Pelham because of her experience working for corporations such as PepsiCo Inc., The Walt Disney Co. and Cinemark. “I got a candidate that God wants to win,” Burden said. “I got a mayor that God wants to unseat. God wants to undo. God wants to shift the balance of power in our city. And I have jurisdiction over that this morning.” Pelham defeated White in the election.

Expert assessment:

Brunson: “It’s pretty obvious, from the context and other things that he has said, that it is clear who he is saying God wants to win.”

Church and candidate response: Neither Burden nor KingdomLife responded to multiple interview requests or to emailed questions. White said she wasn’t in attendance during the sermon. She said she does not believe pastors should endorse candidates from the pulpit, but she welcomed churches becoming more politically active. “I think that the churches over the years have been a big pretty big disappointment to the candidates in that they won’t take a political stance,” White said. “So I would love it if churches would go ahead and come out and actually discuss things like morality. Not a specific party, but at least make sure people know where the candidates stand on those issues. And how to vote based on that.”

“Vote Her Behind Right Out of Office”: Criticizing the Incumbent, Praising the Challenger

Pulpit criticism of sitting officeholders is permitted, except during campaigns when officeholders are running as candidates. In the cases below, pastors criticized the incumbents while praising their challengers during election season.

Legacy Church

Location: Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pastor: Steve Smothermon

Context: During a July 10 sermon, Smothermon attacked New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who supports abortion rights, and praised Republican Mark Ronchetti for seeking to end abortion in New Mexico. “We have the Wicked Witch of the North. Or you have Mark Ronchetti,” Smotherman said. Later in the sermon, Smotherman said, “You better get registered to vote, and we better vote her behind right out of office.” Grisham and Ronchetti will face each other in Tuesday’s gubernatorial election.

Expert assessment:

Aprill: “This is a campaign intervention. The pastor is endorsing Ronchetti and opposing Ronchetti’s opponent.”

Church and candidate response: Legacy Church, Smothermon and Ronchetti did not respond to requests for comment.

Friendship-West Baptist Church

Location: Dallas

Pastor: Frederick Douglass Haynes III

Context: At the end of the church service on May 8, Haynes criticized state leaders’ response to the deadly February 2021 winter storm and praised Beto O’Rourke for donating $25,000 to the church during that time. Haynes then invited O’Rourke to speak with his congregation. “I just want to say, because I think we need to know this in a very public way, that when there was a crisis February last year and the ineptitude of our state leadership, and then you had (Ted) Cruz going to Cancun. Lord Jesus, so Cruz went to Cancun and then (Greg) Abbott’s friends got paid. And while that was going on, Beto O’Rourke was using resources from his foundation. He was on the ground, serving people, blessing people and just, just, just doing what God wants us to do.” O’Rourke, who announced in November 2021 that he would challenge Greg Abbott in the race for governor, then gave a 10-minute speech about how the faith community played a pivotal role in the passage of the Voting Rights Act. O’Rourke was identified as a gubernatorial candidate in a caption on the church’s livestream. He ended his May speech by expressing hope that people of color who were targeted by the restrictive voting laws passed by Republicans last year would provide the margin of victory on Nov. 8.

Expert Assessment:

Mayer: “Assuming the church is responsible for the caption (that ran under O’Rourke on the church’s livestream), this is a clear violation of the Johnson Amendment because the church explicitly identifies Beto O’Rourke as a candidate and the pastor expresses support for him.”

Church and candidate response: Haynes did not respond to calls and emails requesting comment. Chris Evans, communication director for O’Rourke’s campaign, said in an emailed statement: “Beto has enjoyed worshiping alongside the congregation at Friendship-West Baptist Church for years and is proud to call Pastor Haynes his friend. Pastor Haynes has long led the on-the-ground work of bringing people together to deliver for his community that Greg Abbott has absolutely failed and to fight for equality, justice, and opportunity across Texas.”

“My Dear Friend”: Hosting a Candidate

Some pastors introduced candidates during their sermons and allowed them to speak, while others interviewed them during church functions. The Johnson Amendment allows candidates to visit churches and speak to parishioners before elections, but it requires that churches maintain a “nonpartisan atmosphere” and give all candidates the same opportunity to visit.

St. Luke "Community" United Methodist Church

Location: Dallas

Pastor: Richie Butler

Context: On Oct. 23, a day before early voting began, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke visited the church. Butler introduced him as “the next governor of Texas.” He told parishioners: “We want to encourage him as he continues to run the race that is before him, and he needs us to get him across the finish line.” O’Rourke urged parishioners to vote and then gave a brief speech calling for fixing the state’s electric grid and expressing alarm over the high rate of school shootings and gun violence.

Expert Assessment:

Mayer: “This situation is a clear violation of the Johnson Amendment. Beto O’Rourke is introduced as the ‘next governor of Texas,’ which highlights both that he is a candidate and one whom the church supports. And O’Rourke’s comments are a sales pitch for his candidacy. There is no indication that any opposing candidate has been given a similar opportunity and, even if he had been, the favorable introduction of O’Rourke would still be across the line.”

Church and candidate response: In a statement, Butler said: “Black churches have been important hubs for civic engagement and organization in the fight for social justice since Reconstruction. The mixing of faith-based congregations and electoral engagement is not a new concept.” O’Rourke did not respond to a request for comment or emailed questions.

Grace Woodlands

Location: The Woodlands, Texas, north of Houston

Pastor: Steve Riggle

Context: Also on Oct. 23, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican running for reelection, visited Grace Woodlands. During the sermon, Riggle said that Texas needs leaders like Patrick who “will stand for values that are critical to the future of this nation.” Riggle praised Patrick as a “strong person” of faith whom “God has given us at the very top.” Patrick then spoke to the congregation and cast the election in stark terms. “This is not a race between Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “This is a race about darkness and light. This is a race about powers and principalities. And the devil is at full work in this country.”

Expert Assessment:

Brunson: “This is a clear endorsement of Patrick by the pastor of a church acting in his capacity as pastor in the course of ordinary church meetings. This violates the Johnson Amendment.”

Church and candidate response: Riggle said that his church did not endorse any candidate and said his introduction was focused on biblical values, not politics. He added that he believes the Johnson Amendment should be overturned.

“The government has no right at any time to, in any way, tell the church who it can have or who it cannot have to speak,” he said. “It can’t tell the church what it can preach on or not preach on. This is America, and we believe in a free church, not one controlled by the government.”

Patrick did not respond to requests for comment or emailed questions.

Sojourn Church

Location: Carrollton, Texas, north of Dallas

Pastor: Chris McRae

Context: During a May 1 sermon, McRae told parishioners that they were being lied to by an “invisible enemy” about issues of race, gender and abortion. He said they needed to “wake up” and confront the lies. McRae then invited Kevin Falconer, the mayor of Carrollton and a Republican candidate for Denton County Commissioner, to the pulpit to speak. “I can’t, as my friends will say, I can’t endorse him. But I do know that God loves Falcons,” McRae said. He also told his congregation he thought Steve Babick would win the upcoming nonpartisan mayoral election to fill the vacancy left by Falconer. Both Falconer and Babick won their elections.

Expert assessment:

Aprill: “That is campaign intervention to me, even though the pastor states that he is asking Kevin to speak about communion. Context makes it an indirect campaign intervention.”

Church and candidate response: Sojourn Church, McRae and Falconer did not respond to requests for comment. Babick said he was unaware of any statements McRae made about him or his candidacy. “I’m not necessarily in favor or against it,” Babick said of the Johnson Amendment.

Woodlands Church

Location: The Woodlands, Texas, north of Houston

Pastor: Kerry Shook

Context: On Jan. 16, Shook introduced Christian Collins to his congregation. Collins was campaigning for the Republican nomination for Texas’ 8th Congressional District, which includes parts of Houston and several surrounding cities. “And so, the primaries are coming up in March, and I just wanted y’all to get to know Christian, my dear friend, and his love for Jesus Christ and pray for all of those Christ followers who are doing something that I would never do,” Shook said. The sermon occurred two and a half months before the Republican primary election. Collins lost the race.

Expert Assessment:

Aprill: “Specifically naming the primary and the candidate and saying we need Christ followers makes it campaign intervention to me.”

Church and candidate response: Woodlands Church, Kerry Shook Ministries and Kerry Shook did not respond to requests for comment. Through a spokesperson, Collins declined to comment.

Abundant Life Church

Location: Willis, Texas, north of Houston

Pastor: Dave Stovall

Context: At the end of his sermon on Dec. 5, 2021, Stovall introduced Collins as a candidate for the 8th Congressional District. He praised Collins for founding the Texas Youth Summit, a two-day conference that promotes conservative political activism among students. “Would you stand in honor of Christian Collins and the leader, servant-leader that he is and what he has done for this community?” Stovall asked. Collins had pledged to join the congressional Freedom Caucus, a voting bloc made up of some of the most conservative members of Congress, in contrast to his chief opponent, former Navy SEAL Morgan Luttrell, who won the Republican primary.

Expert Assessment:

Mayer: “This is a clear violation of the Johnson Amendment for the same reasons as the previous passage from Woodlands Church. (The similarity of this passage and the one from Woodlands Church makes me wonder if the pastors had been given suggested scripts from the same source.)”

Church and candidate response: Abundant Life Church and Stovall did not respond to requests for comment, including the news organizations’ question about whether it had invited Luttrell or any other candidate to speak at the church. Through a spokesperson, Collins declined to comment.

Destiny Christian Church

Location: Rocklin, California, northwest of Sacramento

Pastor: Greg Fairrington

Context: In a conversation with California gubernatorial candidate Anthony Trimino, a Republican, during a May 15 church service, Fairrington told his congregation that the state needs a leader with a “vibrant faith in Jesus Christ.” He praised Trimino for his effort to unseat Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, and prayed for the Republican candidate. “Lord God, that you would inspire voters here in the state of California to cast their vote for the sanctity of life. Lord God, that they would get behind a conservative Christian candidate,” Fairrington said. Trimino came in sixth in an open party primary election on June 7. He did not advance to the November general election.

Expert Assessment:

Mayer: “This passage is a clear violation of the Johnson Amendment because it implicitly identifies Anthony as a candidate, specifically mentions voting and calls on the audience to get behind a conservative, pro-life Christian candidate (implicitly, such as Anthony).”

Church and Candidate Response: Destiny Christian Church, Fairrington and Trimino did not respond to requests for comment.

Carver Park Baptist Church

Location: Waco, Texas

Pastor: Gaylon P. Foreman

Context: On April 7, Foreman livestreamed a Q&A at the church with Marlon Jones, a candidate for the Waco Independent School District school board. “Again, I endorse him fully and completely, and I wish that you would prayerfully consider helping support this mighty man of God, so he can help make kingdom impact on the Waco ISD,” Foreman said. Experts said Johnson Amendment violations can occur at any church function, not just during sermons. Jones lost the May 7 election.

Expert Assessment:

Brunson: “This pastor doesn’t even pretend not to be endorsing the candidate, which is the honest approach. He’s clearly endorsing.”

Church and candidate response: Foreman defended his discussion with Jones. “I told him about the show and he agreed to appear. I didn’t hear from or have any other contact with any other candidates or I would have gladly allowed them to appear as well,” Foreman said. “On the show, I did acknowledge that I personally supported him and that I felt that he was the best candidate. I also asked about how our community could help him. For as long as I’ve been serving as pastor, I’ve always made it clear that I never tell others who to vote for but do encourage everyone to vote.”

Jones said in an interview with the news organizations that he thought Foreman provided information and did not violate the Johnson Amendment. “I think during the broadcast Pastor Foreman was very intentional about encouraging people to vote but not necessarily saying this is who we should vote for.” Jones, who is also a pastor, added: “Saying ‘this is something I am doing’ does not necessarily mean your congregation will do that.”

Praising Trump Before the 2020 Election

In the days leading up to the 2020 election, some pastors extolled the ways in which former President Donald Trump had delivered for Christians.

Cowboy Church of Corsicana

Location: Corsicana, Texas, southeast of Dallas

Pastor: Derek Rogers

Context: On Oct. 14, 2020, Rogers told his congregation that even though pastors aren’t supposed to talk about politics, parishioners needed to support Trump’s reelection bid. “I do not understand how anybody that calls himself a Christian could vote for the agenda and the platform of Joe Biden,” he said. “President Trump, he ain’t the greatest dude in the whole world, but he’s the closest thing that we got to what we need.”

Expert Assessment:

Mayer: “This is a clear violation of the Johnson Amendment because it identifies two candidates by name and explicitly tells the congregation for which of them they should vote.”

Church response: Rogers did not respond to requests for comment.

Beth Sar Shalom

Location: Carrollton, Texas, north of Dallas

Pastor: Steven Ger

Context: Ger explained to congregants why they should support Trump over Biden for president two days before the election. “I like what our president has done. He made his promises. And he kept his promises.” He later called Trump the “most pro-life president ever” and said, “Vice President Biden would be the most pro-abortion president ever.”

Expert Assessment:

Mayer: “The passage is a clear violation of the Johnson Amendment because it identifies two candidates, describes their positions and then says which position (and therefore candidate) should be voted for.”

Church response: Executive Pastor Don Jones initially said he was willing to be interviewed, but neither he nor Ger responded to follow-up calls and emailed questions.

Trinity Family Church

Location: Forney, Texas, east of Dallas

Pastor: Marty Reid

Context: In a sermon two days before the Nov. 3, 2020, election, Reid told his congregation that even though Trump “doesn’t know much” about Christianity, “I believe God has raised up President Trump for such a time as this".

Expert Assessment:

Aprill: “Clearly an endorsement of Trump and campaign intervention.”

Church response: Trinity Family Church and Reid did not respond to requests for comment.

Texas diverts $359.6 million from prisons to keep Greg Abbott’s border mission operating

Texas diverts $359.6 million from prisons to keep Greg Abbott’s border mission operating” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Gov. Greg Abbott said on Thursday that he and other state leaders are pulling $359.6 million out of the state prison system’s budget to fund his Operation Lone Star border security operation through the next 10 months.

So far, more than $4 billion has been spent to keep thousands of Department of Public Safety troopers and Texas National Guard members stationed along the Texas-Mexico border and other areas of the state.

This latest infusion was among $874.6 million in “emergency” budget transfers authorized by Abbott at the request of the Texas Legislative Budget Board, composed of GOP state leaders and budget writers.

The transfers will support not only Operation Lone Star but also fund public school security measures, COVID-19 response expenses and a new elementary school in Uvalde, the site of a mass shooting in May, according to the governor’s office.

The proposal from the Legislative Budget Board said the lack of funds for border security, public health and school security constituted an emergency.

The money for Operation Lone Star is being transferred from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice directly into Abbott’s disaster fund, which he uses to distribute money for the operation.

Of that, $339 million will go to the Texas Military Department to pay for Texas National Guard troops involved in the operation, while another $20.6 million will go to other agencies not named in the letter that also support the operation.

Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to questions regarding the specifics of the Operation Lone Star funding, including which other agencies would be getting the money and what their involvement is.

In addition to border funding, state leaders authorized the use of $15 million to build a replacement for Uvalde’s Robb Elementary, the site of the shooting on May 24 that left 19 students and two teachers dead.

