Administration, trustees weigh police options for school district

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By Rachel Madison

The Liberty Hill school district is considering its options when it comes to providing for campus security.

At a meeting of the Board of Trustees in March, LHISD Assistant Superintendent Chad Pirtle presented several options the district could implement to deter someone from entering a campus to harm students or staff. Now the administration and school board are working toward deciding on one of those programs.

The options included hiring a school resource officer (SRO), creating a school district police department (SDPD), creating a school marshal program or implementing a guardian program.

Superintendent Dr. Rob Hart said out of these four options, the district is now “strongly considering” either the SRO or SDPD route and will “most likely” plan for police presence at every school in the district.

Currently, 24 percent of Texas schools utilize SROs, who are certified peace officers, while just under 200 Texas school districts have their own police departments, which are established by commissioning school district peace officers.

Hart said when it comes to making a decision though, the district and board are still gathering information. The primary reason for that is because the district is still building its budget for the 2018-2019 school year.

“We don’t quite have all of our approved certified values,” he said. “We are beginning to get ideas on our revenues, but we won’t know anything for a few more weeks. This is also the time of year each campus and department starts submitting their budgets. At the same time, we’re also digging into how much each one of these options is going to cost and then we’ll be pattering that down to see what we can do to keep the program within our budget.”

According to Pirtle’s presentation in March, the approximate cost of an SRO program would be about $97,000 to $125,000 for the first year. The approximate cost of an SDPD program would be about $155,000 for a police chief and an additional $125,000 for a police officer during the program’s first year.

Hart said his goal would be for the district to have its own police department, but it comes down to the issue of whether the district can afford it.

“I want to be able to select our people and be the ones putting those people in with our kids,” he said. “We’ve talked to a lot of different entities and school districts, as well as some people who have trained police officers to help certify them, and almost every one of them would prefer their own police department over an SRO. Not all can afford that so they are using SROs.

“I’ve also talked with several superintendents during meetings, and several who have SROs said they wish they had a police department. That’s because an SRO serves two masters, and that’s very difficult. I would like to have the officers full time with us. But the initial expense is very large. You have to set up a department, get them equipment and all those things that go along with it.”

Each of the board members also expressed that they are serious about implementing some type of school police program.

“It’s a priority we need to put in place,” said Trustee Vickie Peterson. “Because of past conversations I’ve had with the community, one of the things that I want to see change in is addressing security concerns with people on campus. That, plus all the tragic events that have occurred, makes the desire even more prevalent.”

She added that she previously spent a lot of time stating her interest in an SRO, but following the March presentation, she did more research on the other programs.

“Now I feel stronger about the school district police department, but the question is, how would that implementation look like and feel like?” she said. “In terms of analogies, when you’re an employer and you need to hire someone to get a job done, if you need it done immediately you seek out a temp agency. You trust that they have the skills you need. In certain businesses, that works great, but when we’re talking about choosing the right solution for our kids, it’s not just about plugging someone in who has certification to protect.”

Peterson added that deciding which schools would have a police presence is a big part of the decision the district and board will make.

“I don’t think it’s as easy as spending time at each school,” she said. “It’s building infrastructure through relationship building with the kids, parents, community, etcetera. Two years down the road I would love to have someone 100 percent at the high school and then have shared resources at the other schools. All the schools are equally a priority, but I just don’t think we can do it all at once.”

Board president Clay Cole said he’s not sure which option fits the district best right now, but he does believe it’s important that the district maintain a lot of control with the position. He also said that whoever is serving the district should be able to help at any campus, but that primarily the focus should be at the high school and junior high levels.

“We just want to make sure that we are able to acquire and hire somebody that has the quality, attributes and skills to serve in that capacity because it’s a unique role,” he said. “It’s not a job for just any officer on the street.”

Trustee Anthony Buck, who was just re-elected to another term Saturday, said he would also like to see the district create its own police department. He wasn’t certain where he’d like to see those officers stationed but believes the high school would be a good start.

“That way we can hire officers that would be specifically for in-district use,” he said. “If there’s some type of issue in the city or county, like a traffic accident, they won’t be pulled out to go address it. They would be district employees.”

The two options Scott Lindquist liked the best were the SRO and SDPD, but until he has more data as well as what the financial impact of those programs would be, he isn’t sure which one would be a better fit for the district.

“The key to this decision is what works best for us,” he said. “It’s about what fits our district as a whole and provides the best safety for our kids. It’s going to come down to a cost analysis of what we can do, but personally the lower the level the better. I would love to start with [police presence at the junior high and high school].”

School Trustee David Nix said he thinks it’s a good idea for LHISD to look to other districts and how various programs have worked there before making a decision on which program works best in Liberty Hill.

“We want to be thorough in research and discussion,” Nix said. “We want to protect our schools and kids and do it right. There are a lot of stakeholders involved, but obviously the most important are our kids. That’s why it just needs to be done right.”

Nix isn’t sure how widespread he’d want a police presence to be in the district until he gets more information on the programs the district is serious about.

“We absolutely have to get it right,” Nix said. “The only thing worse than doing nothing is doing it wrong.”

Board member Clint Stephenson said in his view, all the options are still on the table, but he is leaning more toward the SRO or SDPD options.

“They both have pluses and minuses,” he said. “The SRO portion is a dating before getting married type of deal, and the campus police force is getting married right off the bat. I think the [police department] would probably end up being a better fit, but I don’t know if financially it makes sense. But you get to have more of a relationship because they’re your [officer], instead of sharing them or if they get a call they have to leave. I’ve reached out to a few other districts back home [in Montana] that are smaller than us and they have campus police forces. They didn’t like the SRO route—they hated it. It’s going to be a difficult decision. We’ll need to really talk through it.”

