AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Texans turned their eyes to Washington this week as lawmakers, survivors of the Uvalde shooting and celebrities gathered to talk about the mass shooting that happened at a Texas elementary school.
Despite victims and their families asking for swift action, and deadlines set by leadership, neither the House nor Senate have gotten legislation to President Joe Biden’s desk.
This week, members of the House of Representatives passed the “Protecting our Kids Act” on a largely party-line vote. The gun reform package raises the minimum wage for buying a semi-automatic weapon from 18 to 21, prohibits civilian use of ammunition magazines with more than 15 rounds, enact new federal criminal offenses for gun trafficking and straw purchases of firearms, which is when an individual who is unable to pass a background check buys a gun through proxy.
In the upper chamber, negotiations on gun reform continue and a key player in those talks is Texas Senator John Cornyn, a Republican. He spoke on the Senate floor twice this week, dropping hints about what could come out of the Senate, suggesting a narrow plan that includes more funding for mental health resources, incentivizing states to enact their Red-Flag laws and what they’re thinking when it comes to background checks.
“I’m not talking necessarily about expanding the background check system I’m making. I want to make sure the background check system works and what makes this challenging is Salvador Ramos showed up after his 18th birthday as if he was born yesterday,” Cornyn said. “For purposes of the background check system, there was no insight into his many mental health challenges or terroristic threats of fellow students, potentially drug use. Other things that if he were an adult, he could not pass a background check.”
As a possible solution, Cornyn suggested the National Instant Criminal Background Check System be expanded to include relevant information if an incident happened when they were a juvenile. He also mentioned a possible ‘Yellow Flag’ when it comes to background checks, allowing time for further review of people between 18 and 21.
Back home in Texas, the legislative response following the Uvalde shooting has been similar to reactions we’ve seen in the past.
In 2019, state lawmakers created a Texas Children’s Mental Health Consortium — designed to identify distressed children and get them the care they need. Texas lawmakers poured $100 million dollars into 13 health-related universities to form the consortium.
One initiative is providing telehealth access through a program called “T-CHATT.” One psychiatrist who leads the Central Texas Telehealth program at Dell Medical says continued outreach and funding are essential.
“I think that we are in a lot of our districts, but it’s we could always be in more and I think we don’t have the funding to continue to increase because anytime we go into a school district, they utilize us and the number we’ve seen the numbers grow each semester,” said Dr. Nithya Mani, an Associate Director of TCHATT at Dell Medical School.
Out of the more than 1,200 school districts in Texas, these telehealth services are only running in 337 districts. Last year, lawmakers budgeted an additional $230 million over two years in both state and federal funds to expand the network’s outreach.
This week, survivors and family members of victims of the mass shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo brought their testimonies directly to lawmakers, taking part in a House Oversight Committee hearing on gun violence.
While lawmakers debate how best to shape policy, families are just hoping to keep their loved ones’ memories alive and ensure no one else has to feel this pain.
Eleven-year-old Miah Cerrillo, who survived the school shooting in Uvalde, told a House committee on Wednesday that she doesn’t feel safe in school anymore, after covering herself in another classmate’s blood in order to appear dead to the gunman.
Cerrillo, along with the parents of a victim and Uvalde’s sole pediatrician, shared excruciating testimony recounting their experience before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform in a hearing on gun violence.
“He shot my teacher and told my teacher goodnight and shot her in the head,” she said. “And then he shot some of my classmates and the whiteboard,” Cerrillo said in a prerecorded video aired to the committee.
Cerrillo told lawmakers about her experience on May 24, when a gunman killed 19 of her fellow classmates and two teachers at Robb Elementary School, giving a play-by-play account of how the horrors unfolded that day.
She said her class was watching a movie when her teacher learned about the active shooter and then locked the door. Cerrillo said, at that point, the shooter was already in the hallway and made eye contact with her teacher.
Cerrillo said her teacher told students to “go hide.” She said she hid behind her teacher’s desks and backpacks as the gunman shot at the door window before moving to the other classroom. Cerrillo said the gunman was able to access her classroom through an adjoining door, and then shot her teacher in the head and shot her classmates.
“I thought he was going to come back to the room, so I grabbed the blood, and I put it all over me,” she said.
After that, Cerrillo said she tried to stay quiet. She later grabbed her dead teacher’s phone and dialed 911.
“I told [the operator] her that we need help and to send the police to our classroom,” she said.
In the pre-recorded remarks, someone off-camera asked Cerrillo if she felt safe at school, to which she shook her head no, saying she doesn’t want it to happen again. The questioner asked if she was worried about it happening again and Cerrillo nodded yes.