Another $400 million will go toward security measures in school districts statewide — paying for upgrades and replacements to doors, windows, fencing and communications systems at schools. That money would come from a surplus in the Texas Education Agency’s Foundation Schools Program, which funds public schools, as allowed in the 2022-23 budget, according to the Legislative Budget Board.

“These funds will continue to support the community of Uvalde in the wake of such a devastating tragedy earlier this year and will help bolster the safety of Texans,” said Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan. “School security will be a priority for the Texas House during the 88th Legislature, and this additional funding is a meaningful step we can take in the meantime.”

To cover COVID-19-related expenses, $100 million will be moved from the Texas Department of State Health Services’ public health preparedness budget and transferred to the Texas Division of Emergency Management, which worked closely with DSHS on the state’s pandemic response. A spokesperson for DSHS said the transfer from that agency would be done with federal American Rescue Plan Act funds and would not have an impact on the agency’s budget. ARPA funds are intended to help states recover from the economic hardships created by the pandemic.

The new funds are authorized to be spent only through next August, when the current biennium ends. Any funding beyond that for Operation Lone Star and other programs supported by Thursday’s transfers will need to occur in the next budget cycle, Abbott said.

The authorization letter did not detail how many schools, what kind of pandemic expenses or how many troops the new funding would finance.

Additional funding for both school safety and border security will also be considered during the next legislative session, which begins in January, Phelan and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said in an emailed statement.

Sweeping money out of Texas prisons

Leaders of the two agencies charged with carrying out Operation Lone Star on the state’s border with Mexico — the Texas Military Department and DPS — have been signaling the need for another infusion of money to continue the operation at its current pace.

Military department officials had said that funding for the current level of National Guard presence on the border, about 5,000 troops, would run out in September.

Three weeks ago, that agency’s director said he was confident that the money would come through.

Earlier this month, DPS Director Steve McCraw reminded budget officials that their last appropriation for the agency’s role in Operation Lone Star was set to end in November.

DPS did not get any new funding for Operation Lone Star on Thursday, but officials said the agency, which has involved troopers and other resources into the effort, will continue its involvement using the agency’s existing border security funds and will be considered for additional funding for the operation during the next session, state leaders said.

Operation Lone Star’s finances have come under increased scrutiny for the past year. In September 2021, the Texas Legislature approved nearly $2 billion to ramp up the border operation — only to see the governor repeatedly transfer more money from other agencies to the initiative ever since.

Abbott — with the backing of GOP legislative and budget leaders — has moved money several times from the state prison system and other agencies to keep Operation Lone Star in place. It’s the cornerstone of his immigration policy — and a high-priority issue in his campaign for reelection.

The $359.6 million being transferred out of TDCJ is the same amount of ARPA dollars allocated to the agency by state lawmakers last year.

In April, $53.6 million was taken from TDCJ funds for the operation, just three months after Abbott moved $426.9 million from the system to fund Operation Lone Star through the spring.

The Texas prison system itself is beset by understaffing and rising health care costs, and officials there are asking lawmakers for $90 million for staff raises in the next biennium. Last August, TDCJ had about 67% of its officer positions filled. Some larger prisons in Texas had less than 40% of its officer positions filled.

A TDCJ spokesperson told The Texas Tribune that the transfer of the money would not negatively impact the agency, saying that the same amount would be allocated to the agency for “pandemic related expenses” but did not elaborate on where that funding would come from or when.

Previous budget transfers to Operation Lone Star have come from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees child and adult welfare investigations, the state’s juvenile justice system and Texas Health and Human Services, among other agencies.

Since Operation Lone Star launched a year and a half ago, Abbott has taken drastic measures to curb illegal immigration, including starting construction of a state-funded border wall, deploying thousands of National Guard members, arresting and jailing migrants on state criminal charges and spending millions on bus tickets to send migrants to other cities run by Democrats.

At the time of the launch, Abbott cited an urgent need to stop the flow of drugs and undocumented immigrants into the state through Mexico.

But the initiative has become a political wedge between those who sharply criticize President Joe Biden’s immigration policies and critics who call it a blank check for a governor facing a tough reelection in November and an ineffective financial boondoggle for Texas taxpayers.

Abbott has repeatedly blamed Biden for an increase in migrant crossings and called for the federal government to reinstate former President Donald Trump’s tougher immigration policies.

Senate Finance Chair Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican, said on Thursday that the border program was vital to protecting public safety and must continue.

“As the crisis at our border continues, it is critical that the legislature continues to fund Operation Lone Star as the flow of illegal immigrants, weapons, and drugs has hit unprecedented levels,” Huffman said. “Because the federal government has completely neglected this emergency, imagine how unsafe communities across the country would be had Texas not stepped up to provide its full support.”

Abbott’s office has said it will hold off on asking for specific funding for Operation Lone Star until lawmakers can address it during budget hearings. Patrick, who is running against Democrat Mike Collier in the November election, predicted more action on border security in the upcoming session.

“Securing the safety of our children and our southern border are issues of paramount importance,” Patrick said in the authorization letter. “This action ensures that Texas is in a strong position to confront these issues head-on during the upcoming legislative session.”

Jolie McCullough contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/10/27/operation-lone-star-greg-abbott-budget/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton fled his home to avoid being served with subpoena: court record

"Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton fled his home to avoid being served with subpoena, court record says" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton fled his home in a truck driven by his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, to avoid being served a subpoena Monday, according to an affidavit filed in federal court.

Ernesto Martin Herrera, a process server, was attempting to serve the state’s top attorney with a subpoena for a federal court hearing Tuesday in a lawsuit from nonprofits that want to help Texans pay for abortions out of state.

Reference

Court documents detailing a process server's attempt to deliver a subpoena to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton at his McKinney home on Sept. 26.

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When Herrera arrived at Paxton’s home in McKinney on Monday morning, he told a woman who identified herself as Angela that he was trying to deliver legal documents to the attorney general. She told him that Paxton was on the phone and unable to come to the door. Herrera said he would wait.

Nearly an hour later, a black Chevrolet Tahoe pulled into the driveway, and 20 minutes after that, Ken Paxton exited the house.

“I walked up the driveway approaching Mr. Paxton and called him by his name. As soon as he saw me and heard me call his name out, he turned around and RAN back inside the house through the same door in the garage,” Herrera wrote in the sworn affidavit.

Angela Paxton then exited the house, got inside a Chevrolet truck in the driveway, started it and opened the doors.

“A few minutes later I saw Mr. Paxton RAN from the door inside the garage towards the rear door behind the driver side,” Herrera wrote. “I approached the truck, and loudly called him by his name and stated that I had court documents for him. Mr. Paxton ignored me and kept heading for the truck.”

Herrera eventually placed the subpoenas on the ground near the truck and told him he was serving him with a subpoena. Both cars drove away, leaving the documents on the ground.

On Twitter, the attorney general said his sudden departure was motivated by concerns for his family's safety.

"It’s clear that the media wants to drum up another controversy involving my work as Attorney General, so they’re attacking me for having the audacity to avoid a stranger lingering outside my home and showing concern about the safety and well-being of my family," he wrote in a tweet.

Paxton has been under indictment for securities fraud for seven years and faces a whistleblower lawsuit from former top deputies who accused him of abuse of office. Paxton has denied wrongdoing.

He was forced into a runoff for the Republican nomination for another term in office after high-profile Republicans, including former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and Land Commissioner George P. Bush, tried to unseat him. But Republican voters chose him over his intra-GOP challengers, who criticized his legal and personal scandals on the campaign trail.

He faces Democrat Rochelle Garza in November.


Disclosure: Chevrolet has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/09/26/texas-attorney-general-ken-paxton-subpoena-abortion-lawsuit/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Karl Rove says Texas’ abortion law is too extreme

"Karl Rove says Texas’ abortion law is too extreme" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Veteran GOP strategist Karl Rove said Saturday that Texas’ abortion law is too extreme, underscoring an increasingly public discomfort with the measure among Republicans.

Rove made the comment during an exchange at a Texas Tribune Festival panel about elections following the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. He said voters in Kansas had defeated an “extremist measure on abortion,” defining extreme as “essentially no abortion, no exceptions.”

“Do you think Texas is too extremist?” Tribune CEO Evan Smith asked.

“Yeah, I do,” Rove replied. “I think it’s gonna create a real problem for Republicans in the Legislature next year when they have to deal with it.”

Texas lawmakers passed a “trigger law” last year that automatically went into effect soon after the Roe decision and banned abortion without exceptions for rape or incest. Polls show very few voters support the lack of exceptions, and the law has complicated an election cycle that has been trending in Republicans’ favor on other issues.

Rove is not the only prominent Republican voice to express misgivings with Texas’ abortion ban. The speaker of the Texas House, Dade Phelan, said Friday at the Tribune Festival that his chamber might revisit the law, saying he has heard from members who are also concerned about the lack of exceptions for rape or incest. Also speaking Friday at the Festival, state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, said he would support a rape exception.

However, Rove noted that he supports the court’s ruling and that decisions on abortions should be left to elected officials.


The Texas Tribune Festival is here! Happening Sept. 22-24 in downtown Austin, this year’s TribFest features more than 25 virtual conversations with guests like Eric Adams, Pete Souza, Jason Kander and many others. After they air for ticket holders, anyone can watch these events at the Tribune’s Festival news page. Catch up on the latest news and free sessions from TribFest.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/09/24/robert-gibbs-karl-rove-texas-tribune-festival/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Kids in Texas youth prisons forced to use water bottles and lunch trays for toilets

Gov. Greg Abbott largely remained silent as dangerous conditions caused by a lack of staff persisted at Texas juvenile facilities during the summer.

Throughout this summer, children in Texas’ youth prison system have repeatedly been trapped in their cells, forced to urinate in water bottles and defecate on the floor.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/09/12/texas-juvenile-prisons-crisis/.

For months, children in at least two of five state lockups reported regularly lacking access to toilets as the Texas Juvenile Justice Department’s workforce shrunk below dangerous levels. Calls for immediate action by juvenile justice advocates and dozens of lawmakers to address the crisis have largely gone unanswered by Gov. Greg Abbott.

Last month, the governor’s office said the safety of staff and youth at TJJD was a top priority for him, touted the agency’s recent pay raise — funded largely by agency officials siphoning cash from the plethora of vacant officer positions — and promised to support further salary boosts during next year’s legislative session. His office did not immediately respond to questions for this story.

In May and June, more than a dozen detained youths at the Giddings State School said officers often didn’t let them out of their cells to use the bathroom between 4:30 p.m. and 8 a.m. during the week due to short staffing, according to state inspection reports recently obtained by The Texas Tribune. On the weekends, without teachers and case managers to fill in for vacant officer positions, youths were sometimes kept in their cells 22 hours a day.

[Almost 600 Texas youths are trapped in a juvenile prison system on the brink of collapse]

The children had no choice but to use water bottles, milk cartons, lunch trays or pieces of paper as makeshift toilets, they told officials from the Independent Ombudsman for the Texas Juvenile Justice System during monthly inspections.

It’s inhumane, a youth told inspectors. “Even animals are let out,” another said.

The Giddings prison, east of Austin, detains about 100 boys, including those with severe mental health needs. In June, the ombudsman reported that only 60 officers out of 140 needed were available to work at the lockup.

At the Gainesville State School in North Texas, youth reported in May that staff gave them cups to use as toilets in their cells.

“The youths’ right to be free from psychological harm appeared to have been violated,” inspectors noted in their June report from the Giddings prison.

The Tribune has previously reported on the ongoing failings of TJJD, which is under federal investigation for claims of mistreatment, but the new records provide more detail on the troubling conditions children endured when the agency’s staffing fell to exceedingly dangerous levels this summer. As of July, less than half of the prisons’ officer positions were actively filled, according to a state report.

[A mother watches helplessly as her teenage boy deteriorates in a Texas youth prison]

Last year, the turnover rate for detention officers hit 70%, and although the state has desperately tried to recruit new employees, most new hires leave within six months. Without enough staff to supervise the youth, children locked in their cells have increasingly engaged in self-harm and suicidal behaviors. Nearly half of the youth in the prison system this year have been on suicide watch.

Ombudsman reports from May to July at the state’s five youth prisons detailed several instances of self-harm behavior, including at least two that required hospital care.

In written responses to the ombudsman reports, TJJD officials said dangerous short-staffing caused the failures in getting youth bathroom access. Officers had to choose between letting a child out of his cell, despite safety guidance stating two employees need to be present in a dorm to do so, or letting him defecate or urinate on his cell floor.

“These unacceptable and horrible instances are the result of the dangerously low staffing numbers directly affecting the lives and well-being of youth, and run counter to the structured and rehabilitative environment TJJD strives to provide,” the agency said in July.

On Monday, TJJD spokesperson Barbara Kessler said that despite the “significant staffing shortfall,” detainees have been able to get out their cells for education and therapy on the vast majority of weekdays.

[Inspection reports reflect the desperation and danger youths face in Texas juvenile prisons]

At Giddings, where the situation appeared most dire, the agency responded in June by creating a roving team of five employees to move from building to building on nights and weekends for the purpose of getting two staffers in a dorm to allow bathroom access or to assist with other needs. Kessler said all five prisons are now required to have a five-person team for this reason.

Still, four days after the new plan was enacted, a youth told inspectors he still had to wait one or two hours to use the bathroom, but couldn’t hold it.

“[The youth] defecated on a piece of paper in his cell, and was given a plastic bag in which to place the paper,” inspectors wrote in the June report. “He explained that approximately 30 minutes later, a second staff member arrived, let him out of his cell, and he ‘finished pooping’ in a toilet.”

After an investigation into the reports of youth urinating and defecating in their cells, TJJD responded in July that two employees had been disciplined. Kessler said Monday that the staffers were written up “for failing to assure roving teams were available to dorms on lockdown and failing to escalate concerns to their supervisors.” One of the employees has since been removed from their position, Kessler said.

In late June, the agency also began shifting detainees to better match staffing availability. This included transferring 12 boys from Giddings to a youth prison in the Rio Grande Valley, which emptied a dorm at the Giddings lockup.

Days later, the agency announced it would be taking the drastic step of halting the intake of sentenced children at its facilities, putting further strain on county juvenile detention centers. Shortly afterward, the agency again began accepting a few children into its facilities on a limited basis.

By July, the most recent month ombudsman reports were available for TJJD’s five prisons, things appeared to be getting better. Agency officials hoped the emergency 15% raise, made permanent that month, would help to recruit and retain employees. Children throughout the five lockups had more time on regular schedules compared to previous months, though lockdowns persisted, according to an agency report.

Kessler said some youth who were forced to use water bottles or other receptacles as toilets during the worst of the staffing crisis earlier this year continue the practice now as a convenience rather than a necessity.

At Giddings, inspectors reported that the dorm closure eased staffing needs, with kids left in their cells on lockdown less often during the week — though on weekends children still remained in their cells almost all day.

In August, a 17-year-old at Giddings told his mother that he still used his water bottle as a toilet on weekends. On Monday, the mother said her son was still having the same issues.

