School Climate & Safety

Texas Schools Are Sending DNA Kits Home to Parents.  Why This Is a Communications Mess

By Arianna Prothero — October 20, 2022 3 min read
A hand with a blue medical gloves is holding a medical sample in front of a computer screen with the results of a DNA test.
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Schools in Texas are providing parents with free DNA and fingerprint identification kits, as part of a program to help identify missing children.

While the law that created the program does not say that the kits are to help identify children’s bodies after a school shooting, that hasn’t stopped some parents from drawing a link between the two. This story has now spurred national coverage and viral online outrage over a program created with little fanfare over a year ago, including from parents whose children were killed in school shootings.

“Yeah! Awesome! Let’s identify kids after they’ve been murdered instead of fixing issues that could ultimately prevent them from being murdered,” Brett Cross, whose child, Uziyah Garcia, was killed in the Robb Elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, said on Twitter.

The initiative—and its rollout—offer some important lessons for policymakers and school district leaders, said Kenneth Trump, a nationally-recognized school safety expert.

Policymakers and district leaders need to be attuned to how parents are going to receive this information, said Trump, especially just five months after the second deadliest K-12 school shooting ever in the United States.

Some of the victims killed in the recent school shooting at Robb Elementary, which left 19 children and two teachers dead, had to be identified using DNA testing.

“We’ve had incidents where literally trophy case glass has been broken or somebody has dropped something and it’s resulted in a lockdown and a massive police response, because people are so on edge at this point in time,” Trump said.

Without proper communication, Trump said, adults are likely to misinterpret the kits to mean that school and government leaders think there is a high probability there will be a school shooting.

“At this point in time, I think we have to exercise a great deal of caution to make sure that we’re not sending messages, unintended, that suggest that there is a greater probability of a school shooting than there actually is,” he said, calling a mass school shooting a high-impact but low-probability event.

DNA and fingerprint kits for kids are not new

Schools in Texas are required to provide the kits containing DNA collection materials and inkless fingerprint cards to families with elementary and middle school children through a bill passed in 2021. Parents are supposed to keep the fingerprints and DNA to turn over to law enforcement should their child go missing.

Some school districts started distributing the kits to families last year, and the program has continued to roll out this year in districts, according to the Texas Education Agency.

“The kits are designed to assist law enforcement in locating and returning a missing or trafficked child and are not distributed as a means of victim identification following a mass casualty incident,” the Aagency said in a statement. “While this is the first time school systems are involved in the distribution of kits, Texas has facilitated a statewide child ID program since 2006 through direct distribution to parents.”

The Texas law is not without precedent.

A similar program was launched in Oklahoma in 2010, according to the Oklahoman newspaper. In that state, kits were sent to students in the state’s public schools so parents could have their children’s DNA and fingerprints in case they went missing. Another program launched in Detroit in 2013 also used schools in addition to community centers and churches to help distribute DNA and fingerprinting kits.

But Trump said the situation in Texas gets to a bigger question policymakers should consider: Why involve schools in a program like this in the first place?

“Schools have a captive audience of kids and they have become the vehicle to address so many broader societal issues,” he said. “That’s become very easy, ‘well, we want to get this out for X, Y, and Z reasons, let’s push it out to schools and let the schools do it because they have all the kids there.’”

But while schools may be the best distribution center, Trump said, policymakers should consider whether schools are the best messenger for a given policy or program, especially in today’s climate.

For three decades, schools have had to walk a tightrope between keeping kids safe and not causing panic, said Trump, and in many ways this is no different.

“I would encourage people to stop and think and look at the broader context,” he said.

Holly Peele, Library Director contributed to this article.

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