Stephenson believes police presence should primarily be at the high school level.

“I’m not saying it shouldn’t be at the other schools, but on a more limited basis,” he added.

The two biggest parts of making a decision on which route the district ultimately takes will include planning the budget and having the board come to an agreement on whether an SRO or SDPD is the best fit, said Hart.

“If we decide to have our own police department, we will also have to file a lot of things that have to be approved with the federal government and the county. We would be creating a legitimate, bonified police department and we would have to declare a chief of police and issue badges. Bringing in an SRO would take a lot of steps as well. I don’t think we will [make a decision on either option] by our May meeting, but maybe by our June meeting.”

The budget for the 2018-2019 school year will be presented to the board in late July or early August, Hart said, and must be approved by Aug. 31 before the fiscal year starts Sept. 1. School starts Aug. 15.

“Starting the program when school starts would be ideal,” Hart said. “I couldn’t guarantee that. It depends on all the variables still out there.”

Lindquist said the sooner a program can be implemented, the better.

“If it was up to just me, I’d love to have it in place for next school year, but can we get everything done and have it implemented by then?” he said. “There are lots of I’s to dot and T’s to cross.”

Cole agreed, and said next school year is a good goal to shoot for implementation.

“A lot of factors come into play that still need to be evaluated in terms of budget and impact, as well as the overall role that individual will play in serving our district,” he said.

Stephenson said he believes an SRO program could be implemented easily by the beginning of next school year, but the SDPD option could take longer due to cost and more steps that would need to be taken.

“In that case, it could be a phasing thing, but I’m not sure,” he said. “A lot goes into introducing this type of program into the schools. I’m curious to see how much the federal government would be kicking in on something like a school police department. That would be a source we’d look to for funding.”

Nix added that he expects the police program to be implemented at some point during the next school year, but he isn’t certain it could be accomplished on day one.

Peterson said she’s asked for a guest speaker, a current school district police chief from a nearby district, to come to the board’s May meeting on May 21 to hear about his personal experiences, both good and bad, as a way to help the board gather more information to help them make a decision sooner rather than later.

“My goal is to decide on the program and vote in June so we have enough time to find the right person to implement the position and department by beginning of next school year,” she said.

Hart said before his time at LHISD, which was a decade ago, the district had a couple of different SROs.

“I know of two different SROs the district had,” he said. “The second one was done through a matching grant and when the grant ran out, the program was discontinued.”

Hart added that from what he’s heard about both SROs, neither was “adequate” for the district’s needs. That may contribute to district administration’s hesitations in the past about implementing a school police program, which is why Hart said his biggest concern is getting the right person for the job.

“School business is not like any other business, so you can’t take a police officer off the street and inject them into a school setting,” he said. “They have to understand our business and understand kids. We need a certain type of person. It has to be someone who can deal with kids on a daily basis. If we implement something, we’ll be very selective about who is working with our kids.”

Peterson also believes whoever takes on the police role for LHISD will have one of the most important roles for the career of the district.

“The time we take to find the right person is in my opinion more important than discussing the different options,” she said. “We’ve got to take the time to interview. It’s all about the person. If we start with the chief for a school district police department, they should be interviewed many different times, they should have thorough background checks, and we should partner closely with Chief Maverick Campbell [of the Liberty Hill Police Department]. LHPD will be a huge partner in this decision because a school district police chief would need a great relationship with our LHPD chief as they would work hand in hand with the community.”

Buck added that having someone with ample training is also extremely important to him.

“Regardless of what we implement, I’ve expressed concerns that I want to make sure they receive extra training in marksmanship and shoot/no shoot scenarios,” he said. “I want to make sure we have the very best and well-trained personnel in our schools. It’s all about training. That way someone is ready when that scenario pops up.”

Stephenson added that he believes there are other things the district could do to bolster its security inside schools.

“Those things would be more of a one-time purchase versus a reoccurring cost every year officers would entail, like putting a film on the glass [entryway doors] so if someone shot that door, it would just put a hole in it instead of the glass shattering,” he said. “It might take them an extra 20 seconds to get through the door. I also firmly believe we should have a third-party company come and give us safety assessments on all of our campuses and make recommendations. They could talk to us about things we could do to improve safety and things we could implement in schools we’re building in the future.”

Stephenson also hopes to gather more input from the public during the next couple of months as the board discusses options and makes a decision.

“I would encourage the community to come to meetings when they see this on the agenda or talk to us if they see us around town, or call us or send an email,” he said. “We would like to hear from everybody in the district.”

Kathy Major, a retired school principal who was just elected to the school board Saturday, said she ultimately wants to represent the community while also building a consensus with her fellow board members so that whatever program is implemented is one they’ve worked on together to make sure it’s effective.

“It’s very important to me to be a part of the team,” she said. “If we’re going to be effective as a board we have to represent our community well. I want to get all the data and hear from the board about what people are saying, and I would like the community to express their views on where we’re going next. The protection of our kids is important.”

Hart said his end goal in implementing a school police program is to provide safety and security to students, but he also envisions officers playing a larger role within the schools by providing safety classes to students and interacting with them informally.

“There are so many things they could work with students on,” he said. “That makes this person more than just a police officer. It makes them an educator and staff member as well.”

Rachel@LHIndependent.com

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