LHISD researching possibility of adding police presence to campuses

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By SHELLY WILKISON

Liberty Hill ISD administrators are researching options for creating a law enforcement presence in the schools, including the creation of a police department for the district.

Superintendent Rob Hart told The Independent this week that administrators are exploring different ways to add a law enforcement presence as enrollment continues to grow and additional schools are built.

Dr. Hart said the interest in adding on-campus security has been discussed at various times through the years, but he has been resistant to the idea because he had too many questions about what is needed and had concerns about finding officers who understand the school environment.

“But I believe we’re ready,” he said.

School trustees will hear a presentation by Assistant Superintendent Chad Pirtle at their regular meeting March 19 about various options for adding a law enforcement presence. Hart said Pirtle has been looking at other school districts and comparing their programs, including the costs.

“He is looking at what others do, what their arrangements are, the pros and cons of having one, what type of person to find, what you want them to do, that kind of thing,” he said.

Hart said he isn’t sure whether he will make a recommendation for trustees at that time.

“I don’t know what we’re going to find yet, and what it will involve,” he said.

However, he said creating a police department within the school district seems to be preferable over a school resource officer program.

While school resource officers are employed by a county or municipal law enforcement agency, school-based law enforcement officers are employed by the school district. Under a school-based scenario, the department’s chief would be hired by and answer to the district’s administration.

“We might not be able to afford our own (department), and have to do something like that (partner with Williamson County Sheriff’s Office or Liberty Hill Police Department). But if that were the case, I would certainly want to be involved in the hiring,” Hart said. “That’s why I would lean more toward doing our own department because they would answer to me or the administration, and they (officers) would be here all the time.

“One reason I’m not saying a lot about it yet is that I’m not sure what all I want that person to do,” he said. “I want them to be more than a cop. I want them to be a staff member, want them to understand education, educators and kids. We have to do this right.”

Hart said if the district creates its own police force, officers would be available to help enforce residency requirements.

“One of our hot topics now is transfers. If we do stop transfers, we will be fighting sneak-ins. We’re a desirable place to be. We don’t have the manpower now to go house to house to make sure people are living there,” he said.

According to the Texas School District Police Chiefs’ Association website, there are 160 school districts in Texas with police departments. However, the list is not dated and may not be complete as it shows Liberty Hill ISD with a police department under former Superintendent Dean Andrews. The department was eliminated before Hart’s employment.

Almost two weeks after 17 students and teachers were killed at Marjorie Douglas Simpson High School in Parkland, Florida, Hart said school shootings are the worst nightmares for parents and school administrators. And each incident sparks a new discussion among administrators on school safety and procedures.

Last summer, Liberty Hill ISD reached a major goal toward that end by equipping every campus with a system to secure entry to every facility.

“The number one thing we wanted to accomplish was to secure all of our campuses, and we did that with the last bond election. Everything is secure and that’s our number one focus,” he said. “You’ve got to know who’s in your building, who is on your campus, and that didn’t happen in Florida.

“We’re capable of doing that now — where you have to buzz someone in — we updated our older facilities to include that, so that was our first step,” he added.

“Now we’re looking into adding officers because we’re bigger and we’re spread out a little further, and we’ll continue to spread out as we build more schools,” Hart said.

Hart, who has been Liberty Hill’s superintendent for 10 years, said he has been watching the national discussion on gun control driven by student protests and demands for stricter laws in the aftermath of the Florida school shooting.

He said he is opposed to President Trump’s suggestion that teachers should be armed.

“We hire teachers to teach our kids, and that’s putting them in a different position when you have them as armed employees,” Hart said. “I think we can do better than that, and would be more favorable toward having a police presence than arming teachers. I wouldn’t want to do it if I was a teacher.”

In 2013, the Texas Legislature passed a law giving school districts the discretion to use teachers as school marshals. To qualify, teachers would receive the same training as law enforcement officers and be authorized to carry a weapon on campus.

At the time, Hart was opposed to the idea and remains opposed. He said LHISD does not have school marshals in place.

Hart said he is hopeful that law enforcement authorities and mental health professionals can learn from the situation in Parkland, Florida.

“It’s not common that the shooter survives. I’m hoping they can learn a lot more about mental health issues, to be more proactive in that by gleaning information from this young man,” he said.

“I’m glad to see that there is a lot more awareness of mental health and it’s being discussed just as much as gun control now, which is a good thing,” he added. “If we can be a lot more pro-active in that area (mental health) without stepping on individual rights, that’s a good thing.”

Hart said in recent years, Texas public schools have been doing more to identify and help students with mental health issues, although he acknowledged that getting them treatment is a challenge.

“I’m not sure that any organization has what it needs because it’s difficult to get them help. It costs money, so I know of school districts that have had kids with severe needs that judges refused to place in residential facilities because who foots the bill for that? So, those are the kind of things that’s going to take an overhaul,” Hart said.

He said LHISD does have professional staff specially trained in mental health, and also utilizes outside professionals when there is a need.

Hart said the research that will be presented to the school board March 19 was in the works prior to the Florida school shooting. The presentation had been planned for the February board meeting, but was postponed to give staff more time since last month’s meeting was moved up a week due to a school holiday Feb. 19.

The Board will meet at 6 p.m. March 19 at Rancho Sienna Elementary School, 751 Bonnet Blvd., Georgetown.

News@LHIndependent.com

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