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February 24, 2009 (512) 463-0300

COMMITTEE CONSIDERS STATE SCHOOL REFORM BILL

Sen. Nelson
Senator Jane Nelson of Flower Mound chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, which considered her bill to improve oversight at Texas state institutions that serve the developmentally disabled.

(AUSTIN) — Members of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee heard testimony Tuesday relating to a bill aimed at improving oversight and securing patients' rights at state schools that service developmentally disabled Texans. A recent study by the U.S. Department of Justice found 250 cases of neglect or abuse and 53 cases of preventable death at 13 state schools in Texas in fiscal year 2007. Governor Rick Perry named legislation to reform these institutions as an emergency issue, putting these bills to the forefront of the early session. Health and Human Services Committee Chair Jane Nelson authored the bill considered before Tuesday's hearing. She said protecting the state's most vulnerable citizens should be the top priority for lawmakers. "The abuse and neglect that has occurred in our state schools is inexcusable," said Nelson. "These are people with serious disabilities; they need our protection, they need our oversight and they need our compassion."

Nelson's bill, SB 643, would create an office of ombudsman, who would act as an intermediary between state school residents and family members and the administration. He or she would also be charged with conducting two audits at all state schools each year. The bill also creates a toll-free hotline to report rights abuses of school residents, where complaints could go directly to the ombudsman.

The bill would also put higher standards on institutional employees, requiring them to submit to an FBI fingerprint background check. It would also require more intensive training, including values based training that focuses on patient autonomy, health, and safety. The Department of Disability Services would be empowered to perform random drug tests on state school workers, and schools would have to install video surveillance in all common areas.

The bill includes directives for the Health and Human Services Commission, and would require it to contract with an independent patient safety organization to review all deaths at intuitions. It would also require the commission's Office of Inspector General to assist state and local law enforcement in investigating claims of abuse. The bill was left pending before the committee. Because it deals with an emergency issue as designated by the Governor, the bill would be eligible for consideration before the full Senate within the first 60 days of session.

Also Tuesday, the Senate Education Committee took up a measure intended to improve teacher training in how to teach kids with disabilities. SB 100, filed by Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr of Brownsville, mirrors another bill passed by the Education Committee last session that failed to become law. Lucio said he refiled this bill because many teachers do not know how to meet the educational needs of students with disabilities. "Federal regulations require that students with disabilities be taught in the least restrictive environment," he said. "However, many general education teachers do not have the necessary training to provide appropriate instruction to students with disabilities. "

His bill would require the Commissioner of Education to create special institutes to instruct teachers on the best, evidence-based methods of teaching students with disabilities, including autism-spectrum disorders. This training would be voluntary, and teachers that complete it would receive a stipend.

The Senate will reconvene Wednesday, February 25, at 11 a.m.

Session video and all other webcast recordings can be accessed from the Senate website's audio and video archive pages.

Lt. Gov. Dewhurst
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst spoke at a press conference in favor of a bill to require women to be offered a sonogram before undergoing an abortion.

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