LHPD: More can be done to keep kids safe at school

By SHELLY WILKISON

More can be done to keep students safe at school — a responsibility that Liberty Hill Police say should be shared by law enforcement and school administrators.

As many continue to search for understanding and explanation in the aftermath of a shooting Dec. 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, law enforcement officials say it may be time for schools to consider increasing the presence of police on campus.

“Every school should have a police presence, even if it’s just implied,” said Liberty Hill Police Chief Randy Williams. “We are at the point when we need an armed police presence in schools — not just in Liberty Hill, but everywhere. If the police presence is hidden, it’s not a deterrent.”

Williams said more than 10,000 “strangers” pass by Liberty Hill schools every day, “and some percentage of those are people at the point of breaking (mental illness).

“Sure, a lot of people don’t want to believe it (a shooting) could happen here,” he said. “We would go crazy if we thought about kids in danger all the time. But there’s always more that everyone could do to be more vigilent.”

Although Liberty Hill police officers would be the first to respond in the event of an emergency at a local campus, Williams said school district officials have not involved local police in crisis response planning.

“We rely on the schools to stop and notice and call us immediately if they see something suspicious,” said  Williams. “But in a perfect world, we would train at every school so we would know how to navigate through hallways and classrooms. If we aren’t familiar (with facilities), it makes our response more of a challenge when every second counts.”

Williams said he was provided with a copy of the Liberty Hill school district’s crisis plan dated 2006-2007 in 2007. He said he has never received updates to the plan and no one from the school district has ever discussed it with him.

School districts are required by law to update their crisis management plans annually and submit a copy to the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

According to the Attorney General’s Office, Liberty Hill has complied with the requirement.

“The police having an updated (crisis response) plan is not something I ever thought needed to be done,” said Claudeane Braun, curriculum director for Liberty Hill ISD. She said the district is a member of Central Texas Safety Consortium that provides regular legal updates, which are then localized for Liberty Hill.

Mrs. Braun said rather than Liberty Hill police, the district communicates with Williamson County Emergency Management Office regarding its crisis response plan.  Chief Williams is the Emergency Management Coordinator for Liberty Hill.

Williams said the district’s choice to use county officials to consult on the plan makes sense considering that not all of the campuses are inside the city limits. Bill Burden Elementary and the new high school currently under construction west of town are not inside Liberty Hill police jurisdiction.

But the lack of involvement of local police in the district’s crisis plan may be more than a jurisdictional issue.

Mrs. Braun said she received an email from Williams “a couple of years ago” requesting that he be omitted from future email communications because he no longer had the time or staff available to participate in the discussions.

“He (Chief Williams) said he didn’t have the staff, and to remove his name and his officer’s name from our list,” said Mrs. Braun. “So we took him off our list.”

Williams said he recalled making the request, but it was in reference to email communications about the School Health Advisory Council (SHAC).

According to the school district’s website, the purpose of SHAC is “to assist the District in ensuring that local community values are reflected in the District’s health education program.” The advisory panel meets four times annually and recommends changes to the district’s health curriculum.

“I remember the emails being about how to curb alcoholism. That’s the only thing she ever emailed me about. I didn’t have time to go to the meetings,” Williams said. “It wasn’t an emergency response issue.

“If something happens at a school, we will be there first and we won’t wait to go in,” Williams said.

After the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO, law enforcement officers are no longer trained to contain the shooter in a building and wait for backup. Instead, they are trained to enter immediately and stop the shooter.

Williams said the school district allowed the Liberty Hill Police Department to host an active shooter training at the high school in February 2007. Law enforcement officers from across Central Texas participated in the training that was provided by Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) from Texas State University in San Marcos.

Of Liberty Hill’s police officers who participated in the training, only two are still on staff.

“We (LHPD) are capable of performing an effective response,” said Williams. “But (in a shooting scenario) by the time we (law enforcement officers) are called on to respond, some lives have already been lost. The quickness of our response relies on how quickly they (school employees) realize there is a threat and request a response.

“The preventive part has to be performed every day,” he added. “Most schools have plans and procedures in place, they just get lax or comfortable about enforcing them.”

“The last time we looked at the (crisis) plan was this morning,” said Mrs. Braun on Dec. 17. “We wanted to see if we have things in place. It’s time we go back and revisit it.”

While school employees receive crisis response training at the beginning of school each year, Mrs. Braun said she would like to improve on what is in place and is researching various programs. One program centered on staff, students and first responders using clear, distinct and common language in case of emergency — creating a standard response protocol.

Williams agreed that improved communication between law enforcement and school officials is critical.

“We don’t train with them (local campuses),” he said, adding that training together would improve the effectiveness of a response.

He said local police should be involved, “or at least notified,” when campuses initiate lockdowns, even if they are drills.

Williams said teachers and staff should be trained to give a good description of a suspicious person, and they should be taught what to tell 911 dispatchers. School employees should also be taught what to expect from law enforcement officers when they arrive on the scene.

“They should have some idea of what to expect when police arrive, and know how to work with a police response,” he said.

While many, including Gov. Rick Perry, support allowing civilian school employees to carry concealed weapons as an additional way to keep students safe, Williams disagrees.

“Someone may be proficient with a weapon, but that doesn’t mean they are trained to respond to an active shooter. That isn’t part of the normal CHL (Concealed Handgun License) training,” he said.

“We don’t know the teachers. It would be bad for a teacher to step out with a gun,” Williams said.

At a Tarrant County Tea Party meeting Dec. 17, 2012, Gov. Perry said that school districts should develop their own policies on employees carrying concealed weapons, but those who have a concealed-handgun license “should be able to carry your handgun anywhere in this state.”

Williams said Liberty Hill police respond to calls for service at the elementary campuses. Most of the calls relate to intoxicated drivers picking up students. Some involve child custody issues, he said.