The full program is now LIVE for the 2022 Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 22-24 in Austin. Explore the schedule of 100+ mind-expanding conversations coming to TribFest, including the inside track on the 2022 elections and the 2023 legislative session, the state of public and higher ed at this stage in the pandemic, why Texas suburbs are booming, why broadband access matters, the legacy of slavery, what really happened in Uvalde and so much more. See the program.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Veterans Affairs says it will provide abortions — even in Texas

The Department of Veterans Affairs said Friday it will provide abortions for veterans and their beneficiaries as medically necessary or in cases of rape or incest.

The VA said it plans to provide abortions across the entire nation — including states, such as Texas, that prohibit the procedure. The VA's decision reopens access to abortion to a class of women in Texas and several other states.

Texas is home to more than 1.5 million veterans. About 193,000 of those are women — more than any other state.

Texas lawmakers approved a ban on abortion that went into effect after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the case that established a nationwide right to abortion.

“This is a patient safety decision,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “Pregnant Veterans and VA beneficiaries deserve to have access to world-class reproductive care when they need it most. That’s what our nation owes them, and that’s what we at VA will deliver.”

In announcing the decision to provide abortions, the VA said “access to medically necessary abortions is essential for preserving the life and health of Veterans and VA beneficiaries.”

The department added that veterans are at a greater risk of pregnancy-related complications due to higher rates of chronic health conditions.

The VA joins the Department of Defense in its decision to provide abortion access after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this summer there was no constitutional right to an abortion.

Uvalde residents are skeptical of school safety plan proposals as new academic year approaches

The Uvalde school board at a Monday town hall discussed fixing crucial security issues exposed during the May 24 mass shooting at Robb Elementary that left 21 people dead. But every resident who spoke said their plans were still not enough — and many had questions about whether some of the new security measures would be stained with the legacy of failures that contributed to Texas’ deadliest school shooting and the delayed law enforcement response to it.

"Uvalde residents question the school district’s new safety plans for first school year since mass shooting" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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A Texas House committee’s investigation of the shooting found “systemic failures and egregious poor decision making” by nearly everyone involved who was in a position of power. The House committee’s report painted a damning portrayal of a school district that didn’t strictly adhere to its safety plan and a police response that disregarded its own active-shooter training.

Security plans for the new academic year, which begins Sept. 6 for Uvalde schools, call for 33 Texas Department of Public Safety officers to monitor campuses across the district. But Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District trustees couldn’t answer residents’ questions about whether any of those officers were among the 91 DPS officers who responded to Robb on May 24.

Diana Oveldo-Karau, a lifelong Uvalde resident, told trustees that some of those officers could be ones who were among those that waited more than an hour to confront the gunman.

“And I continue to just not understand how the school board and administration can believe that just because you have those DPS members on site ... expect us to believe that our children will be safe,” Oveldo-Karau said. “Those are the people who failed us.”

Superintendent Hal Harrell said he would discuss the issue with a DPS lieutenant on Wednesday.

More than 350 law enforcement officers from several local, state and federal agencies responded to the shooting but took more than an hour to confront the gunman. Law enforcement doctrine dictates that officers immediately confront active shooters.

The Uvalde school board last week fired former schools police Chief Pete Arredondo, who was broadly criticized for the delayed response. Arredondo was listed in the district’s active-shooter plan as the commanding officer of such an event, but the consensus of those interviewed by the House committee was that Arredondo did not assume that role and no one else took over for him. Arredondo’s lawyer has argued that his client should not have been assigned as the incident commander.

But Uvalde residents have pushed for officers from other agencies to also face repercussions for what’s widely viewed as a catastrophically fumbled response. The House committee report said that better-equipped departments should have stepped up to fill a leadership void after Arredondo failed to take charge.

Also discussed Monday were plans to use $15,000 in grant funding to do Wi-Fi audits. The House committee’s investigation also found that the district’s emergency management alert system isn’t always effective. It operates by sending out warnings online to teachers and faculty, many of whom access it through a smartphone app.

On May 24, not all Robb teachers received the alert about the gunman immediately, in part because of a poor wireless internet signal that made it difficult to send out the alert and the fact that many teachers didn’t have their phones or had them off at the moment they received it.

Harrell also said the district plans to upgrade door locks, add more fencing and increase the number of cameras in school buildings. Multiple witnesses told the House committee that Robb employees often left doors unlocked, while teachers would prop open doors. This was partly because of a shortage of keys. In March, the teacher in Room 111, through which investigators believe the shooter entered during the massacre, reported to school administrators that his classroom door “was not always locking.”

Despite all the new safety measures discussed Monday, mothers in the district like Laura Garza remain skeptical.

“I understand what you’re saying about doors being locked, but there are kids at the high school walking the hallways at all times,” Garza said. “Those are things that need to be looked into, not just a physical change, not just gates, but the actual school system in itself.”

The full program is now LIVE for the 2022 Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 22-24 in Austin. Explore the schedule of 100+ mind-expanding conversations coming to TribFest, including the inside track on the 2022 elections and the 2023 legislative session, the state of public and higher ed at this stage in the pandemic, why Texas suburbs are booming, why broadband access matters, the legacy of slavery, what really happened in Uvalde and so much more. See the program.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/08/29/uvalde-school-shooting-new-safety-plan/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Parental rights? This Texas school district may let teachers reject kid’s pronouns — even if parents approve

"A North Texas school district may let teachers reject children’s pronouns — even if parents approve of them" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Teachers will not be forced to address students by the pronouns that match their gender identity even if a parent asks them to and transgender students will be barred from playing sports if two new policies targeting gender identity are approved Monday night by the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District board.

It’s the latest move by a school board to more formally exclude transgender youth in schools.

The Grapevine-Colleyville district, located between Dallas and Fort Worth, just added two members to its seven-member school board in May. Both received donations from the Christian cellphone company Patriot Mobile, which has targeted the defeat of any school board candidate who endorses what they call “critical race theory” and ones who support books about LGBTQ identities, saying that kids were exposed to “explicit, ‘woke’ books.”

None of the seven GCISD school board members immediately responded to a request for comment.

The pronoun measure before Grapeville-Colleyville ISD states that “the district will not promote, require, or encourage the use of titles or pronoun identifiers for students, teachers or any other persons in any manner that is inconsistent with the biological sex of such person” as listed on a person’s birth certificate.

And if a student, parent or legal guardian asks the teacher to address the student with pronouns that match their gender identity, the district policy — if approved — will leave it to the teacher’s “discretion” as to whether a teacher will do so.

The pronoun policy is one of several proposals under consideration involving how race and gender will be addressed in this school district.

A separate proposal also prohibits students from participating or competing in athletic events that are “designated for the biological sex opposite to the student’s biological sex.” District staff also cannot teach or promote “gender fluidity,” which is the idea that one’s gender identity is not fixed and can extend beyond male and female. Staff also cannot teach or talk about sexual orientation and gender identity until kids are in the sixth grade.

And a third proposal before the Grapevine-Colleyville board Monday night relates to incorporating Senate Bill 3, the state’s so-called “critical race theory” law into a districtwide policy.

This is seemingly the first school district to take this formal step. Since the bill was passed last year, there has been confusion about how the law should be applied. School administrators across the state have asked the Texas Education Agency for guidance on the law. The agency’s response is for school districts to just continue teaching the current social studies curriculum.

SB 3 was crafted to keep “critical race theory” out of schools, with restrictions on how to talk about slavery and eventually sending teachers to civics training. Critical race theory is the idea that racism is embedded in legal systems and not limited to individuals. It’s an academic discipline taught at the university level. But it has become a common phrase used by conservatives to include anything about race taught or discussed in public secondary schools.

The Grapevine-Colleyville board proposal states that teachers and administrators cannot discuss critical race theory or what they have called “systemic discrimination ideologies.” The board proposal, like the state law, would prohibit requiring students to read the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, a collection of essays that centered on how slavery and the contributions of Black Americans shaped the United States.

The discussion of such policies comes almost a year after James Whitfield, a Black principal in the district, was put on leave and then eventually resigned after being accused of teaching “critical race theory.” In 2020, Whitfield emailed a letter to parents and staff in which he wrote that systemic racism is “alive and well” after the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

Protect Texas Kids, a conservative nonprofit organization, is rallying support for the school board meeting, posting on Facebook that conservatives must come out as they expect Democrats to pack the meeting.

“They will be voting on great new conservative policies that will set precedent for other districts,” the organization posted.

Disclosure: The New York Times has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.


The full program is now LIVE for the 2022 The Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 22-24 in Austin. Explore the schedule of 100+ mind-expanding conversations coming to TribFest, including the inside track on the 2022 elections and the 2023 legislative session, the state of public and higher ed at this stage in the pandemic, why Texas suburbs are booming, why broadband access matters, the legacy of slavery, what really happened in Uvalde and so much more. See the program.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/08/22/grapevine-colleyville-isd-transgender-critical-race-theory/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Congressional candidate disparaged COVID-19 aid despite taking thousands of dollars for her businesses

"Congressional candidate Monica De La Cruz disparaged COVID-19 aid despite taking thousands of dollars for her businesses" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Monica De La Cruz, a firebrand Republican running in a fiercely competitive South Texas race, received thousands of dollars for personal business interests from federal COVID relief programs despite disparaging federal assistance programs as harmful to the U.S. economy.

She’s the latest to join the growing list of Republican candidates and members of Congress who have recently come under fire for touting the benefits of Democratic or bipartisan legislation that they had disparaged and voted against. De La Cruz told The Texas Tribune she has always supported the kinds of assistance programs her businesses benefited from, but she vocally opposed major legislation that would have expanded them, saying they included wasteful spending items.

De La Cruz reported herself in disclosure forms as president of JSM De La Cruz Holdings, which generated for her rental income in the $100,001 to $1 million bracket in 2020. The firm received a $1,000 Economic Injury Disaster grant in May 2020 as well as a $39,000 loan,

De La Cruz also co-owned Navi Business Group with her then-husband, reporting $36,000 in spousal income in 2020. The firm received $4,000 in an Economic Injury Disaster Grant in April 2020 and a $98,000 Economic Injury Disaster Loan in May of that year. De La Cruz and her husband have since separated in a bitter divorce involving allegations against her of abusive behavior toward his daughter. De La Cruz rejected the allegations.

Two years later during a January candidate forum, De La Cruz blasted President Joe Biden’s pandemic relief package, the American Rescue Plan, as causing “higher prices” and the “destruction of small businesses.” The American Rescue Plan Act appropriated $15 billion toward the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program.

Another of De La Cruz’s businesses, DLC Insurance, was approved for a $38,552 Paycheck Protection Program loan back on April 29, 2020, intended to support five jobs at the firm. But the firm was ultimately shuttered during the pandemic, according to a March report from NBC News. De La Cruz, who listed her title as president of the company on disclosure forms, reported making $44,600 in income from DLC Insurance that year. The PPP loan was forgiven, including interest.

Calls by The Texas Tribune to a number listed with her insurance agency went unanswered.

On her campaign website, De La Cruz runs on a platform of stopping “incentivizing able-bodied adults not to work,” implementing “universal and enforceable work requirements for welfare” and working “with companies to transition people from welfare to work to address our labor shortage.” She also opposes Democratic social spending legislation, citing concerns it drives up inflation.

The PPP was one of the key relief elements of the CARES Act, a behemoth pandemic response package signed by former President Donald Trump in March 2020 as millions of Americans stopped going to work in person. Trump signed another COVID-19 relief package in December of that year, which De La Cruz criticized in a Facebook post and comments as surprising and “very sad.”

“I’m surprised Trump signed this,” she wrote on social media posts, criticizing the aspects of the bill that allocated funding for other countries.

“Monica De La Cruz raged against relief funding for Texas small businesses, but what she didn’t mention was that she and her family happily took nearly $200,000 of that same aid for themselves. Her hypocritical agenda of ‘Help for me, but not for thee’ is politics at its worst and South Texans deserve better,” said Monica Robinson, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

De La Cruz retorted to the Tribune that such claims are "nothing more than another desperate attempt by the far Left to smear me."

"Like many others, my small business received PPP loans to help us stay open and afloat during the pandemic. I’ve always supported programs like that to help small businesses, while also pointing out that the Democrat’s so-called American Rescue spending bill wasted far too much taxpayer money on unnecessary items and caused higher inflation,” she said.

In the early days of the pandemic, De La Cruz was running against U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez in Congressional District 15, ultimately losing in a close race to the moderate member. This year, she faces progressive newcomer and fellow small businesswoman Michelle Vallejo, who runs on a progressive populist platform and has also encountered her own financial scrutiny after neglecting to declare more than $200,000 in assets on her financial disclosure report, CQ Roll Call reported last month. Vallejo’s campaign submitted an amended disclosure accounting for information “inadvertently left off the original filing,” her campaign spokesperson told CQ Roll Call.

The CD-15 race is the most competitive in Texas, with no incumbent after Gonzalez opted to run in the newly reshaped 34th congressional district, previously held by Rep. Filemon Vela. National Republicans have also been pouring money into South Texas to flip the historically Democratic region, touching on the area’s border proximity and its religious and social conservatism.

Disclosure: The Texas Tribune, as a nonprofit local newsroom and a small business, applied for and received a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program in the amount of $1,116,626.


The full program is now LIVE for the 2022 The Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 22-24 in Austin. Explore the schedule of 100+ mind-expanding conversations coming to TribFest, including the inside track on the 2022 elections and the 2023 legislative session, the state of public and higher ed at this stage in the pandemic, why Texas suburbs are booming, why broadband access matters, the legacy of slavery, what really happened in Uvalde and so much more. See the program.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/08/22/monica-de-la-cruz-ppp-pandemic-loans/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

The new MAGA: Mothers Against Greg Abbott seek to unseat Texas governor

Mothers Against Greg Abbott has grown into a potent political force in the governor’s race, with a membership of over 50,000 on Facebook. The group recently caught more attention after releasing ads that have gone viral on social media.

Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.

A little over a year ago, Nancy Thompson, an Austin mother of three kids, stood alone for two and half hours in front of the Texas Capitol with a sign that said “Mothers Against Greg Abbott.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/08/11/mothers-against-greg-abbott-texas/.

She was most upset about the governor’s ban on mask mandates, worried about her son who was medically vulnerable to COVID-19 after being hospitalized for another virus that had “infected all his organs,” she said.

“Honestly, I just didn’t give a shit anymore,” Thompson said. “I was just done. I was so done.”

Now, her protests are not so lonely. Her “Mothers Against Greg Abbott” effort has grown into a potent political force in the governor’s race, with a membership of over 50,000 on Facebook. The group has recently caught more attention after releasing professionally made ads that have gone viral on social media.

They have earned the backing of Abbott’s Democratic opponent, Beto O’Rourke, who told the group Monday their work is “the talk of the town” no matter where he is.

“It’s absolutely transforming what’s possible in Texas right now, and there’s literally not a day that goes by that Amy or I or someone on our team do not get asked, ‘Have you seen that great Mothers Against Greg Abbott ad?’” O’Rourke said, addressing the group virtually along with his wife, Amy.