Her father, Miguel Cerrillo, was physically present in D.C. at the committee hearing and spoke after his daughter’s remarks played, telling lawmakers he was there because he “could’ve lost my baby girl.”
“She is that same little girl that I used to play with,” Mr. Cerrillo said, sniffling in between words as he appeared visibly choked up. “I wish something will change not only for our kids, but every single kid in the world because schools are not safe anymore. Something needs to really change.”
Parents Felix and Kimberly Rubio lost their daughter, Alexandria “Lexi” Rubio, who was only 10, in the shooting and delivered remarks virtually to members. Felix, a Uvalde County deputy, said he and his wife had been at the school hours before the shooting to celebrate their daughter making the honor roll and receiving a good citizen award.
“Given the opportunity, Lexi would have made a positive change in the world…that opportunity was taken from her. She was taken from us,” Kimberly Rubio said. “Somewhere out there, there is a mom listening to our testimony, thinking ‘I can’t even imagine their pain,’ not knowing that our reality will one day be hers unless we act now.”
The Rubios gave members a list of gun reform policy demands. Rubio called on Congress to ban assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, raise the age to purchase such weapons from 18 to 21, pass red flag laws and stronger background checks, and repeal gun manufacturers’ liability immunity.McConaughey on Texas school shooting: We need gun laws that make it harder for the ‘bad guys’
“We don’t want you to think of Lexi is just a number,” she said. “She was intelligent, compassionate and athletic…she was firm, direct voice unwavering. So today, we stand for Lexi. And as her voice we demand action.”
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, the New York Democrat who’s the committee chairwoman, said the hearing would focus on the “gun violence epidemic in the United States” and examine the “urgent need” to address it.
Also in Texas this week, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is reviewing its inmate transportation procedures after a capital murder inmate escaped from a bus on May 12 and stayed out of reach of authorities for more than three weeks.
There will also be an independent investigation into that incident.
The search for Gonzalo Lopez ended when he was shot and killed June 2 in Atascosa County, south of San Antonio. Law enforcement believes Lopez killed five people, a grandfather and his four grandsons, earlier that day at a home in Leon County while hiding out from authorities.
Lopez was serving a life sentence for capital murder.
The TDCJ said it has “temporarily suspended the transport of inmates” as the agency reviews its policies.
“If it becomes necessary to do a transport such as releasing or an emergency medical appointment, additional security measures will be implemented,” the TDCJ release said.
Inmates in TDCJ custody are usually transported for nearly a dozen different reasons:
- County Jail
- ISF Intake
- State and Federal Court
- Regional Releases
- Interstate Compact
- Handicap Transports
- Off-site Medical Offender Tracking
- Out-of-State Extraditions
- Emergency response or evacuations
Lopez was being transported for a medical appointment from a school-style bus.
The U.S. Marshals said Lopez was with 15 other inmates and two guards from Gatesville to Huntsville when he was able to get free of his restraints near Leon County.
At the time of his escape, federal law enforcement said Lopez used “an object” to stab the bus driver, Officer Randy Smith, who is expected to survive. He was then able to “briefly” get ahold of Smith’s handgun but was not able to free it from the holster, the U.S. Marshals said in a release. At some point, the guards and Lopez ended up outside of the bus.
The second guard, Officer Jimmie Brinegar shot the back tires of the bus before Lopez jumped back in and attempted to drive off, they said. He then drove roughly a mile before crashing and continuing on foot.
A spokesman for TDCJ told KWTX they believed Lopez was still near Centerville right after his escape.
The family of five killed at the home in Leon County arrived earlier on June 2. The home wasn’t a permanent home, the Chief of Staff for TDCJ Jason Clark said.
Clark said Lopez was hiding in wooded areas and had been inside the home to get water and change clothes. Authorities believe Lopez stole the guns used in the shootout from the property.
Law enforcement started to tail a Chevrolet Silverado that matched the description of a vehicle stolen from a home near Centerville where the family Lopez is suspected of killing was visiting.
Clark said law enforcement used spike strips on the pickup to disable it and Lopez crashed. He got out and started firing at responding law enforcement, but Clark said he didn’t hit anyone. Clark said Lopez had an AR-15 rifle and a pistol.
While many are still wondering how the situation escalated, TDCJ pledges to make the transport process more secure. According to the agency, there should have been three officers there during Lopez’s transport, instead of two.
“That will be part of us going backwards to determine how that escape happened,” TDCJ Chief of Staff, Jason Clark said. “And taking any precautions necessary in order to prevent that from happening in the future.”
There are prisoners in TDCJ custody, who may have court cases that could be delayed because of transports now being limited. It’s not clear how many are currently impacted by this.
