Gabriel Andrade, a 25-year Round Rock resident, enrolled his 4-year-old son in pre-K last month.
Andrade, a graduate of Round Rock High School, said he was proud to see his son begin his education in Round Rock ISD, but he was also a bit worried.
“When I was a kid, I’d walk home from school,” he said. “Now, the world’s a different place.”
As the city of Round Rock and RRISD grow, Andrade said he believes more security is needed at local schools. At over 51,000 students, RRISD is one of the largest districts in the state that does not operate a district police department.
“Having a police presence that is dedicated specifically to the school district would calm my nerves a lot as a parent,” Andrade said. “I want my child and every child to be safe, especially in my hometown.”
Since the mid-1990s, the district has partnered with multiple law-enforcement agencies to provide school resource officers, or SROs, on middle school and high school campuses.
However, the clock is ticking on this arrangement. In less than two years, more than half of the officers who currently serve on RRISD campuses will be pulled from their school policing beat.
Catalyst for change
Conversations about forming a district police department find roots in a March 2017 letter.
Round Rock Police Chief Allen Banks notified RRISD Superintendent Steve Flores that his department could not provide school resource officers beyond the 2020-21 academic year. For the past several years, the Round Rock Police Department has contributed between 10-12 officers to the SRO program.
Citing staffing issues—with nearly 10% of his police force dedicated to staffing RRISD schools in 2017—Banks said he needed to reassign his officers to the city beat.
“We recognize that ending this program poses a major undertaking for the Round Rock Independent School District,” Banks said in the letter to Flores. “We are providing several years’ notice to demonstrate our commitment to helping you plan for the future.”
At that time, the district also contracted with the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office and Austin Community College for SRO coverage.
The arrangement with ACC has since ended, said Daniel Presley, senior chief of schools and innovation for RRISD. The district now contracts with Williamson County and the Round Rock Police Department for a total of 18 SROs.
With the 2019-20 school year underway, gaps persist in SRO coverage, Presley said.
The current arrangement with local law enforcement is not meeting district goals set for the number of officers providing a consistent presence at secondary campuses. And the window of time to find a solution is shrinking.
Click the arrow to the right to explore a timeline of events surrounding Round Rock ISD’s school resource officer program
As it stands, RRISD pays the full salaries and benefits for each school resource officer, Presley said. The district also foots the bill for the officers’ training and equipment. In the 2018-19 school year, RRISD paid approximately $2.3 million for the SRO program.
While the district foots the bill, Presley said, staff does not control salaries, raises or prescribe training for the officers.
School resource officers contracted through Williamson County and the city of Round Rock can and—in certain instances have—left campus during the school day to respond to a call, said Jeffrey Yarbrough, director of safety and security for the district.
“The SROs are employees of the county or the city,” Yarbrough said. “If there’s an emergency that requires their assistance [off campus], they have a duty to respond to that emergency.”
The arrangement leaves the district with little control over staffing and expenditures, Presley said.
Exploring a district police department
In April 2018, Flores, Banks and Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody signed a Joint Letter on Campus Security in Round Rock ISD. The statement endorsed the creation of a district police department.
“Leaders of the Round Rock Police Department, the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office, and the School District agree the most prudent step is for Round Rock ISD to form its own police department, as most large school districts (and many small districts) in Texas have done,” the letter states.
Within the resolution, trustees authorized “the further exploration and consideration of the establishment of the RRISD PD” and outlined steps to establish a department and hire a chief of police.
“Based on recent school safety issues around the country, RRISD requires the consistent daily presence of trained, skilled law enforcement officers on its campuses to help increase the level of safety and security for all RRISD students and staff,” the resolution states.
However, the board voted to modify the resolution in February. The amended title states an intention “to provide for long term student and staff safety strategies in RRISD.”
The amended resolution calls for a study of “school security options,” which could include daily presence of trained officers.
In July 2018, the board of trustees formed a citizens task force made up of residents, parents and district staff. The group was tasked with developing three to five safety and security options for the district and presenting the recommendations to the board in April.
The task force did not present safety suggestions in April. Lisa Moore, task force member, instead outlined five “non-negotiables” members believe are necessary in order to develop a safety strategy.
According to Moore’s presentation, a strategy selected by the board should address institutional racism, equity and mental health, should offer continued training opportunities beyond what is required by law and should be evaluated by an independent oversight committee.
In May, the task force held two town hall meetings—one May 13 with approximately 100 attendees and a second May 14 with around 115 attendees—Moore said.
Surveys were distributed to parents and students to gather their feedback on safety and security measures, Moore said.
With community input gathered, the task force is now expected to present options to the board in September. Options could include creating an independent police department; contracting all SROs through the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office; and/or pursuing additional, yet-to-be specified school safety strategies.
Proposals on the table
With RRPD clear in its intention to exit the SRO program, two preliminary proposals for armed security—should the board ultimately decide to purse that type of safety initiative—have been made public at this time.
Chody in May 2018 released a proposal for the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office to run the district’s SRO program. His $2.7 million startup proposal includes salaries for 14 school resource officers, two sergeants and one lieutenant alongside a K-9 handler and one-time startup equipment costs. Not included in the cost: salaries of the 10 existing school resource officers, $17,000 per year for training and supplies, and yearly salary increases.
Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell spoke at a task force meeting April 8.
“I’m not sure that Williamson County is the best resource to provide public safety on your school campuses,” Gravell said.
Gravell said had engaged in conversations with Chody.
“The first thing the sheriff would ask is nothing less than complete and total control of ownership,” Gravell said. “No committee offering any oversight. No school board offering any direction. It is our sheriff who has complete and total control over our campuses.”
Gravell stressed that he spoke for himself, not on behalf of the Commissioners Court as a whole. A majority vote of approval by the Commissioners Court would be necessary for Chody to implement his program.
However, the judge said he would “never consider the court adopting” that kind of “complete, unfettered, non-interferant access.”
However, if the task force decided to proceed with considering this option, Gravell outlined additional requests. To be considered by the county, a proposal would need to include a minimum seven-year contract, officer salary reimbursement rate at 110%, district-secured reciprocity with cities and counties outside Williamson County, and availability of the officers at any time of day or night to respond to any emergencies that arise in Williamson County.
“If you had your own police department, those resources would not be shifted,” Gravell said.
RRISD staff in May 2018 also crunched numbers for establishing its own department. Estimated yearly cost after initial one-time costs to establish the department totaled around $2.3 million. Included in the proposal was hiring a police chief and the salary, benefits, equipment, vehicles and training for 24 SROs and one dispatcher.
The proposal as presented over a year ago is preliminary and likely to change with market influences, Presley said.
Future of campus safety
Upon reviewing the task force recommendations, the board of trustees will ultimately decide how to move forward.
“I know the sheriff and the chief both hold our students’ safety and our schools in highest regard,” Presley said. “They are tremendous partners and will continue to be, regardless of decisions that are made, inclusive or exclusive of those departments.”
Flores said the district has for several years enjoyed “great relationships” with the RRPD as well as the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office.
“We’ve continued as we’ve evolved to determine what is the best way to meet the needs of our campuses with regards to safety in our schools,” Flores said. “These discussions are coming to a close soon with some recommendations and subsequent board action. Again, the subsequent board action will be based on recommendations that the board may choose to not only accept but modify or shift as needed. I look forward to the dialogue.”
In the meantime, the district continues to uphold a comprehensive safety plan for the 54 campuses across RRISD.
“School resource officers are just one component of our safety and security initiatives,” Yarbrough said. “We’re making sure we use all of our resources so that Round Rock is the safest district it can possibly be.”