Police presence only part of safety equation



Ten people lost their lives in Texas’ most recent mass shooting incident at Santa Fe High School southeast of Houston.

The district has four campuses, 640 employees and 4,800 students and a record of high academic achievement. Liberty Hill has six campuses, just over 400 employees and just under 4,000 students and is also a high-achieving district.

Santa Fe also has a district police department with seven officers, including its chief, as well as a five-officer auxiliary, and a detailed safety plan for dealing with active shooter situations.

It is a stark reminder that a police presence can serve a school district in many positive ways, but is not itself the lone solution to prevent such tragedies.

“Protection of the campus is bigger than an officer,” said Williamson County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Tim Ryle. “There has to be a philosophy everybody buys into, education and infrastructure – smart building – and all those things to make it safe.”

The real challenge for school districts is finding the right balance of multiple safety measures.

“Any sort of safety practice, whether it is personnel, equipment or technology, from a research perspective it is hard to isolate these things as effective or not effective,” said Joe McKenna, Associate Director for Research and Education at the Texas School Safety Center. “What it says from my interpretation is there are many other factors that need to be considered, but often, these are part of larger, much more comprehensive safety plans. No one thing is good enough on its own.”

Superintendent Dr. Rob Hart did not return calls to The Independent prior to press time, but had previously made clear that while safety and security is critical in looking at law enforcement options on campus, the role of officers would be much more broad.

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

A police department or school resource officer program are not the only security measures being considered by the district. The school district had a state-required security audit in the fall, which was presented to the board of trustees in October.

Improvements made in advance of this school year included prohibiting walk-up traffic at the start and end of school at each elementary campus, restricting transportation changes to 1 p.m. daily and requiring those changes be done via e-mail, and restricting bus drop off locations to the student’s regular stop.

Additionally, each campus has a secure entry vestibule for the first time, has new or updated video cameras in place, and each campus is enforcing the “No ID, No Entry” rule.

There is no guide book that spells out what works best from one school district to another.

“From a very empirical, research standpoint, to be honest, we know very little. It is just a hard thing to study,” McKenna said. “A lot of safety features, practices and programs are hard to study because from a purely research standpoint you want to isolate something and say ‘this is what’s causing this’ but it is hard to do that in a school setting because so much is going on. Very rarely is a district only doing one thing to achieve safety or security, so the challenge is on the research side.”

Whether it is controlled access, metal detectors, law enforcement officers or something else, determining the effectiveness of one tool is difficult. Examining exactly what the goal is of every step taken – especially the role of law enforcement – is the real key according to McKenna.

“You need to have a real conversation,” he said. “Whenever you add any police, any staff really, you need to have a really strategic discussion of what is this person’s function and what is their role? Is this officer here for purely security, is this officer here to develop better relationships with students? Is this officer here to also teach a class here and there? You have to really flesh out what our goal is in having a policing program.”

There is often a difference recognized in school policing versus regular officers in the community.

“You’re mixing two cultures, law enforcement and education, and it certainly can be done, and it has been done successfully in many areas, but it is having those conversations, and every district is going to fit it in a little differently,” McKenna said. “School policing is policing, and we know these are law enforcement officers who have all the same rights and privileges as law enforcement officers, but many who have worked in school policing for a long time acknowledge there are differences.”

When safety options such as metal detectors are considered, it is just as important to weigh how they will be used and monitored and what additional resources beyond purchase and maintenance they will require.

“We want to focus on the practices behind what these technologies are doing. What’s behind that is we are limiting access or we are controlling access,” McKenna said. “What works best at each campus really needs to be considered holistically as well as locally. I don’t think school district personnel can sit down and decide this on their own, it is a very collaborative effort. School safety is so multi-disciplinary and multi-dimensional that you need to consult with local law enforcement.”

Real or perceived fear
According to the Texas School Safety Center, the fear of violence can prove costly in terms of lower academic achievement, lower attendance or even the higher likelihood a student may bring a weapon to school.

Statistics show that while there has been a slight decrease in the likelihood that a student would bring a weapon to school, students might be threatened or be involved in a fight, the number of students who have said they feel unsafe at school has shown a slight increase.

“Whether fear is real or perceived, you can’t ignore it,” McKenna said. “We see a lot of statistics that show crime in school has been going down for decades, but some measures of fear in school indicate there’s an upward projection, so you can’t ignore that. There is some level as you develop these programs, plans and practices, to not only address things like active shooters, but also violence in school, fighting, bullying, that type of stuff. You need to communicate to students as well as staff and parents. Those are different audiences and you want to customize the message and level of detail for each of those.”

The simplest way to address such fears among all parties – staff, students and parents – is to have well-publicized reporting procedures and processes for dealing with situations so everyone knows what is being done.

“That alone gives students, staff and other stakeholder groups reassurances that the district has thought about it, they know what to do, so you are almost empowering them,” McKenna said. “Communicating about the resources and efforts of the district can ease some of that tension.”

Future strategies
Following the Santa Fe shootings, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott held three discussion sessions with education, law enforcement and mental health professionals, as well as talking with victims and their families, in hopes of identifying new opportunities to improve safety in schools.

Last week, Abbott unveiled the initial plan for addressing school violence issues in Texas.

“This plan is a starting point, not an ending place,” Abbott said. “It provides strategies that can be used before the next school year begins to keep our students safe when they return to school. This plan will make our schools safer and our communities safer.”

In addition to Abbott’s announced plan, he will ask Texas Senate and House leaders to issue an interim charge to consider the merits of adopting a “red flag” law allowing law enforcement, a family member, school employee, or a district attorney to file a petition seeking the removal of firearms from a potentially dangerous person, only after legal due process is provided.

The announced recommendations identify nearly $110 million in total funding, including $70 million that is already or will soon be available.

McKenna said the meetings should prove fruitful with the wide variety of knowledge and backgrounds participating in the open discussion.

“It is still unfolding, and we’re certainly very appreciative to be a part of these discussions with the Governor and his staff and TEA,” he said. “We certainly appreciate the convening of these different groups because our best information comes from those practitioners in the field whether it be school-based law enforcement, educators, mental health professionals. Everyone has a lens, it is so multi-dimensional and all those different dimensions are important.”

Among the suggestions from Abbott’s office were increasing law enforcement presence on school campuses and to prioritize hiring retired peace officers for security. He called for expanded active shooter training, increased hardening of school campuses, and increased mental health training, assessment programs and counseling resources.

Suggestions also included mandatory reporting procedures for lost or stolen firearms, awareness programs and laws for safe storage of firearms, and a “red flag” law aimed at removing firearms from a potentially dangerous person.