In a direct response to a series of KXAN investigations, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke is pledging, if elected, to increase medical patient safety statewide by transforming the Texas Medical Board.
“That’s what stands out to me, from what I’ve learned from your reporting, is just this pay-to-play system that we knew existed in Texas,” O’Rourke said during a virtual interview May 13. “I didn’t know how bad it was at the TMB. But, it’s something that we’ve got to change.”
The TMB is the state agency overseeing how doctors are licensed and disciplined. In our months-long series, “Still Practicing,” KXAN discovered the TMB is keeping dozens of out-of-state disciplinary records secret, contrary to state law, and allowing doctors it deemed to be a “threat to public welfare” to keep practicing. Those include more than a half-dozen credibly accused of sexual misconduct with patients and one recently convicted of selling more than a million opioid pills.
Our team also revealed Texas Gov. Greg Abbott appointed top-dollar donors to sit on the medical board — several with real estate, energy and business backgrounds but no obvious patient safety or patient advocacy experience. One board member, Dr. Satish Nayak — who gave the governor $38,920 — is eligible to be removed from the board by Abbott due to being placed on a remedial plan. The board determined he “failed to keep adequate medical records for multiple patients.”
KXAN reached out multiple times to Gov. Greg Abbott to request an interview. A spokesperson did not respond when asked if his office was aware of this and if he looked into removing Nayak from the board. Instead, we received a written statement.
“Governor Abbott expects all medical professional at the Texas Medical Board and across Texas to uphold the highest standards of care and trust Texans deserve, and will accept nothing less,” wrote his spokesperson, Ranae Eze, in a statement.
His office would not say why the governor appointed donors to the TMB and did not respond to O’Rourke’s allegations that he’s giving donors “plum appointments” as part of a “pay-to-play system.”
Board members, including Nayak, did not respond to KXAN’s request for comment.
“I think one of the problems we see with the TMB right now is you have doctors who probably should have been removed who are still practicing,” O’Rourke said. “You even have members of the TMB who have had problems with how they’ve handled patient information and records who probably should have been removed from the TMB who are still there right now in this position.”
“We may not have the oversight and the accountability for our medical providers that we should be able to count on,” O’Rourke said. “For ourselves, and our for our family.”
More than a decade after a federal lawsuit was filed over the treatment of children in the Texas foster care system, a new report highlights challenges still remaining to prevent abuse.
It is the fourth report filed by the court monitors — two people appointed to oversee the state’s child welfare system as the lawsuit proceeds. The filing comes just days before the next hearing in the ongoing lawsuit, scheduled in U.S. District Judge Janis Jack’s courtroom on Monday.
The Monitors’ latest report identifies areas of progress, but also areas where they say “the State continues to struggle” with implementing the court’s orders and keeping children safe while they are in the care of the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS).
The 200-page report details data and progress on more than a dozen of the court’s orders for the agency: from implementing oversight, unannounced visits to facilities that require “awake-night supervision” to offering training on preventing sexual abuse.
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For example, the report explains that DFPS data shows that 99% of caseworkers completed training on how to recognize and report sexual abuse. A random sample of more than 200 caseworkers by the monitoring team confirmed all of them had completed the training.
Several of the court orders are aimed at better tracking and documenting allegations of sexual abuse where the child is the victim, as well as allegations of the child being the “aggressor.” The monitoring team found no instances where DFPS had failed to appropriately indicate the child as a confirmed victim of sexual abuse.
Of the more than 400 children identified as victims of sexual abuse in 2021, the report found 25% were victimized in foster care or revictimized after entering foster care.
The report notes that this is a “slight increase” from the monitors’ second report, filed last May.
Of the 147 sexual abuse incidents that occurred after the child entered foster care, almost half happened while a child was on “runaway status.”
The monitors released this report alongside a separate document, which calls for an investigation into what they say “appears to be a systemic problem” with runaways from a specific, licensed facility in Bastrop that houses underage sex trafficking victims. Their filing details new allegations about children in the care of The Refuge for DMST (Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking).
“The experiences of the children who were able to run from the facility and fall back into trafficking show the dangers associated with failing to address what may be a systemic threat to child safety,” the document states.
Brooke Crowder, founder and CEO of The Refuge told KXAN in response to the report:
“Handle with Care.” With its stronger emphasis on de-escalation, the new standard helped us reduce incidents. We are grateful that the court monitors are shining a light on the challenge of runaways so that people can understand the unique challenges related to the care of trafficking-traumatized children. We hope the powers that be will devote the same attention to the arrest of the perpetrator who remains at large 130 days after we reported her for exploiting youth in her care.”
KXAN will be covering the hearing in Judge Jack’s court this coming Monday and will update this article with new details.