San Antonio sophomore Finn Luna wasn’t planning to learn how to pack wounds and apply tourniquets last year at just 15 years old.
But the bright young Thomas Jefferson High School student, whose favorite subject is theater, gained a new perspective on May 24, 2022, when he checked his phone to see headlines that are now seared into his mind about a school shooting that had happened about an hour away in Uvalde.
In the wake of the deadly shooting, in which law enforcement are still being scrutinized on how response times might have contributed to the death toll due to a lack of expediency in treating wounded victims, Luna’s mother taught him about the lifesaving methods to stop critical bleeding — just in case.
With just days until the end of the school year, Luna worries about the day he might have to put those lessons into practice. But he’s glad he knows what to do, he said.
“It shouldn’t be this way,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to be afraid to go to school … or anywhere.”
Life has changed in both seismic and subtle ways for Luna and other students, teachers and district leaders across the state in the year since an 18-year-old gunned down 19 children and 2 teachers in Uvalde.
While more than a dozen mass shootings at schools have ravaged communities across the country in the last two decades, Uvalde was a turning point, school leaders say. It prompted an overhaul of school safety measures and a renewed recognition of the importance of mental health by policy makers and the public.
The fallout was personal for Southwest Independent School District Superintendent Jeanette Ball, who led Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District before returning to San Antonio as the superintendent of the Judson Independent School District.
“Having led the district for five years, it became much more real for me after that happened,” she said. “Especially since it happened in such a small place with such a tight-knit community.”
The job has since taken on a new dimension of critical awareness and a constant process of monitoring and updating safety procedures to prevent another tragedy from occurring.
“I don’t want the impression to be that we didn’t focus on safety and security before,” she said, adding that the role has become refined in the last year.
That transformation also occurred at the campus level, according to Rawan Hammoudeh, principal at San Antonio Independent School District’s Agnes Cotton Academy.
Hammoudeh said her job went from being mostly about instruction with minor managerial tasks, to mostly about safety and mental health.
The Uvalde massacre also compounded the effects of a pandemic that teachers say traumatized a generation and left students lacking in social skills necessary to cope in healthy ways.
“It’s myself, two [assistant principals], a counselor and a social worker,” Hammoudeh told The San Antonio Report on Tuesday. “And we are drowning in the number of mental health issues that need to be addressed every single day.”
Cameras, panic buttons new norm in schools
Hammoudeh led U.S. Sen. John Cornyn through her campus Tuesday, donning an ear-piece connected to a new radio system that has the ability to connect to the public announcement system in the event of an emergency.
“It is a game changer,” she said of the system. “You don’t have time to run up here. We had an instance where we did a practice but the intercom system was actually down and they made us do it anyway.”
In the event of an actual emergency, that could have been catastrophic, she told the senator.
Locked doors, doorbell cameras and a check-in system for every visitor as well as an extensive network of cameras were also highlighted along the tour.
Earlier that day, Cornyn met with teachers, school leaders and counselors from schools and universities across the city to take stock of the challenges ahead and highlight progress made in the last year.
“We always thought the primary mission of teachers was to teach,” he said. “But something more important perhaps comes before that, and that is a sense of security and safety that our children need to have so they can learn.”
Cornyn touted billions of dollars that were made available through the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, authored by the senator and signed into law last summer. The bill provided funding to, among other things, fortify buildings, increase security and fund mental health programs, about $500,000 of which went toward upgrades at SAISD schools.
Kenneth J Thompson, the director of operations for SAISD, said the fortifications at Agnes Cotton are being rolled out across the entire district, along with panic buttons, communication systems and fencing.
“From the technology perspective, we are ensuring that we have visibility around our campuses, investing in our school police, and the tools that they need,” he said.
Other large federal grants are going toward collaborative partnerships between institutions of higher education and local districts to bolster the mental health care pipeline.
Partnerships address mental health pipeline
The University of Texas-San Antonio is partnering with Southwest ISD, for example, to pay for college students to gain on-the-ground experience in K-12 schools as part of their education, while helping the schools with backup for their mental health staff.
“This program allows them to get paid, and to get training and work that’s really related to what they’re studying,” Victor Villarreal, a UTSA associate professor previously told The Report. “So it’s a good alignment for them, and then the schools benefit by having more support staff.”
Another partnership that was highlighted during the visit was between The University of the Incarnate Word and the Southside Independent School District. The two are collaborating to implement new trauma-informed care practices that could be used as a national model in the future.
In the meantime, districts are working to train teachers and other staff to help students with mental health and building relationships, rather than relying solely on the mental health professionals, according to Charlie Gallardo, the director of guidance and counseling at the South San Antonio Independent School District.
Students ask for gun control
While some students have bristled at the precautions put in place, Luna said they are appreciated, since they are there to make students safe.
But Luna and other students want something to be done about guns.
Luna and other students participated in a nationwide walk-out against gun violence last month, chanting for actions to be taken and carrying signs that said “Your Silence is Killing Us” and “School Is for Learning Not Lockdown.”
“We wanted our voices to be heard,” Luna said.
Despite passing a key committee vote earlier this month, a bill heralded by gun control advocates that would have raised the age of buying guns was left pending in the House after missing a key deadline.
But the groups also saw progress with other measures.
Ahnaya Garcia, another student who participated in the walkout, said that there hasn’t been enough done in the wake of the protest, which was done in conjunction with schools across the country.
“The reason why the walkout was needed was because we needed adults to see that as teenagers and students … we understand what is going on,” she said.
While Cornyn said that any debate around gun control can be polarizing, he added that there is consensus to be found.
“The common ground seems to be on keeping guns out of the hands of people suffering from mental health crises, and people with criminal records,” he said. “That’s already the law, but under the previous system, we didn’t take a look back at juvenile records.”
The bipartisan bill that provided funding also expanded checks to include juvenile records, he said, but there could be more attention paid to the issue in the future.
The shooter in Uvalde, for example, was not formally diagnosed with any mental health issues, but had flunked out of basic training due to mental health concerns, he said.
“We’re looking to see if there are other things that we can do, learning from the hard experience of those incidents,” Cornyn said. “I think we owe that to our kids, we owe that to the people who work in these schools and to the parents. We’re going to keep trying.”