O’Rourke has long had an advantage with women in his uphill battle against Abbott, leading the governor by 6 percentage points among likely female voters in the latest public survey. But Thompson is working to rally a more specific group: mothers like herself, a onetime Republican who did not get deeply involved in politics until recent years. The group has naturally drawn many Democrats, but Thompson wants it to be as inclusive as possible, and its website calls it “a mix of Democrats, Moderate Republicans and Independents who are ready to work together for change for Texas.”

“We’re just trying to organize the army and make it super accessible to everyday Texans like me, who may not be super involved in politics — until you’re super involved in politics,” Thompson said.

Now Thompson is trying to take the group to the next level for the final three months of the race, organizing chapters throughout the state and endeavoring to put ads on TV. On Monday, it announced it had put up five billboards across the state criticizing Abbott over his response to the Uvalde school shooting.

Abbott’s campaign declined to comment on the group.

Campaign finance records show the group raised $170,000 through June 30, garnering over 2,400 mostly small donations. Thompson said the group has raised at least $200,000 more since then, as its ads blew up online in July. That is a notable amount for such an upstart group, though it still pales in comparison to the eight-figure campaign accounts that both Abbott and O’Rourke have to spread their messages.

While the group has been in existence since last year, it has garnered the most attention yet for the ads it has released this summer. One of them, titled “Whose Choice,” depicts a fictitious scence in which a doctor is counseling a woman about a pregnancy she may need to terminate due to a “catastrophic brain abnormality.” The doctor tells her there is “only one person who can make this choice” — before abruptly picking up a phone and calling Abbott. The ad has gotten over 7 million views on Twitter since it was posted July 25.

O’Rourke called the ads “amazingly effective” Monday.

Thompson is a mother of three from Austin whose professional career has mostly been in marketing. She said she considered herself a Republican — serving as a delegate to the 1988 national convention, for example — until President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. She began to vote Democratic going forward but did not get more actively involved in politics until more recently.

It was not until after Thompson made her initial protest sign last year that she realized it had carried the same acronym as former President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan: Make America Great Again. But she laughed it off to herself and stuck with it.

Someone took a picture of Thompson’s protest that day, and it started spreading on social media. Noticing how many people seemed to relate, Thompson created a private Facebook group a few days later using the same name, and by December, it had over 20,000 members.

Thompson noticed membership spiked around major news events involving Abbott, like when the state’s six-week abortion ban went into effect in September. Another jump in membership came in February, when Abbott ordered state agencies to investigate gender-affirming care for transgender kids as child abuse.

“It just seemed like every single time Greg Abbott opened up his mouth, we gained thousands of followers every single time,” Thompson said. “He just spent the last year making enemies of so many Texans.”

The next year, as the group continued to swell and Thompson was looking for volunteers, she met the filmmaker Michelle Mower. Mower offered to help — and to connect Thompson with fellow filmmakers — and before long, they were all holding weekly meetings.

The group’s first ad, “Breaking Bread,” came out April 15, and it depicted three pairs of women who had been driven apart by politics agreeing to reconcile and hash out their differences. Everyone donated their time for the ad, which cost only $600, covering meals and equipment rentals, Thompson said. It would largely remain that way going forward.

Nancy Thompson, founder of Mothers Against Greg Abbott, poses for a portrait at the Texas Capitol on August 4, 2022.

Mothers Against Greg Abbott founder Nancy Thompson in front of the Governor’s Mansion on Aug. 4. Credit: Kylie Cooper/The Texas Tribune

Thompson continued to work with Mower and Chelsea Aldrich, an actress and writer. But she also realized she had a valuable resource next door — literally — in her neighbors, David Wolfson and Lauren Sheppard, co-founders of Spoon Films. The company had worked for a political action committee in 2018 that opposed U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz when O’Rourke was challenging him — Fuck Ted Cruz PAC — and had leftover footage they were willing to share. Spoon Films ultimately produced ads for Mothers Against Greg Abbott featuring Cecile Richards, O’Rourke’s national finance chair and the daughter of former Gov. Ann Richards.

Along the way, Thompson also met fellow likeminded mothers like Cheryl Richard, a retired oil and gas executive from Austin. Richard said she first started talking to Thompson last year when Richard was thinking about challenging Abbott herself.

Richard ultimately provided $3,000 in seed funding to help make an ad called “Nothing Changes,” in which several mothers speak to the camera about overcoming political apathy in Texas. Richard also lent her horse, Ivan, who has a cameo in the ad.

Richard, 66, has twin sons and five grandchildren, with another on the way. Four of her grandchildren are girls. She said she identified as Republican her whole life until “around 2016,” when Trump was elected president and she realized how much the GOP had drifted away from her on some issues. She supports abortion rights and “reasonable” gun control, she said, like raising the age to buy an assault rifle to 21.

“I don’t feel like I left the Republican Party as much as it left me,” Richard said. “I’ve always been a moderate. I’m still a moderate. … And I think there are a lot of moderates out there, particularly women, who feel left behind and for the same reasons I felt left behind.”

Richard acknowledged that beating Abbott is “not just about putting out ads.” The “much tougher” mission, she said, is turning out more voters.

After all, the ads produced by the anti-Cruz PAC garnered plenty of clicks and media coverage, but O’Rourke still lost to Cruz by 3 percentage points.

Thompson appears aware of the challenge. She is working to expand the group’s advertising, filming more ads for the web, hoping to eventually air them on TV, and putting up the billboards, which spotlight Abbott’s statement after theUvalde shooting that it “could’ve been worse.” But she is also helping establish MAGA chapters across the state, including places as far-flung as Alpine in far West Texas and Palestine in East Texas.

The group has grown so much that she recently had to bring on two part-time employees, an accountant and a fundraiser.

While O’Rourke addressed the group for the first time Monday, Thompson has made sure to operate it independently of his campaign, mindful of campaign finance regulations. In fact, Thompson said, it was not until the last week of July that O’Rourke started following her on Twitter.

Disclosure: Facebook has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

The full program is now LIVE for the 2022 The Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 22-24 in Austin. Explore the schedule of 100+ mind-expanding conversations coming to TribFest, including the inside track on the 2022 elections and the 2023 legislative session, the state of public and higher ed at this stage in the pandemic, why Texas suburbs are booming, why broadband access matters, the legacy of slavery, what really happened in Uvalde and so much more. See the program.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas Republicans are trying to sell school choice measures. Rural conservatives aren’t buying

"Texas Republicans are trying to sell school choice measures, but rural conservatives aren’t buying" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

For the latest developments on school choice measures in Texas, sign up to receive our weekly education newsletter.

As a Texas school superintendent, Adrain Johnson is no stranger to the struggles small, rural public schools face, from trying to recruit teachers, especially after more than two years of navigating school during a global pandemic, to a general lack of resources. And now, after the school shooting in Uvalde, there’s a renewed conversation about campus security.

With so many problems to solve, Johnson, who oversees the Hearne Independent School District northwest of College Station, doesn’t understand why state lawmakers’ to-do lists heading into next year’s legislative session seem to focus more on school choice over something like school safety.

“There always seems to be a school choice debate every legislative year, and I’m not afraid of that. I think that debating is good. That’s part of democracy,” Johnson said.

But he also wonders why public schools always take a back seat to the pursuit of policies that could diminish them.

“Why not make it imperative to support the local school district?” he said.

Instead, from where he stands, the talk in Austin is already focused on school choice, the broad term applied to a host of taxpayer-funded alternatives to sending a child to the local public school.

[With rural Texas watching, Greg Abbott and Beto O’Rourke dig in on school vouchers fight]

Although the Texas Legislature doesn’t meet for another five months, Gov. Greg Abbott has voiced support for public school alternatives. Abbott has said he supports parents’ “choice to send their children to any public school, charter school or private school with state funding following the student.” And Democrat Beto O’Rourke, who will face off against Abbott in November, has also joined the debate, running ads asking people to “reject Greg Abbott’s radical plan to defund” public schools.

The Republican Party of Texas has listed school choice as a legislative priority, and pro-school choice groups like the Texas Private Schools Association and the Texas Public Policy Foundation will also push for school choice legislation.

But in the northeastern corner of the state, Rep. Gary VanDeaver, a Republican whose district includes 30 rural school districts, is still unconvinced. He was one of several lawmakers who helped kill school choice legislation in 2017. He said one of the concerns he’s hearing from parents is that they’re paying property taxes, which fund public schools, but have opted for either home schooling or sending their kids to private school.

“I prefer to reduce their property taxes, so they have the option of spending that money any way they choose, whether it be alternative education choices, saving for college or purchasing a new car,” VanDeaver said.

Texas has passed some school choice measures. VanDeaver points to the approval of the state’s charter school system in the 1990s and giving students in low-performing schools the ability to transfer out of a district.

“Proponents of expanding school choice options often say the money should follow the student,” VanDeaver said. “Current Texas law already does that if a student transfers to another public school, including a charter school.”

From his vantage point, VanDeaver has good reason to be concerned. In smaller Texas cities and towns, there’s far less “choice” for rural students. Outside of large metro areas, private schools are few and far between. Many rural private schools have religious affiliations. And VanDeaver has been informed that the religious private schools in his area are uninterested in public money. He also worries about the damage to the local public school district a voucher program could cause.

“This sense of community is what makes Texas great, and I would hate to see anything like a voucher program destroy this community spirit,” he said.

Conservative efforts to pass school choice measures have failed largely because there are few private schools or charter schools as alternatives outside the state’s larger urban areas. Also, the public school systems are a large economic and employment driver for most small towns.

In Texas, schools are funded based on the number of students enrolled and the daily attendance on campus. Schools receive a base allotment of $6,160 per student each year. Texas is also home to more rural students than any other state, and its schools are funded through property taxes.

Proponents say more school choice options help lower-income families afford better education. Opponents believe school choice policies weaken the public education system because they can result in public school dollars going to private schools, which are largely unregulated and therefore unaccountable.

In addition to vouchers, lawmakers could consider education savings accounts, or ESAs, where the state places taxpayer dollars into accounts for families to be used for educational expenses such as private school tuition. But the funds can be also used for tutoring, online classes and even higher education expenses.

Then there are tax credit scholarships, which allow individuals or businesses to receive full or partial tax credits when they donate to scholarship funds that are then awarded to families to enroll in private schools.

Laura Colangelo, executive director of the Texas Private Schools Association, said either a tax credit or an ESA option would work well for Texas. Her organization is against a voucher policy.

“We’re about 20 years behind, and so I do think there are a lot of things that we could do to improve options — education options — for parents and kids in Texas,” Colangelo said.

But the struggle, again, will be convincing rural lawmakers that school choice is the way to go.

State Rep. Drew Darby of San Angelo told The Texas Tribune last week that he would oppose anything that would take away resources from Texas’ public schools.

Bill Tarleton, executive director of the Texas Rural Education Association, worries that private schools won’t allow for the same transparency and accountability because they don’t have elected school boards. He also questions whether any school choice legislation would really benefit all students because private schools can pick and choose whom they accept.

“Public schools are the only ones that have to educate all students,” Tarleton said.

VanDeaver said he’s not one to shut the door on any policy and looks forward to the debate next session. He wants to see a better accountability system created for private schools receiving the money.

“As conservatives, we expect it from our public schools,” he said. “We need to know that we’re getting bang for our buck for every educational dollar, wherever it’s spent.”

Disclosure: The Texas Private Schools Association and the Texas Public Policy Foundation have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.


When you join us at The Texas Tribune Festival Sept. 22-24 in downtown Austin, you’ll hear from changemakers who are driving innovation, lawmakers who are taking charge with new policies, industry leaders who are pushing Texas forward and so many others. See the growing speaker list and buy tickets.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/08/08/texas-school-choice-legislation/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Gov. Greg Abbott appoints officer indicted for misconduct during George Floyd protests to police regulatory agency

Gov. Greg Abbott has appointed an indicted Austin police officer accused of using excessive force during 2020 protests to Texas’ regulatory law enforcement agency.

Justin Berry was among 19 Austin police officers indicted earlier this year in the protests spurred by the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Berry is charged with two counts of aggravated assault by a public servant.

He also ran as a Republican for Texas House District 19 but lost in the primary runoff election this year. Abbott had endorsed Berry in the race, saying his “strong conservative values and experience stopping violent crime are exactly what we need in the Texas House.”

Now, at the governor’s hand, Berry will serve on the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, which sets minimum licensing and training standards for police. Abbott did not immediately respond to The Texas Tribune's request for comment, but in a press release announcing Berry’s appointment Friday, he said the commission ensures “that the people of Texas are served by highly trained and ethical law enforcement, corrections, and telecommunications personnel.” Berry posted a statement to Twitter on Friday but did not respond to requests for comment.

“The demands and expectations of today’s professional police officer have never been so great,” Berry said about his appointment via Twitter. “I look forward to ensuring Texas has the best police officers in the world. Ensuring those who answer the call to serve their respective communities have the training and resources necessary to be set up for success are a priority to not only keeping Texan’s safe but ensuring trust is earned and maintained by those very communities.”

Sara Mokuria, co-founder of Mothers Against Police Brutality, said Abbott’s decision to appoint Berry to TCOLE is dangerous, not based in public safety and flies in the face of “what’s in the best interests of Texans.”

“This is an indicted officer who is now part of the body licensing and regulating law enforcement agencies,” Mokuria said. “It’s a move in the wrong direction, and it makes us unsafe. And, quite frankly, it’s a message that has been reiterated from the governor’s mansion over and over again, whether that be families in Uvalde who were not safe to send their kids to school, or all Texas residents during the winter storm. Our lives and our safety have consistently been put at risk because of this governor.”

Berry’s exact role in the Floyd protests is unclear, but Austin officers grievously wounded several people after shooting them with “less-lethal” ammunition in the head. That included a 20-year-old Black man police said was not their intended target after a man nearby tossed a water bottle and backpack up toward steps where police were in formation. Video also showed a 16-year-old Hispanic boy collapsing to the ground after police fired a beanbag bullet at him while he was standing alone near the freeway.

The violent police tactics during the protests against police violence were heavily criticized. Along with the indictments of 19 officers, the city of Austin agreed to a $10 million civil settlement with two men shot by police with beanbag rounds, including the 20-year-old.

Chas Moore, executive director of the Austin Justice Coalition, said Abbott appointing Berry despite his indictment “isn’t surprising.” Moore feels the governor said all of the politically correct things after Floyd’s murder but followed up with inaction.

“He’s never cared about making sure that everybody can be safe,” the activist said. “He doesn’t care about the national conversation that happened in 2020, where every state had some form of protest for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, you know. He’s a diehard Texas Republican.”

'They actually tell the wind generators to stop generating electricity': How ERCOT fumbles Texas’ energy grid

"Why the Texas grid causes the High Plains to turn off its wind turbines" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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LUBBOCK — The state’s High Plains region, which covers 41 counties in the Texas Panhandle and West Texas, is home to more than 11,000 wind turbines — the most in any area of the state.

The region could generate enough wind energy to power at least 9 million homes. Experts say the additional energy could help provide much-needed stability to the electric grid during high energy-demand summers like this one, and even lower the power bills of Texans in other parts of the state.

But a significant portion of the electricity produced in the High Plains stays there for a simple reason: It can’t be moved elsewhere. Despite the growing development of wind energy production in Texas, the state’s transmission network would need significant infrastructure upgrades to ship out the energy produced in the region.

