By Jon Herskovitz
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Texas political leaders are considering installing airport-style security at public schools and screening students for mental health issues as alternatives to gun control to thwart a repeat of last week's deadly shooting at a Houston-area high school.
The focus on school security and mental health has emerged since the shooting because Republican Governor Greg Abbott is facing few calls to overhaul gun laws in a state where the majority of the electorate backs gun ownership. The governor's office said he would hold roundtable discussions from Tuesday to focus on the best options.
Eight students and two teachers were killed when a 17-year-old student opened fire at Santa Fe High School last week in the latest mass shooting at a U.S. school.
Craig Bessent, an assistant superintendent of the Wylie Independent School District in Abilene, said in an interview that he will take part in the roundtable and that he favored more police or security officers and more screening of students as they entered school campuses.
He also supports arming some teachers as "a good first line of defense," a position that President Donald Trump has advocated.
"There's not just the one thing you can do that will stop this and be a cure-all," Bessent said. "There's not a single answer."
The shooting at Santa Fe High School occurred about three months after 17 teenagers and staff were shot dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, stoking the national debate over gun control.
About two-thirds of Texas Republicans believe if more people carried guns, the state would be safer, according to a statewide survey in late 2017 from the University of Texas and Texas Tribune.
The shooting rampage in Florida sparked a gun control campaign by students and parents that has piled on pressure nationwide for lawmakers to enact gun control legislation.
"Texas Republicans look at this tragedy and they do not see the gun as the problem," said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston. "They see the person as the problem and security as the second problem."
One of the state's most prominent Republican leaders, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, said he wanted to limit entrances to schools and stagger class starting times to allow for searches. He acknowledged that such airport-style screening would carry a high cost for the thousands of school districts in the state.
The Republican-controlled legislature is out of session until January 2019, making it nearly impossible for the state to implement and fund any major changes that come out of this week's three roundtable discussions.
"The roundtables are more political theater than anything else," Jones said.
The governor has said he sees the roundtables as an essential step in coming up with a consensus approach to enhance school safety. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Political analysts said if Abbott wanted to implement changes already floated, such as adding more metal detectors in schools and allowing for court orders to remove firearms from a person who presents a danger, he would call for a special legislative session. Abbott has given no indication that he would do so.
Texas has 5.4 million students enrolled in its public schools and any changes it made statewide would be costly.
One program being run out of Texas Tech University in Lubbock to screen students who could harm themselves or others has Abbott's attention. He said after the shooting that he wanted to use it across the state.
The program trains people, using FBI threat-assessment criteria, to go to schools and screen students, according to Billy Philips, an epidemiologist and director of the Office of Rural Health at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.
About 42,000 students have been screened through the program, according to data provided by Texas Tech. About 1 percent of them were referred to licensed counselors.
"Roughly about a third of those that were triaged were for suicidal intention, and they're mostly female; females act in, males act out," Phillips said.
Before the shooting at Santa Fe High School, Texas Democrats had filed about 15 bills related to gun violence, almost all of which died when the legislative session ended last year. They included measures to buy back guns, improve gun safety education and create a lethal violence protective order to stop a potentially dangerous person from buying or possessing a firearm.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York, Rich McKay in Atlanta, Liz Hampton and Erwin Seba in Santa Fe, Texas; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Frank McGurty)