Crimewatch: Senate Bill proposed to pay for disabled officers college tuition
SAN ANTONIO, Texas - When officers are left permanently disabled because of an injury suffered in the line of duty... Texas law makes it optional for colleges to give those officers free tuition. This legislative session, a senator wants to eliminate the option and make it a requirement.
On any given afternoon, you'll find Ray Shappa in the kitchen of his San Antonio home preparing dinner for his wife and two children. He keeps the household running, making sure his kids get to and from school and taking them to any other extracurricular activity they may have.
While his job as a parent is rewarding, this is not what he intended to do. His original career, his passion, was cruelly taken from him.
Shappa's eyes well up with tears and his chin quivers as he attempts to talk about how it feels to no longer be a police officer. It's so devastating to him, that he requested we not record his thoughts.
Shappa joined the Smithville Police Department in 2000. In July of 2002, Shappa was standing outside his patrol car directing traffic away from a fire. He says he heard a vehicle coming his way.
"I jumped and I hit the rear quarter panel and my right boot slipped cause of the run off from the fire and I came down and he just kind of struck me at that point," said Shappa. "It was a big flash of darkness and lights and darkness and lights."
That moment would change Shappa's life forever.
"My boot was under my arm and it was facing the wrong way and I was bleeding badly," he said.
Doctors had to amputate his left leg above the knee. His right leg was also badly damaged. Despite multiple surgeries, he was too weak to walk with a prosthetic and had to rely on a wheelchair for movement.
The driver of the vehicle that struck him was identified as Michael Munson. Munson was convicted of intoxication assault and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
While larger departments have desk positions to retain disabled officers, the small town of Smithville did not.
Shappa was 32 and unemployed.
"I felt kind of lost, detached from everything I knew or what I thought I was supposed to be doing. I didn't have the desire to do anything else. That was part of the problem," he said.
Over the next seven years, Shappa stayed at home and took care of the children while his wife worked. He struggled with depression, addiction to pain medication and bankruptcy.
In 2010, his wife encouraged him to take advantage of a college tuition exemption for officers disabled in the line of duty.
A state law took effect in 1997 allowing colleges to provide the free tuition, but it was up to each university's discretion.
Shappa earned his associates degree from Northwest Vista College in 2014. It was another life-changing moment, but this time for the better.
"What education did for me is just remarkable," he said. "My outlook, my depth, my quality of life has improved, my understanding of everything."
As he set his sights on the University of Texas at San Antonio for his bachelor's degree, he learned that the campus did not honor the exemption. He was given a small grant, which he was very thankful for. The 100 Club of San Antonio donated money and so did the 100 Club of Central Texas.
Tami Baker is chair of the 100 Club of Central Texas.
"He was giving his life and everything he had to protect and serve, yes, he lived, which praise God he lived, but the sad thing is, his whole life changed," said Baker.
Shappa now worries about paying for the fall semester.
If a new bill filed by Senator Judith Zaffirini passes he will be just fine.
Under Senate Bill 41, Zaffirini is proposing the wording of the law be changed from an institution of higher education "may" exempt a student from payment of tuition and fees for "shall." the exemption would be mandatory.
Last session, her attempt failed in the house.
"Just knowing what he gave to his community to serve, I think it should be our responsibility as citizens to make sure this bill does pass," said Baker.
If the bill fails again, it will be crushing for Shappa.
"It's our families that also pay the price that we have to think about. We have to still run a household. We're still fathers and husbands," said Shappa.
He will never be exactly what his heart desires. But with an education, he will once again be able to provide for his family.
"The person I was doesn't exist anymore. The way I think, the way I process information, what I believe in, but in many ways I'm better. I'm a better person," said Shappa.
Shappa has a GoFundMe account set up. To donate, click here.