“We’re at a moment when wind is at its peak production profile, but we see a lot of wind energy being curtailed or congested and not able to flow through to some of the higher-population areas,” said John Hensley, vice president for research and analytics at the American Clean Power Association. “Which is a loss for ratepayers and a loss for those energy consumers that now have to either face conserving energy or paying more for the energy they do use because they don’t have access to that lower-cost wind resource.”

And when the rest of the state is asked to conserve energy to help stabilize the grid, the High Plains has to turn off turbines to limit wind production it doesn’t need.

“Because there’s not enough transmission to move it where it’s needed, ERCOT has to throttle back the [wind] generators,” energy lawyer Michael Jewell said. “They actually tell the wind generators to stop generating electricity. It gets to the point where [wind farm operators] literally have to disengage the generators entirely and stop them from doing anything.”

Texans have already had a few energy scares this year amid scorching temperatures and high energy demand to keep homes cool. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the state’s electrical grid, warned about drops in energy production twice last month and asked people across the state to lower their consumption to avoid an electricity emergency.

The energy supply issues have hit Texans’ wallets as well. Nearly half of Texas’ electricity is generated at power plants that run on the state’s most dominant energy source, natural gas, and its price has increased more than 200% since late February, causing elevated home utility bills.

Meanwhile, wind farms across the state account for nearly 21% of the state’s power generation. Combined with wind production near the Gulf of Mexico, Texas produced more than one-fourth of the nation’s wind-powered electric generation last year.

Wind energy is one of the lowest-priced energy sources because it is sold at fixed prices, turbines do not need fuel to run and the federal government provides subsidies. Texans who get their energy from wind farms in the High Plains region usually pay less for electricity than people in other areas of the state. But with the price of natural gas increasing from inflation, Jewell said areas where wind energy is not accessible have to depend on electricity that costs more.

“Other generation resources are more expensive than what [customers] would have gotten from the wind generators if they could move it,” Jewell said. “That is the definition of transmission congestion. Because you can’t move the cheaper electricity through the grid.”

A 2021 ERCOT report shows there have been increases in stability constraints for wind energy in recent years in both West and South Texas that have limited the long-distance transfer of power.

“The transmission constraints are such that energy can’t make it to the load centers. [High Plains wind power] might be able to make it to Lubbock, but it may not be able to make it to Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston or Austin,” Jewell said. “This is not an insignificant problem — it is costing Texans a lot of money.”

Some wind farms in the High Plains foresaw there would be a need for transmission. The Trent Wind Farm was one of the first in the region. Beginning operations in 2001, the wind farm is between Abilene and Sweetwater in West Texas and has about 100 wind turbines, which can supply power to 35,000 homes. Energy company American Electric Power built the site near a power transmission network and built a short transmission line, so the power generated there does go into the ERCOT system.

But Jewell said high energy demand and costs this summer show there’s a need to build additional transmission lines to move more wind energy produced in the High Plains to other areas of the state.

Jewell said the Public Utility Commission, which oversees the grid, is conducting tests to determine the economic benefits of adding transmission lines from the High Plains to the more than 52,000 miles of lines that already connect to the grid across the state. As of now, however, there is no official proposal to build new lines.

“It does take a lot of time to figure it out — you’re talking about a transmission line that’s going to be in service for 40 or 50 years, and it’s going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars,” Jewell said. “You want to be sure that the savings outweigh the costs, so it is a longer process. But we need more transmission in order to be able to move more energy. This state is growing by leaps and bounds.”

A report by the American Society of Civil Engineers released after the February 2021 winter storm stated that Texas has substantial and growing reliability and resilience problems with its electric system.

The report concluded that “the failures that caused overwhelming human and economic suffering during February will increase in frequency and duration due to legacy market design shortcomings, growing infrastructure interdependence, economic and population growth drivers, and aging equipment even if the frequency and severity of weather events remains unchanged.”

The report also stated that while transmission upgrades across the state have generally been made in a timely manner, it’s been challenging to add infrastructure where there has been rapid growth, like in the High Plains.

Despite some Texas lawmakers’ vocal opposition against wind and other forms of renewable energy, the state has prime real estate for harnessing wind power because of its open plains, and farmers can put turbines on their land for financial relief.

This has led to a boom in wind farms, even with transmission issues. Since 2010, wind energy generation in Texas has increased by 15%. This month, the Biden administration announced the Gulf of Mexico’s first offshore wind farms will be developed off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana and will produce enough energy to power around 3 million homes.

“Texas really does sort of stand head and shoulders above all other states when it comes to the actual amount of wind, solar and battery storage projects that are on the system,” Hensley said.

One of the issues often brought up with wind and solar farms is that they may not be able to produce as much energy as the state needs all of the time. Earlier this month, when ERCOT asked consumers to conserve electricity, the agency listed low wind generation and cloud coverage in West Texas as factors contributing to a tight energy supply.

Hensley said this is where battery storage stations can help. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, utility-scale batteries tripled in capacity in 2021 and can now store up to 4.6 gigawatts of energy. Texas has been quickly developing storage projects. In 2011, Texas had only 5 megawatts of battery storage capacity; by 2020, that had ballooned to 323.1 megawatts.

“Storage is the real game-changer because it can really help to mediate and control a lot of the intermittency issues that a lot of folks worry about when they think about wind and solar technology,” Hensley said. “So being able to capture a lot of that solar that comes right around noon to [1 p.m.] and move it to those evening periods when demand is at its highest, or even move strong wind resources from overnight to the early morning or afternoon hours.”

Storage technology can help, but Hensley said transmission is still the big factor to consider.

Solar is another resource that could help stabilize the grid. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, Texas has about 13,947 megawatts of solar installed and more than 161,000 installations. That’s enough to power more than 1.6 million homes.

This month, the PUC formed a task force to develop a pilot program next year that would create a pathway for solar panels and batteries on small-scale systems, like homes and businesses, to add that energy to the grid. The program would make solar and batteries more accessible and affordable for customers, and it would pay customers to share their stored energy to the grid as well.

Hensley said Texas has the most clean-energy projects in the works that will likely continue to put the region above the rest when it comes to wind generation.

“So they’re already ahead, and it looks like they’re going to be even farther ahead six months or a year down the road,” he said.


When you join us at The Texas Tribune Festival Sept. 22-24 in downtown Austin, you’ll hear from changemakers who are driving innovation, lawmakers who are taking charge with new policies, industry leaders who are pushing Texas forward and so many others. See the growing speaker list and buy tickets.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/08/02/texas-high-plains-wind-energy/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

News organizations sue Texas Department of Public Safety over withheld Uvalde shooting records

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

More than a dozen news organizations filed a lawsuit against the Texas Department of Public Safety on Monday, accusing the agency of unlawfully withholding public records related to the May school shooting in Uvalde.

The organizations, which include ProPublica and The Texas Tribune, have each filed requests for information detailing the response to the massacre by various authorities under the Texas Public Information Act. ProPublica and the Tribune filed about 70 records requests with multiple agencies.

DPS has refused to release records sought in the requests, even as the agency has selectively disclosed some information through public testimony, third-party analyses and news conferences.

“In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, and continuing throughout the ensuing two months, DPS has declined to provide any meaningful information in response to the Requests regarding the events of that day — despite the awful reality that some 376 members of law enforcement responded to the tragedy, and hundreds of those were in the school or on school property not going into the unlocked classroom where the gunman continued killing helpless youth,” the lawsuit states.

A comprehensive report released in July by a Texas House of Representatives committee found that numerous law enforcement agencies, including the state police, failed to quickly confront the gunman, who killed 19 students and two teachers over the course of about 77 minutes. DPS has provided little information about the actions of its 91 officers who responded to the scene.

Under Texas law, records are presumed public unless a government body cites a specific exemption that allows information to be withheld under the state’s public information act.

DPS has said that releasing records could interfere with an ongoing investigation. The news organizations argue that there is no such investigation, given that the guilt of the gunman is not in dispute and authorities say the 18-year-old acted alone. The local prosecutor, Uvalde County District Attorney Christina Mitchell Busbee, has acknowledged that she is not conducting a criminal investigation.

The records requested by the news organizations include emails, body camera and other video footage, call logs, 911 and other emergency communications, interview notes, forensic and ballistic records, and lists of DPS personnel who responded to the shooting.

“The Texas Department of Public Safety has offered inconsistent accounts of how law enforcement responded to the Uvalde tragedy, and its lack of transparency has stirred suspicion and frustration in a community that is still struggling with grief and shock,” said Laura Lee Prather, a First Amendment lawyer at Haynes Boone who represents the news organizations. “DPS has refused numerous requests by these news organizations even though it’s clear under Texas law that the public is entitled to have access to these important public records. We ask that the court grant our petition so that the people of Texas can understand the truth about what happened.”

In addition to ProPublica and the Tribune, the plaintiffs include The New York Times Company, The Washington Post, NBC News, CNN, ABC News, CBS News, Scripps Media and Gannett.

The suit was brought in state district court in Travis County.

Leaked video shows Texas law enforcement’s long wait to confront Uvalde school shooter

July 12, 2022

"Leaked video shows Texas law enforcement’s long wait to confront Uvalde school shooter" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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UVALDE — On the same day that a Texas House committee investigating the Uvalde school shooting announced plans to release footage of law enforcement response to the incident, a video showing police waiting for more than an hour in the school hallway before confronting the shooter was published by the Austin American-Statesman and KVUE-TV.

[“If there’s kids in there, we need to go in”: Officers in Uvalde were ready with guns, shields and tools — but not clear orders]

The apparent leak of the video before victims’ families could view it drew ire from local and state leaders.

At a Uvalde City Council meeting Tuesday night, Mayor Don McLaughlin said it was unprofessional to have leaked the video to news outlets. He said families deserved to have viewed the video first before anyone else.

“The way that video was released today was the most chicken thing I’ve ever seen,” the mayor, stopping short of cursing, said during the meeting attended by residents and families affected by the shooting.

State Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican and the committee’s chair, said earlier Tuesday that he planned to lead a private briefing for victims’ families in Uvalde on Sunday morning, allowing them to see the hallway video from a Robb Elementary School surveillance camera and discuss the committee’s preliminary report. Then the committee would release the video and the report to the public and answer questions from reporters, he said.

[What we know, minute by minute, about how the Uvalde shooting and police response unfolded]

But hours after that announcement, the Statesman and KVUE published a 1-hour-and-22-minute version of the video, edited to remove the sound of children screaming and to obscure the identity of a student who ran from the shooter in the hallway. It depicts police arriving at the scene quickly and approaching two classrooms where the gunman, an 18-year-old Uvalde resident, was shooting. The officers retreat after being fired on and do not reapproach for more than an hour, when several breach one of the classrooms and fatally shoot the gunman who killed 19 students and two teachers.

Multiple law enforcement officers from Uvalde, the state Department of Public Safety, U.S. Border Patrol and other agencies can be seen in the video. Many were heavily armed and had shields but waited more than an hour before they stormed the classroom.

Much of the details shown in the video have already been disclosed in media reports and details released by law enforcement. The Texas Tribune reviewed the footage on June 20, publishing a detailed written account based on the footage, other media reports and law enforcement records. The Tribune and the Statesman have also both published still images from security footage.

But the video itself shows in agonizing detail the waiting done outside the classroom.

Its release drew frustration from some state officials who said they wanted the families of the victims to have the opportunity to see the footage first. Burrows said Tuesday before the video’s publication that “we feel strongly that members of the Uvalde community should have the opportunity to see the video and hear from us before they are made public.”

Afterward, he said he was “disappointed.” And DPS Director Steven McCraw said in a statement those “most affected should have been among the first to see it.”

It’s unclear who provided the video to the Statesman and KVUE.

The footage is being made public over the objection of the Uvalde County district attorney, who had instructed DPS not to provide the video to the committee.

“As I stated during my testimony before the Senate Special Committee to Protect All Texans, this video provides horrifying evidence that the law enforcement response to the attack at Robb Elementary on May 24 was an abject failure,” McCraw said Tuesday. “In law enforcement, when one officer fails, we all fail.”

Since last month, the three-person House committee — which also includes El Paso Democrat state Rep. Joe Moody and former Republican state Supreme Court justice Eva Guzman — has interviewed more than a dozen witnesses behind closed doors, including law enforcement and school workers.

Their report will be the second investigation into the law enforcement response of the shooting to be made public. Last week, the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center, located at Texas State University in San Marcos, released its comprehensive account of police tactics during the shooting.

Moody, the lone Democrat on the committee, said on Twitter that the report the House committee is preparing to release Sunday will provide more context to the video.

“A piecemeal release of information continues to tell part of a story that people deserve the complete truth about,” he said.

McCraw has said Uvalde schools police Chief Pete Arredondo was most responsible for a flawed response to the shooting. Uvalde CISD Superintendent Hal Harrell placed Arredondo on leave last month. Arredondo was elected to the Uvalde City Council before the shooting but wasn’t sworn in until after the massacre. Arredondo submitted his resignation from the City Council earlier this month. At Tuesday’s meeting, council members formally accepted that resignation and set a special election to fill his seat for November.

Since the May 24 shooting, community members have repeatedly pressed officials for details about what happened. Those calls intensified after Gov. Greg Abbott and DPS officials initially made several inaccurate statements about the police response. The governor and McCraw have since said that video footage from the school surveillance cameras should be released.

In Uvalde on Tuesday night, residents told McLaughlin it’s his job to stand up for the families who lost loved ones and get details of the investigations.

Resident Diana Olvedo-Karau said City Council members need to advocate aggressively for the families.

“If it means losing your seat, so be it,” she said.

Uvalde pastor Daniel Myers told the mayor he needs “to quit being so nice and step on some toes.”

The mayor said he was trying to get answers for the families.

Myers responded: “Well you need a bigger foot because they’re stepping all over you.”

Adam Martinez, whose 8-year-old son was at the school during the shooting, said the mayor blaming others is an excuse to not accept responsibility for not providing information to the families on the investigation.

“We used to have confidence in him but he hasn’t given us anything,” Martinez said. “He can do name calling but what we need is information.”


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/07/12/texas-house-investigators-uvalde-shooting-video/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas AG Paxton seeks to dismiss state bar’s lawsuit against him over his attempt to overturn the 2020 election

"Ken Paxton seeks to dismiss state bar’s lawsuit against him over his attempt to overturn the 2020 election" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is seeking to dismiss a professional misconduct lawsuit filed by the state bar against him related to his legal challenge of the 2020 presidential election, court documents show.

In a court filing June 27, Paxton asked a district court in Collin County to dismiss the Texas State Bar’s lawsuit. The state’s top lawyer, a Republican who is seeking a third term in office, said state bar investigators are biased and politically motivated against him.

After the 2020 election, Paxton filed a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn elections in battleground states where former President Donald Trump, a Paxton ally, had lost. The Supreme Court eventually dismissed the suit, saying that Texas had no standing to sue.

The suit against Paxton last year came after a group of 16 lawyers, including four former state bar presidents, filed an ethics complaint against Paxton arguing that he demonstrated a pattern of professional misconduct, including filing the suit challenging the results of the 2020 elections.

