Texas Senate Passes State School Reform Bill

AUSTIN

Residents of Texas’ 13 state schools for the disabled now have a state measure on their side when it comes to allegations of abuse. On March 9, the Texas Senate unanimously passed an emergency bill that would establish an independent ombudsman to audit and investigate deaths and injuries at the institution.

Security cameras would also be installed, and employees would be required to pass background checks, random drug tests and be finger printed. The bill does not increase employee salaries or funding for training.

According to the Dallas Morning News, the measure passed on the same day officials confirmed video of suspected abuse had been captured on cell phone cameras at Corpus Christi State School. The alleged abuse possibly occurred on different dates and involved several employees.

The measure was introduced in response to Dallas Morning News articles and a U.S. Department of Justice report that highlighted civil rights abuses, as well as poor safety and conditions at the institutions.

The author of the bill, Sen. Jane Nelson, released the following statement regarding passage of the measure:

The Senate passed a bill Monday aimed at improving safety for residents at Texas developmental centers, also know as state schools. This issue was named an emergency by Gov. Rick Perry after a U.S. Department of Justice report found 250 instances of neglect or abuse and 53 cases of preventable death at 13 state schools in fiscal year 2007. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst praised Monday’s passage, calling it needed reform. “Taking care of the most vulnerable in our society is one of our most important priorities,” he said.

SB 643, by Senator Jane Nelson of Flower Mound seeks to improve resident safety by increasing standards and training for state school staffers. If signed into law, it would require state and federal criminal background checks for all applicants and would create a new staff training program, one that focuses on patient autonomy, health and safety. It would also permit random drug testing of employees. The bill would require video surveillance of all common areas, and it would permit the Health and Human Services Commission’s Office of Inspector General to assist law enforcement officials during investigations of abuse or neglect at state schools. It would change one institution into a special center to house high-risk residents, ones that pose a threat to themselves or to other residents.

The bill would create a new office of ombudsman to protect the rights of school residents. The ombudsman would conduct two audits of each state institution every year, and make an annual report of those audits to the state legislature. He or she would also be charged with ensuring that schools respect residents’ rights and conduct investigations of complaints from residents or their legal guardians. A toll-free abuse report hotline would be created to help improve access to the ombudsman.

One thing this bill does not address is the closure of or capacity levels at state schools. This has proved to be a contentious issue, but Nelson said the state must address the abuses in state schools now. “As long as one person is in any state school, these [reforms] need to happen,” she said. “The whole closure and capacity issue we will address, but this needs to happen.”

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