In the court filing, Paxton said the state bar’s Commission for Lawyer Discipline, which filed the suit, had no authority to “police the decisions of a duly elected, statewide constitutional officer of the executive branch.” Paxton also stood by his decision to challenge the results of the 2020 election.

Paxton did not immediately reply to a request for comment.


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/07/06/texas-ken-paxton-state-bar-lawsuit/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

WNBA star Brittney Griner’s detention in Russia extended at least six more months pending trial

The detention of Brittney Griner, the WNBA professional basketball player from Houston who was arrested in Russia more than four months ago, has been extended by six months pending the outcome of her trial, her lawyer told CNN on Monday.

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Griner’s trial is scheduled to start Friday. The Phoenix Mercury player, who plays in Russia during the American league’s off-season, has been held in detention since mid-February and faces charges punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Griner was arrested at Sheremetyevo International Airport near Moscow after arriving from New York. Russian officials claimed to have found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.

U.S. State Department officials have classified Griner as “wrongfully detained,” which sparked a growing movement for the player’s release led by her wife, Cherelle Griner.

The Women’s National Basketball Players Association, along with dozens of civil and human rights organizations, signed a letter this month demanding President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris strike a deal for Griner’s release.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who represents Griner's hometown of Houston, said she discussed Griner’s detainment at a meeting with Biden. Fellow WNBA players have also taken to social media to increase pressure on the Biden administration.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that the release of the WNBA player is a “priority” but has not shared details as to how that might happen.

“I’ve got no higher priority than making sure that Americans who are being illegally detained in one way or another around the world come home,” Blinken said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.

Blinken also said he was in contact with Cherelle Griner, who has told the Associated Press she is not confident that the Biden administration is making her wife’s case a priority.

Griner’s detention comes amid U.S. efforts to support Ukraine in that country’s continued invasion by Russia, and her supporters have expressed fear that Griner is being used as a political pawn.

The Russian news agency TASS has hinted that the U.S. and Russia could reach a deal to exchange Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S. for agreeing to sell arms to a Colombian terrorist group. When asked about the likelihood of such an exchange at a May press briefing, a U.S. State Department spokesperson declined to comment, saying, “I’m not going to get into — I’m not going to entertain that.”

Another Texas native who was being held in jail by Russia, former Marine Trevor Reed, was released in April in a prisoner exchange.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/06/27/wnba-brittney-griner-russia-detention/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Trump-backed Republican Texas House candidate in Collin County charged with impersonating public servant

June 24, 2022

"Republican Texas House candidate in Collin County charged with impersonating public servant" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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A Texas House candidate and police officer backed by former President Donald Trump and top Texas Republicans has been indicted on a charge of impersonating a public servant, according to authorities.

Dallas police said Friday that Frederick Frazier was placed on administrative leave after the department was notified that a Collin County grand jury indicted him. Impersonating a public servant is a third-degree felony.

Frazier turned himself in to the Richardson jail Friday and posted bond, said Teddy Yoshida, a spokesperson for the Richardson Police Department.

It is unclear what the specific allegations against Frazier are, and a spokesperson for the Collin County district attorney’s office was not immediately available for comment.

Responding to the indictment, Frazier’s campaign blamed his Republican primary runoff opponent, Paul Chabot, who had suggested Frazier posed as a city code compliance officer to get Chabot’s campaign signs taken down at a Walmart. In a statement, Frazier’s campaign said Chabot, who has run for office multiple times before, is “trying to overturn the results of that election by bringing up trumped complaints to law enforcement and testifying before a grand jury.”

“Frederick Frazier is looking forward to having the opportunity to defend himself in court, where we are confident jurors will see through Chabot’s lies in the same way that voters have five times before,” the statement said.

John Thomas, Chabot’s consultant, issued a statement on Frazier’s indictment:

“An independent grand jury was empaneled and determined that Mr. Frazier committed multiple felonies. In fact, it was the Rangers and the McKinney PD who uncovered the felonies. Frazier’s lying and deceit knows no limits. He committed crimes and refuses to fess up. He is a disgrace to himself and to those who dawn a badge in law enforcement. Paul Chabot demands Frazier have one shred of decency and immediately drop out of the race as it’s crucial that both a Republican and candidate with integrity represent the people of the 61st district.”

Frazier easily won the Republican primary runoff last month for House District 61, an open seat in Collin County that leans Republican. A well-known advocate for law enforcement in Austin, Frazier had the backing of Trump, Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and state House Speaker Dade Phelan. The Democratic nominee in the race is Sheena King.

During the runoff, Chabot spoke out about the alleged theft of dozens of his campaign signs. In one incident, Chabot said a Walmart store manager told him someone claiming to work for city code compliance came in and told the store to take down Chabot’s signs because they were illegally placed. Chabot said he reported that to the police.

The Texas Rangers ultimately looked into his claims. Chabot later obtained a report from the Rangers through a public records request that said the agency investigated Frazier in February for “alleged criminal violations … of Impersonating a Public Servant and potentially related Theft.”

At the time, Frazier’s campaign consultant, Craig Murphy, said his candidate denied any wrongdoing and called Chabot’s claims “frivolous.”

Texas Scorecard and Steven Monacelli, a freelance journalist who extensively covered the campaign sign controversy for Rolling Stone, were among the first to report Friday that Frazier had been indicted.


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/06/24/texas-house-candidate-indicted/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

The Supreme Court may shutter a Texas abortion clinic that weathered decades of restrictions

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SAN ANTONIO — As the frosted-glass window slides open, a dozen heads pop up, all with the same anxious, expectant look. One by one, women are called up to the desk at Alamo Women’s Reproductive Services to learn whether and when they can get an abortion.

For months, the clinic has had to be the bearer of bad news, telling clients that they were too far along to terminate their pregnancies in Texas. It doesn’t get any easier, employees said, explaining again and again that the state has banned abortions after about six weeks, a point at which many don’t even know they are pregnant.

But recently, the clinic has had to flip that script. Many of the women who were seen for an initial appointment on a recent Tuesday weren’t too late for an abortion — they were too early.

One patient said she took two pregnancy tests, one positive, one negative, so she decided to come in just to be safe. Nothing showed up on her ultrasound, so clinic staff told her to take another test in a week and come back.

She leaned in, twisting her paperwork in her hands.

“Can I just take the [abortion] pill to be sure?”

Many patients are taking daily pregnancy tests, clinic director Andrea Gallegos said, and coming in at — or before — the first sign of pregnancy, terrified that they’re going to miss the six-week window.

“There’s some patients we see two, three times for sonograms before we actually see evidence and before we can give the pill,” Gallegos said. “But at least we catch it before six weeks.”

It’s far from perfect — the clinic is still having to turn away patients who are beyond the legal limit, and Gallegos worries most of all about the patients who know they’re beyond six weeks and don’t even make an appointment.

But over the last nine months, abortion clinics, and the patients they treat, have started to adapt to life under the new law.

This is what abortion clinics in Texas have done for decades. They add waiting periods and read the mandated script. They force patients to listen to a description of the fetus from the required sonogram. They fight new laws in court, and at the same time, race to comply with them, always bobbing and weaving to ensure they’re still able to provide abortions.

But any day now, the U.S. Supreme Court may deliver the knockout punch these clinics have feared for decades.

“If we can’t do abortions, then these clinics will no longer exist,” Gallegos said. “For the first time, I think we all just feel really helpless.”Andrea Gallegos, executive administrator of Alamo Women’s Reproductive Services in San Antonio, stands outside the facility for a portrait on June 14, 2022. Credit: Kylie Cooper/The Texas Tribune

After the bans

Last week, Gallegos sat at the front desk of Tulsa Women’s Clinic, the sister clinic to Alamo Women’s Reproductive Services, looking out at the waiting room. For months, every chair had been occupied as women poured over the state line, seeking abortions they couldn’t get in Texas.

But in late May, Oklahoma passed a law banning abortion from the moment of fertilization, and ever since, the room has been empty.

Early on, the clinic fielded a lot of phone calls and encouraged callers to come in for a sonogram, to see how far along they were and learn about their options, limited as they might be. The clinic can help connect patients with funding to help them travel out of state, and provide follow-up care when they return.

A few people who came in were less than six weeks pregnant, so in a role reversal, staff sent them to clinics in Texas for abortion care.

“A lot of people who come to our clinics, this is the first time they’ve seen a physician about their pregnancy,” Gallegos said. “This is their first sonogram. They may decide they want to continue the pregnancy, but they don’t have an established OB, so we give referrals for that. We’re a line of support, no matter what they decide.”

But as word has spread about the new law, the phone has stopped ringing.

“It’s really scary,” Gallegos said.

The clinic is keeping the lights on and the staff employed for the time being, but in the long term, it can’t operate an abortion clinic in a state that doesn’t allow abortions.

And soon, it won’t just be Oklahoma. In the coming weeks, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on a case that is expected to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that established a constitutional protection for abortion early in pregnancy.

If the final ruling aligns with a draft version that was leaked in early May, it will be up to each state to set its own laws around abortion. More than half of all states, including Texas and Oklahoma, are expected to outlaw the procedure.

After decades of fighting to stay open, abortion clinics in those states will likely have to close their doors. But as the last nine months — and the last few decades — in Texas have shown, the demand for abortion care won’t disappear quite as easily.

A staff member wears a shirt in support of Dr. Alan Braid at Alamo Women’s Reproductive Services in San Antonio on June 14, 2022.

Credit: Kylie Cooper/The Texas Tribune

Dr. Alan Braid, abortion provider and owner of Alamo Women’s Reproductive Services in San Antonio, sits in his office for a portrait on June 14, 2022.

Credit: Kylie Cooper/The Texas Tribune

First: A staff member at Alamo Women’s Reproductive Services wears a shirt in support of Dr. Alan Braid. Last: “We’ve always been ready for whatever comes our way,” says Braid, the clinic’s owner and an abortion provider. Credit: Kylie Cooper/The Texas Tribune

50 years of fighting

As a young medical resident in San Antonio, Dr. Alan Braid was called on to treat a 16-year-old girl who’d arrived at the emergency room after a botched, illegal abortion. She was in sepsis, her vagina packed with rags, the smell of infection so overpowering that Braid backed out of the room, gagging.

She died a few days later.

This was 1973, a few months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade. Abortion clinics were not yet widespread, and many women continued to seek illegal abortions. Braid couldn’t stomach the idea that women were dying over what should have been, even at that time, a simple and safe medical procedure.

Braid started working part time providing abortions at a clinic in the area. Eventually, he took over ownership of Alamo Women’s Reproductive Services and Tulsa Women’s Clinic.

The San Antonio clinic is a testament to the hoops Braid has had to jump through to continue to provide abortions. In 2013, the state passed an omnibus abortion law that, in part, required clinics to comply with onerous building requirements.

Braid joined a legal challenge seeking to overturn parts of the law, but he also spent $3 million building a new clinic that complied with the new requirements. It opened on the same day the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the law from being enforced.

“We were ready, though, in case the ruling didn’t come down our way,” he said. “And I never regretted it, because we’ve been able to treat more patients and more serious cases.”

When state lawmakers passed Senate Bill 8 in 2021, which banned abortions after about six weeks, Braid was the only provider in Texas to openly violate the law, hoping to generate a lawsuit that would get it overturned. He was sued three times, but more than nine months later, those cases are stalled and the law remains in effect.

In hindsight, he regrets performing one abortion in violation of the law. He wishes, instead, he had performed many more.

“It would have been risky, but I’m more and more convinced that the law would have been done in a month if I’d just kept providing abortions as usual,” Braid said.

Now, once again, he’s considering his next move. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, the clinics in Oklahoma and Texas will close. He’s considered relocating to New Mexico or Colorado, or finding a Native American tribe that would let him open a clinic on tribal lands. A friend suggested commandeering a ship and heading for international waters.

But he’s in his late 70s now, and starting over is easier said than done. There was a time, in the early days after Roe v. Wade, when he and colleagues believed abortions might become a commonplace medical procedure that you could access at your OB-GYN’s office.

The state’s crusade to eliminate abortion access has only provided Braid with more and more evidence that this kind of care is a necessity. Women drive hours to make their appointments. They come back, again and again, until they can get treated. They bring their kids, and miss work. They sit in his exam room, wracked with sobs, when they’re turned away.

Women sit in the waiting room after their appointments at Alamo Women’s Reproductive Services in San Antonio on June 14, 2022.

Women sat in the waiting room Tuesday after their appointments at Alamo Women’s Reproductive Services in San Antonio. Credit: Kylie Cooper/The Texas Tribune

Unbidden, they tell him their stories. They’re in abusive marriages. They’ve been raped. They’re on their way to college. They’re already struggling to feed the kids they have. They’re undocumented and can’t leave the state.

These women are often desperate and always resourceful, so he’s certain they’ll continue to find ways to access abortion care. Some will leave the state, or the country. Some will obtain abortion-inducing medication online. Some will turn to more desperate measures.

For decades, abortion clinics have been just as resilient as the patients they serve.

“We’ve always been ready for whatever comes our way,” Braid said. “It’s never been easy. But I also never, ever, ever thought Roe would be overturned. Ever.”

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/06/17/dobbs-supreme-court-abortion-texas/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Settlement with conservative free speech group forces University of Houston to keep amended anti-harassment policy

The University of Houston has settled with a conservative free speech group that sued the school over an anti-discrimination policy that the group argued was overly broad and violated students’ First Amendment rights.

As part of the settlement, UH officials will have to pay $30,000 in attorney’s fees to Speech First and UH officials must keep in place its amended anti-discrimination policy.

In this case, Speech First, a group that actively litigates college policies they view as student censorship, targeted UH’s anti-discrimination policy that has been in place since 2012. According to that policy, unlawful harassment was defined as “humiliating, abusive, or threatening conduct or behavior that denigrates or shows hostility or aversion toward an individual or group” or conduct that created a hostile living or working environment or interfered with an individual’s academic or work performance.

Examples of such harassment included “epithets or slurs,” “negative stereotyping” and “denigrating jokes.”

It also stated “[m]inor verbal and nonverbal slights, snubs, annoyances, insults, or isolated incidents including, but not limited to microaggressions,” would be considered harassment if the actions occurred repeatedly and targeted a particular group of people based on their race, sex or gender or other status that keeps them protected from discrimination.

But in May, three months after Speech First filed its suit, the university amended its policy. Later that same month, U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes, a Reagan appointee, blocked the university from reinstating its original anti-harassment policy.

“This is a huge win for the First Amendment,” said Cherise Trump, executive director of Speech First, a group that pushes back against what it calls “toxic censorship culture” on campuses. “It sends a message to the University of Houston and other universities that they will be held accountable if they enact unconstitutional policies on campus.”

In a statement, UH officials said they have come to an “amicable” agreement and consider the matter resolved.

“As a result of our discussions, a revised anti-discrimination policy has been adopted,” Chris Stipes, director of UH media relations, said in a statement. “The UH System remains committed to protecting the constitutional rights of our students and employees.”

Speech First filed the lawsuit on behalf of three conservative students identified only as “A,” “B” and “C” who said they felt they could not express their beliefs on campus for fear they would be punished under UH’s older policy.

As examples, the lawsuit listed how the students feared retaliation if they shared personal beliefs such as “affirmative action in college admissions is racist” or “allowing biologically male athletes who identify as female to compete in women’s sports is fundamentally unjust.” All three said they were uncomfortable acknowledging fellow students’ preferred pronouns outside of a cisgender identity.

In documents, lawyers for the university argued that its policy specifically addresses unlawful harassment of students and would not consider those statements and ideas provided by the students in the lawsuit as a violation of the policy.

University lawyers have also argued there is no evidence that the anti-discrimination policy has ever been used against students.

When the university amended the anti-discrimination policy in mid-May, it specified that harassment must rise to the level of creating a hostile work environment for employees or to deny a student equal access to education by creating a hostile learning environment. That is the standard set by the 1999 Supreme Court decision in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, which states that schools violate the Title IX ban on sex-based discrimination if they remain deliberately indifferent to sexual harassment to the point it prevents a student from receiving an equitable education.

Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights under former President Donald Trump used that definition of sexual harassment when it issued revised rules and standards for investigating Title IX violations on college campuses, which was a more narrow definition for sexual harassment than any previously used.

Speech First lawyers argue that many universities, including UH, adopt harassment policies outside of that guidance that are too broad, providing a chilling effect to students’ free speech.

A UH lawyer said the definition of sexual harassment in the Davis case did not limit schools from enacting other policies to address unlawful harassment and should not be considered the standard for universities as they craft disciplinary policies to address other instances of inappropriate behavior.

“Speech First has tried to bootstrap Davis in numerous other cases, and to date none has held that Davis imposed the outer bounds for addressing unlawful harassment,” they wrote.

But when Hughes, the federal district judge, granted a preliminary injunction late last month preventing UH from reinstating its original anti-harassment policy, he sided with Speech First.

“Restraint on free speech is prohibited absent limited circumstances carefully proscribed by the Supreme Court. Any limitation deserves the upmost scrutiny,” he wrote, stating the group would likely win the case. “The University says that it will be injured if recourse is unavailable for harassment against students of faculty. As important as that is, students also need defenses against arbitrary professors.”

This is the latest victory for Speech First, which has sued universities across the country over free speech policies, including the University of Texas at Austin. The case against UT-Austin took a similar path. Speech First sued the university in 2018 over language in multiple freedom of expression policies. UT-Austin amended some of the policies before settling with the organization and agreed to discontinue the university’s Campus Climate Response Team, part of the division of student affairs and the division of diversity and student engagement that investigated student reports of bias incidents on campus.

This lawsuit comes as other free speech debates have bubbled up on Texas college campuses throughout this past academic year.

At Collin College in North Texas, three professors have sued the school, arguing their contracts were not renewed in retaliation for exercising their First Amendment rights on a variety of issues, including one professor who publicly criticized the school’s COVID-19 response.

Nearby at the University of North Texas in Denton, thousands of students and community members signed a petition calling on school administrators to expel a right-wing student, arguing her campus activism and statements opposing gender-affirming care for transgender children created an unsafe learning environment for transgender students on campus.

In that instance, administrators denounced the student’s comments, but they said she and her right-wing campus group had not violated any university policies.

ACLU files new lawsuit challenging Texas' law targeting parents providing gender-affirming care

A new lawsuit filed Wednesday is challenging Gov. Greg Abbott’s directive to investigate parents who provide gender-affirming care to their transgender children. The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal on behalf of three families, including the Briggle family, who have long been advocates for trans rights, including hosting Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton for dinner with their transgender son.

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The lawsuit also seeks to block the state from investigating any families that belong to PFLAG, an advocacy group for parents and family members of LGBTQ+ people.

The state is currently blocked from investigating one family that brought a prior legal challenge. This lawsuit seeks to widen the number of people who cannot be investigated under the directive; according to the filing, PFLAG’s 17 chapters in Texas have over 600 members combined.

At least nine families are currently under investigation for potential child abuse by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services for providing gender-affirming care to their transgender children.

Gender-affirming care is endorsed by all the major medical associations as the proper treatment for gender dysphoria, which is the distress someone can feel when their assigned sex doesn’t align with their gender identity. While many young people focus on social transition — dressing differently or using different pronouns — some are prescribed puberty blockers, which are reversible, or hormone therapy.

In February, Paxton issued a nonbinding legal opinion equating gender-affirming medical care with child abuse. Days later, Abbott followed that opinion with a directive telling DFPS to investigate these cases. The agency said in a statement at the time that it would “follow Texas law … in accordance with Governor Abbott’s directive.”

The ACLU and Lambda Legal sued Abbott and DFPS on behalf of a family under investigation, seeking a court order stopping these investigations more broadly. The Texas Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the court could temporarily stop the investigation into the family that brought the suit, but would not shield all parents of transgender children.

Some investigations resumed after that ruling.

Now, the ACLU and Lambda Legal have brought this new suit on behalf of three specific families and PFLAG, arguing that “every one of PFLAG’s Texas members with a transgender child, or those with children still learning who they are, is at substantial risk of harm.”

“For nearly 50 years, PFLAG parents have united against government efforts to harm their LGBTQ+ kids,” said Brian K. Bond, executive director of PFLAG National. “By going after trans kids and their families, Gov. Abbott has picked a fight with thousands of families in Texas and across the country who are united as members of PFLAG National.”

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/06/08/transgender-texas-child-abuse-lawsuit/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

At first meeting since massacre, Uvalde school board takes no action on police chief

The Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District board took no action Friday evening against its embattled police chief, Pete Arredondo, in a special board meeting called in response to last week’s mass shooting at Robb Elementary School.

As incident commander, Arredondo made the decision to wait more than an hour for backup instead of ordering officers at the scene to immediately confront the shooter who killed 19 students and two teachers. The head of the state police later said this was the “wrong decision, period.”

Many residents had called on Arredondo to quit or be sacked, saying decisive action could have potentially saved lives. Although the agenda for Friday’s meeting allowed the board to terminate Arredondo, the board declined to do so.

Superintendent Bob Harrell said he is eager for several concurrent investigations, including ones by Uvalde County’s district attorney and federal Department of Justice, to run their course. But he told the 25 residents in attendance that he had no additional information to provide, other than reassuring parents that children would never return to Robb.

Just two residents signed up to speak at the meeting. Dawn Pointevent said her 7-year-old son, who was due to attend Robb next year, is now “deathly afraid” of going to school.

After the brief meeting, parent Angela Turner said she was disappointed the board did not fire Arredondo and did not discuss how the district would improve safety at schools.

Arredondo did not attend the meeting. He has gone to great lengths to avoid the public eye since the shooting. Last week he took the oath of office for the City Council, an additional position he was elected to last month, in a secret ceremony. Police officers have also guarded his home and workplace.

Arredondo, 50, was hired to lead the small school district police force in 2020. It has grown to a half-dozen officers, whose duties include providing security at campuses, staffing sporting events and narcotics work.

A career lawman who grew up in Uvalde and graduated from its high school in 1990, Arredondo previously spent 12 years in Laredo with the Webb County Sheriff’s Office and the United ISD Police Department.

For the students who survived the Uvalde shooting uninjured, trauma will take time to heal

For 24/7 mental health support in English or Spanish, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s free help line at 800-662-4357. You can also reach a trained crisis counselor through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 800-273-8255 or texting 741741.

UVALDE — Eight days after surviving the shooting at Robb Elementary, 9-year-old Zayin Zuniga returned to the school grounds to visit the memorial for his slain classmates.

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Zayin and his mom approached one of the 21 crosses that were set on the school’s lawn to honor each of the victims killed last week: the one for Eliahna Amyah Garcia, 9, whom Zayin called Ellie. After a school dance at Robb, Zayin decided he wanted to give Ellie a gift. He begged his mom to get him a ring that he could give her. He was never able to do it.

Zayin was in Room 111 during the shooting, one of the two conjoined classrooms where the gunman holed up. He recalls glass shattering and seeing bullet casings on the classroom floor as he and other students hid behind his teacher’s desk. Zayin and other kids were able to escape through a window.

“Everybody was scared,” he said.

Zayin often retreats to hug his mom as he recalls the scene. He can’t hear loud noises without thinking it’s the sound of another gunman trying to hurt people, said his mother, Mariah Zuniga.

The Zuniga family didn’t suffer any injuries or deaths that day, but invisible wounds linger in the form of trauma. Zayin doesn’t feel safe going back to Robb and isn’t ready to return to school in general. Research and studies suggest that child survivors will feel anxious after shootings, but talking to them about it and making them feel safe is needed to help them heal.

Research and experts also found that if there aren’t enough mental health resources for the survivors, witnesses and community, the trauma can impact education and lead to absences, declining grades and students choosing not to go to college.

Zayin and his family were at the Uvalde County Fairplex on Wednesday, an event center and indoor arena where organizations are offering counseling and mental health services to families and students affected by the shooting.

Zuniga said her son will need a professional therapist to talk to about the tragedy. When she first spoke to Zayin about his feelings after what happened last week, he burst into tears.

“I went to the counseling because I didn’t know what to really say to him after something like this,” she said.

Zayin Zuniga, 10, gazes at piles of flowers and balloons left in front of crosses at Robb Elementary in Uvalde on June 1, 2022, memorializing the 19 children and two teachers fatally shot after a gunman entered the building the week before.

Zayin Zuniga visits Eliahna Amyah Garcia’s memorial, left, on June 1. Flowers and balloons surround crosses at Robb Elementary in Uvalde. Credit: Kaylee Greenlee Beal for The Texas Tribune

Seeking ways to heal

Marcos Guzman, 12, who graduated from Robb Elementary last year, said he knew some of the kids and teachers who were killed last week. He doesn’t understand the senseless acts that left his peers dead, especially in Uvalde.

“I’m sad,” Guzman said in Spanish. “I just want to cry.”

As Uvalde grieves, local, state and federal officials are also looking for ways to help the community heal.

Texas Health and Human Services is overseeing the state’s crisis response in Uvalde, and therapists have been offering help in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. But services will also be needed for much longer to respond to its lasting emotional effects on both the surviving children and the families who are grieving, said Dr. Steven R. Pliszka, chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at UT Health San Antonio and program administrator.

“At some point, we’re going to need to transition from this acute response to working with people over the long term,” Pliszka said. “After the acute situation settles down, that’s usually when people find that they really need to return for help.”

A state-funded telehealth program for youth is offering services to the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District to help identify students and families in mental or emotional crises and give them counseling or therapy services they may not otherwise have access to, Pliszka said.

The Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine program funnels resources and expertise into a network of doctors, counselors and other professionals at universities in 12 regions across the state to respond to children identified in schools as showing signs of distress.

“I have reached out to the superintendent, and if they wish to respond, we can certainly enroll them immediately. There’s no barrier whatsoever,” Pliszka said.

Some officials have suggested that Robb Elementary should not be a reminder of the shooting and proposed that the school be torn down and replaced with a new building.

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, told San Antonio television station KSAT there is hope that the federal government will provide a grant to rebuild the school. He said President Joe Biden, who visited Uvalde on Sunday, told him, “We’re going to look to raze that school and build a new one.”

“I can’t tell you how many little children that I’ve talked to that don’t want to go back into that building. They’re just traumatized. They’re just destroyed,” Gutierrez told KSAT.

Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin said he believes the same should be done.

“I don’t think anybody’s plans are but to tear that building down,” McLaughlin told KXAS-TV. “I would never ask, expect a child to ever have to walk in those doors ever, ever again. That building needs to be gone.”

The school district’s superintendent announced Wednesday that students and teachers won’t return to Robb in the fall and instead will relocate to other campuses.

Generations of Uvalde residents have gone to Robb Elementary, which has served the community since 1955 and has been the site of momentous progress for the mostly Latino town of about 15,000. In the 1970s, Mexican American families staged a walkout to make the school more inclusive.

The school holds sentimental value for many of the city’s residents, but that shouldn’t stop officials from demolishing and building a new school, said Uvalde resident Dolores Contreras, 77.

Contreras said she went to Robb as a child, along with some of her siblings. Her children and grandchildren attended the school, too. But now, helping the community heal should be the priority.

“It should come down,” she said. “Kids don’t feel safe.”

Other schools across the country have been demolished after mass shootings. Santa Fe High School near Houston; Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida; and Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, have either renovated or built new buildings with features like bullet-resistant walls and windows.

Zayin and his mother don’t want to go back to Robb, either. Zuniga, who moved to Uvalde a year ago, said they have a lot to think about before deciding where Zayin will continue his education.

“None of my kids want to go back,” she said. “It’s just so scary to think about something like this happening again.”

Zayin Zuniga, 10, holds his hand out to show a matching ring he gifted to his crush Ellie Garcia, one of the 21 people who died when a gunman opened fire at Robb Elementary School last week, in Ulvade on June 1, 2022.

Zayin Zuniga shows his ring that matches the one he left at Ellie Garcia’s memorial. Credit: Kaylee Greenlee Beal for The Texas Tribune

Fears that won’t vanish easily

The road to recovery will be long for students who survived the shooting and for their parents.

Zuniga said it will be hard to forget the fear she felt when she first learned there was an active shooter at her children’s school. She couldn’t grasp what was happening. She was in San Antonio when she first got a text about the incident and raced to make the nearly 80-mile drive back to the school.

Zuniga has another child that goes to Robb. She was in the cafeteria and was able to get to a safe house quickly. She didn’t know that Zayin had been in one of the classrooms the gunman attacked until they had reunited.

“Being able to see them again, it’s like you’re so thankful and grateful,” she said. “And you don’t want to take that for granted because there’s other families that don’t get to see their kids anymore.”

Wherever her children go to school next, Zuniga said she will meticulously look through its safety protocols. The family might move somewhere else. She’s even considering home schooling. All the options are on the table.

“I don’t know if we’re gonna end up relocating. We just moved here,” she said.

For the first couple of nights after the shooting, Zayin stayed with his mom in her bedroom. They really couldn’t sleep. The events would still play over in his head, she said. They would take melatonin to try to get some rest.

The two of them visited the memorial at Robb on Wednesday to start the healing process. Zuniga finally got Zayin the ring he wanted to give to Ellie and placed it on her memorial.

He now wears a matching one to always remember her.

Karen Brooks Harper contributed to this story.

"For the children who survived the Uvalde shooting uninjured, trauma will take time to heal" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Uvalde students and staff will not return to Robb Elementary School campus

Students and staff will not return to Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School, where a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers, the school district’s superintendent said in a statement released on Wednesday.

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“We are working through plans on how to serve students on other campuses and will provide that information as soon as it is finalized,” Superintendent Hal Harrell’s statement reads. “We are also working with agencies to help us identify improvements on all UCISD campuses.”

The Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District is now developing “plans on how to serve students on other campuses” after the deadly May 24 shooting. Investigators are looking into why a self-locking door at Robb Elementary failed to engage after a teacher closed it that day, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Officials previously said a teacher had propped the door open but now say the teacher did shut it after opening it, correcting that information after a lawyer for the teacher insisted it had been closed. That same teacher had contacted 911 when the 18-year-old gunman crashed into a ditch by the school and was seen carrying a gun.

“She saw the wreck,” lawyer Don Flanary told the San Antonio Express-News. “She ran back inside to get her phone to report the accident. She came back out while on the phone with 911. The men at the funeral home yelled, ‘He has a gun!’ She saw him jump the fence, and he had a gun, so she ran back inside.”

The superintendent’s statement did not outline plans for the Robb Elementary School building. The federal government may tear down the school, state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, said in an interview with San Antonio television station KSAT.

Gutierrez said President Joe Biden, who visited Uvalde on Sunday, told him, “we’re going to look to raze that school and build a new one.”

In the statement, Harrell also said the district will continue to provide counseling and support to students and staff for the “foreseeable future” and will cooperate with law enforcement investigating the incident.

“Because the investigation is ongoing and information is evolving, we are going to reserve comment until all state and federal agencies have completed their review,” he said.

"Uvalde students and staff not returning to Robb Elementary School after deadly shooting" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Why 18-year olds in Texas can buy AR-15s — but not handguns

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The fact that the gunman responsible for this week’s massacre in Uvalde, Texas, was able to buy two AR-15s days after his 18th birthday highlights how much easier it is for Americans to purchase rifles than handguns.

Under federal law, Americans buying handguns from licensed dealers must be at least 21, which would have precluded Salvador Ramos from buying that type of weapon. That trumps Texas law, which only requires buyers of any type of firearm to be 18 or older.

Following Tuesday’s massacre at Robb Elementary School, which killed 19 children and two adults, a growing number of lawmakers in Texas and beyond are calling for the minimum age to purchase assault rifles to be raised to 21 from 18. Doing so would require undoing nearly two centuries of more permissive regulations on so-called long guns.

“It’s something that could happen at either the state or federal level, but I don’t see movement on either front,” said Sandra Guerra Thompson, a criminal law professor at the University of Houston Law Center.

Only six states — Florida, Washington, Vermont, California, Illinois and Hawaii — have increased the minimum purchase age for long guns to 21, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The majority did so following the 2018 massacre in Parkland, Florida, where a then-19-year-old assailant killed 17 people at a high school.

Several states have since faced legal challenges.

The National Rifle Association sought to repeal the Florida law.

“The ban infringes the right of all 18-to-20-year-olds to purchase firearms for the exercise of their Second Amendment rights, even for self-defense in the home,” the NRA argued in a court filing, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “The ban does not just limit the right, it obliterates it.”

Government attorneys, however, argued that because “18-to-20-year-olds are uniquely likely to engage in impulsive, emotional, and risky behaviors that offer immediate or short-term rewards, drawing the line for legal purchase of firearms at 21 is a reasonable method of addressing the Legislature’s public safety concerns.”

A federal judge upheld the law last year; the NRA is appealing.

A U.S. Court of Appeals recently ruled that California’s version of the law was unconstitutional, though it did uphold a provision that requires adults under 21 to obtain a hunting license before buying a rifle or shotgun.

After the shooting in Uvalde this week, lawmakers in New York and Utah also called on their states to raise the age limit for long gun purchases to 21. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced federal legislation earlier this month — less than a week before the Uvalde shooting — that would raise the minimum age to purchase assault weapons to 21 from 18; the California Democrat said in a statement that it was in response to a shooting that killed 10 people at a Buffalo supermarket. That gunman also was 18 years old.

“It makes no sense that it’s illegal for someone under 21 to buy a handgun or even a beer, yet can legally buy an assault weapon,” she said.

Lindsay Nichols, federal policy director at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said that increasing the age requirement at the federal level may be more effective because federal authorities can inspect and discipline licensed firearm sellers.

“State authorities often don’t have a system in place for enforcing the laws governing” licensed dealers, Nichols said.

In the hours after the shooting in Uvalde, there was some confusion about what types of firearms Ramos had used. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott initially said that Ramos had a handgun and possibly a rifle. That prompted some to speculate that Ramos had been able to get hold of the weapons more easily because of recent changes to the gun laws in Texas, including a bill passed last year that allows Texans to carry handguns without a permit or training. But those early reports turned out to be inaccurate.

After it became clear that the weapon used was a rifle, Texas Democrats questioned why Ramos was able to purchase one at the age of 18.

“Why do we accept a government that allows an 18 year old to buy an assault rifle, but not tobacco products?” state Rep. Nicole Collier, a Fort Worth Democrat who chairs the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, said in a statement. “The hypocrisy of government is deafening. We can develop gun policy that does not infringe upon one’s constitutional right, while preserving and protecting life; that’s called multitasking and we can do that.”

State Rep. Jarvis Johnson, a Houston Democrat, called on Abbott to convene a special session of the Legislature so lawmakers could “pass real gun reforms,” including raising the minimum age to purchase long guns.

“Enough is enough,” he said.

Such a move would reverse a decades-old Texas system that treats handguns differently from long guns, which have long been exempted from state rules on open carry.

The disparate rules date back to the post-Civil War era, when the state — counter to its modern-day reputation — adopted some of the strictest gun control laws in the nation.

“Despite its stereotype of being a state where cowboys promiscuously tote six-shooters, Texas is one of the few states that absolutely prohibits the bearing of pistols by private individuals,” wrote firearms attorney Stephen Halbrook in a 1989 Baylor Law Review article, six years before former Texas Gov. George W. Bush relaxed rules on handguns considerably.

Following spasms of violence that were then plaguing the young state in the 19th century, lawmakers “started specifically targeting weapons that they equated with crime,” said Texas historian Brennan Rivas, who is writing a book about the state’s early gun laws. “They equated bowie knives, daggers and pistols with interpersonal violence and crime.”

Muskets, rifles and shotguns, by comparison, were excluded because they were used for hunting or participating in a militia.

“They didn’t consider long guns to be deadly weapons,” Rivas said. “Those had valuable uses. Whereas these other weapons were kind of like a plague on polite society.”

Lawmakers of that time could not have envisioned that long guns would evolve from lumbering hunting rifles into AR-15s capable of firing dozens of rounds per minute, Rivas added.

But any tighter requirements appear unlikely to pass in Texas.

Just last year, following high-profile massacres in El Paso and in Midland and Odessa in 2019, lawmakers approved a variety of measures that loosened gun regulations. In addition to authorizing the carrying of handguns in public without a permit or training, the laws ban the governor from limiting gun sales during an emergency and allow gun owners to bring their weapons into hotel rooms.

During a Wednesday press conference at Uvalde High School, Abbott repeated a claim he and other Republican state leaders have often made, that mental health issues are to blame for the streak of mass shootings, not lax gun regulations. Officials conceded that they were not aware that the gunman had any criminal or mental health issues.

“The ability of an 18-year-old to buy a long gun has been in place in the state of Texas for more than 60 years,” Abbott said. “And why is it that for the majority of those 60 years we did not have school shootings? And why is it that we do now?”

US Justice Department will review Uvalde response as furor mounts over law enforcement actions

May 29, 2022

"U.S. Justice Department will review Uvalde response as furor mounts over law enforcement actions" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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The U.S. Department of Justice will review the law enforcement’s response to the Uvalde school massacre as local police face intense scrutiny for not acting quickly enough to confront the shooter.

“The goal of the review is to provide an independent account of law enforcement actions and responses that day, and to identify lessons learned and best practices to help first responders prepare for and respond to active shooter events,” Anthony Coley, a spokesperson for the U.S. Justice Department, wrote in a statement Sunday.

Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin requested the Justice Department investigation, Coley said.

Police officers made a crucial error in waiting to stop the 18-year-old gunman rampaging at Robb Elementary School because the school district's chief of police wanted to wait for backup and equipment, said Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Meanwhile, students were still trapped inside with the gunman, repeatedly calling 911 for help.

By the time a specialized team of federal officers arrived and entered the school, more than an hour had passed since the shooter had arrived at the school, McCraw said.

“From the benefit of hindsight, where I’m sitting now, of course it was not the right decision,” McCraw said. “It was the wrong decision, period. There's no excuse for that.”

“When it comes to an active shooter, you don't have to wait on tactical gear, plain and simple,” he said.

After the mass shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999, law enforcement moved away from the tactics of waiting and setting a perimeter during an active shooter situation. Police are now trained to immediately enter and try to stop the shooter.

Since the shooting, state law enforcement officials have given vague and conflicting answers on what exactly happened after the gunman arrived at the school. In the days after the massacre at Robb Elementary, officials with the Texas Department of Public Safety said the shooter was met by a police officer employed by the school district — 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.

Gov. Greg Abbott has also walked back some of his initial statements about the shooting, saying he was “misled” about the police response.

“I am livid about what happened,” Abbott said during a Friday conference in Uvalde. “The information I was given turned out, in part, to be inaccurate, and I am absolutely livid about that.”

U.S. Rep Joaquin Castro called for the FBI to intervene and launch an independent investigation into the police response to the shooting.

Uvalde County Commissioner Ronald Garza on CBS’ “Face the Nation” said he “welcomed” a federal inquiry. Garza said he was “still in the dark” over the slow law enforcement response to the shooting.

“We need to learn more,” Garza added. “As tragic as this may seem, we need to learn from this, you know. And parents deserve answers.”

Abby Livingston contributed reporting.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/05/29/uvalde-shooting-response-justice-department/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Trump and Cruz propose 'hardened' one-door schoolhouses. Experts say that’s not a credible solution

By María Méndez and Jolie McCullough, The Texas Tribune

May 28, 2022

"Trump and Cruz propose “hardened” one-door schoolhouses. Experts say that’s not a credible solution." was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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As people in Uvalde and across the country groped for solutions in response to the latest mass school shooting, Texas Republican officials pointed, again, to school doors.

“Have one door into and out of the school, and have ... armed police officers at that door,” U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz said on Fox News the day after a gunman killed 19 elementary school students and two teachers.

[Texas already “hardened” schools. It didn’t save Uvalde.]

On Tuesday, an 18-year-old armed with an assault rifle entered Robb Elementary School through a back door and opened fire on fourth grade students and teachers, according to state officials. The director of the Texas Department of Public Safety said Friday that the back door had been propped open by a teacher minutes before the shooting began.

Texas’ lieutenant governor has echoed the idea of locking all but one door of a school. And Cruz and former President Donald Trump repeated the call for single-entry schools at the National Rifle Association convention in Houston on Friday.

“We also know that there are best practices at federal buildings and courthouses, where for security reasons they limit the means of entry to one entrance,” Cruz said at the convention. “Schools, likewise, should have a single point of entry. Fire exits should only open out. At that single point of entry, we should have multiple armed police officers. Or if need be, military veterans trained to provide security and keep our children safe.”

But limiting schools to one access point is not a proposal grounded in reality, according to several school and safety experts.

Many schools have thousands of children, teachers and staff who could take hours to funnel in and out of a single entrance every day. Even more use portable buildings or have multiple buildings, with children and staff often moving among them. Not to mention that renovations to older schools, which officials say typically have more exterior entrances, put a heavy burden on local taxpayers.

“It is not feasible to think we’re going to ever get to the point where we have one door in and one door out,” said Bill Avera, chief of police and emergency manager for the Jacksonville Independent School District in East Texas and a board member of the Texas School Safety Center.

And while many districts sought to increase school security in the aftermath of Texas’ last mass school shooting in Santa Fe in 2018, teachers’ advocates and school officials fault state leaders for focusing on further “hardening” schools after the Uvalde shooting.

“The other elements of school safety are harder conversations to have either politically or because we just know less about it — for instance, mental health,” said Brian Woods, superintendent of Northside ISD in San Antonio. “But just because they’re harder conversations doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have them, and it doesn’t mean we should restrict the conversation to hardening.”

After the Santa Fe High School shooting, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also blamed school infrastructure, saying there were “too many entrances and too many exits to our more than 8,000 campuses in Texas.”

On Friday, Cruz said it was maddening that “the shooter in Uvalde got in the exact same way the Santa Fe shooter did. He walked through an unlocked back door into an open classroom.” He called for “serious funding” to install bulletproof doors and locking classroom doors.

Architects already try to limit entryways and design schools to guide students and visitors to one main front entrance, but more than one door is necessary for fire safety and to carry out school operations, said Bill Bradley, a school design expert with Stantec Architecture and chair of the Association for Learning Environments.

A school, for example, may need additional entrances to use a school gymnasium for sports, community events or voting booths without opening up the entire school to the public, Bradley said.

“Let’s say you had a high school that had 3,000 students, and you’re going to use one entry point to bring those students into that building every day,” Avera said. “That’s going to literally double the amount of time it takes to get folks in that building.”

Schools also have to account for staff and deliveries for things like lunch items and classroom materials, Avera said.

As school districts grow, their campuses sometimes sprawl with multiple buildings or portables, making a single entrance impossible.

At San Antonio’s Northside ISD, district leaders had to add gyms in exterior buildings to elementary schools initially built without them, said Woods, the superintendent. He estimated about half of the district’s 125 campuses also use portables to avoid cramping in students or to deal with population growth.

To increase safety, school districts can arm school entrances with access-control technology that automatically locks doors from the outside and requires key cards. In the Jacksonville school district, Avera can remotely lock the district’s exterior doors from his phone, but it’s an expensive investment.

“You’re talking about anywhere from $700 to $1,000, $1,500 a door to outfit them,” he said, noting the technology also requires a robust internet and cable network. “So you could see it could get to be very expensive very quickly.”

Secured entryways should still allow individuals to leave a school in situations such as fire, Avera said.

Today, school officials are increasingly paying to build or retrofit schools to require visitors to go through two entrances or a front office, where people are often screened.

In Northside, Woods said, the district added “ballistic security lobbies” at its elementary schools without a full-time district police officer. He said the district has slowly sought to rebuild or renovate older schools, which typically have more exterior doors because classrooms often needed to prop doors open for air flow when schools lacked air conditioning.

“Of course they lived in a very different security environment at that time,” he said.

But building renovations and security upgrades cost much more than the money the district got from the state funds parceled out after the Santa Fe shooting, he said. Luckily, he said, his community has regularly approved local bond measures to make schools more secure.

“That would not be a true statement everywhere,” he added.

Indoors, some experts recommend locking classroom doors, but it can be a tedious requirement when students have to go to the restroom or leave for other activities.

“It’s hard to have a hard fast rule about locking doors,” Avera said. “It is best practice and it’s highly recommended, but there are a lot of circumstances, again, that you can’t always plan for that might cause a need not to have the door locked.”

School leaders can’t only focus on making schools impenetrable fortresses, Bradley said. Studies have shown that school environments and access to natural light can impact learning outcomes, he said, and creating visibility within schools can help staff identify threats from a distance.

“These are still schools, and we want them to be exciting and inviting for students,” he said.

The focus on the “physical engineering” of schools also will not address the more common gun violence that affects children outside of schools, said Jagdish Khubchandani, a professor of public health at New Mexico State University who has studied school violence.

“We’re just not going to the foundation of the issue. We’re just planting a Band-Aid solution,” he said.

Andrew Zhang contributed to this report.

For local mental health support in Texas, call 888-690-0799. You can also reach a trained crisis counselor through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 800-273-8255 or texting 741741.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/05/28/uvalde-shooting-school-doors/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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