Local districts work to improve school security, training for staff and students

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As area students settle into the new school year, staff and educators in Austin and Dipping Springs ISDs are working to keep students safe.

AISD Police Chief Ashley Gonzalez, who joined the district in May, said that safety training is something the district worked on over the summer, especially when it comes to training new employees.

Throughout October, DSISD will be practicing emergency drills during the district’s safety month, district spokesperson Dale Whitaker said.

“[Safety] is something that’s been on people’s minds; I think that’s true everywhere,” she said. “We try to share information about the things we’re doing proactively with our stakeholders.”

AISD’s approved 2017 bond program of about $1 billion included 17 campus modernization projects that will upgrade safety systems and campus entries, said Bob Cervi, AISD executive director of construction management and facilities. Another $26.6 million of the bond specifically addresses safety districtwide, he said.

Cervi said AISD is working with architects, engineers and district police to assure new and renovated facilities follow the latest standards in safety.

Local emergency responses

The AISD Police Department, which officially became a recognized law enforcement agency in 2008, includes 84 sworn officers when fully staffed.

Gonzalez said officers respond to a variety of calls—from minor disturbances to assaults and emergency situations. However, he said when not responding to specific calls, officers work on building relationships and trust with the students they interact with each day.

“We’re regular police officers who have the added responsibility to work in a school-based environment,” Gonzalez said. “AISD is very fortunate to have a dedicated police department that can deal specifically with issues that arise at school campuses. We work on building relationships in the event [students]have a concern or they hear something.”

Many smaller districts in the area, like DSISD, do not have their own police force and rely on local law enforcement to monitor the district. In 2017, DSISD increased the number of student resource officers, or officers specifically assigned to watch the district, from one to two, Whitaker said. Hays County Sheriff’s Office provides district emergency services, she said. 

“We don’t have a city or a district police force, so certainly there are some differences,” she said. “We are proactive in training our staff internally and with our local emergency responders and will continue along those lines.”

For emergency situations, both districts follow “I Love You Guys” Foundation guidelines, which are nationally recognized response protocols that help create a unified language for local responders, DSISD Security Supervisor Curt Marek said.

“Some of those emergency protocols we were a part of developing with Hays County five years ago,” he said. “It keeps it simplified, and it is very easy to manage.”

Evaluating threats

Part of the AISD Police Department’s job is evaluating threats made against the district, schools and individuals. Assistant Chief Chris Evoy, who has been with the district for 23 years, said threats are found on social media, can be made over the phone or even heard in person.

“We take every threat seriously and follow through as far as we can,” he said.

If a student or parent hears of a threat, Evoy said he or she should call 911. If the threat is school-related, dispatch will connect an individual with the district’s police department. AISD has a CrimeStoppers call line and online form that allows individuals to leave anonymous tips. 

DSISD’s Tiger Tip Line was launched last year and allows students to leave tips on the district’s website or phone app, Whitaker said.

“I think it’s very important that if you see something, say something,” Evoy said. “One of the biggest parts of keeping our schools safe is making sure we report suspicious activities or persons on our campuses, and possible threatening messages.” 

While it may not always be possible to update parents when a threat is present, Evoy said the department works to get new information to the public when it is safe to do so.

Campus improvements

Cervi said AISD is designing its campuses with “an open mind,” knowing that future advances in technology could lead to modifications down the road. Not only does the design team look at how to prevent emergency situations through facility design, but also how to improve the day-to-day safety for students and staff, he said.

“We look at not just the evil things like an active shooter, but also how can we protect students so they feel secure during the [average]school day,” Cervi said. “How we can mitigate bullying by changing the way we do interior architecture so you don’t have any blind spots or secluded areas where kids can get cornered.”

Cervi said one of the key components of many AISD modernization projects is creating single entry points with security vestibules on campuses. During the school day, doors are locked, requiring all visitors or late students to enter through the main vestibule. Visitors are required to check in with school staff prior to being granted access to the rest of the campus.

Another area of focus is improving “line of sight” and reducing the number of “blind corners” in campus designs, he said, giving students and staff a better field of vision to identify threats.

The AISD bond also included new police equipment, upgrades to radio and dispatch equipment, and more security cameras, he said.

While DSISD’s most recent bond, which was approved in May, did not have allocations for safety improvements, Whitaker said there is still money from the district’s 2014 bond that has been earmarked for safety.  Improvements will include secured entries at campuses that do not yet have them, she said.

DSISD has also installed trauma kits at “key locations” throughout the district to “stop the bleeding” during a traumatic event, such as a tornado or an active shooter, Marek said.

“We’ve spent money to get supplies in place just in case a traumatic event takes place,” he said. “We’ll be doing [kit]trainings throughout October with all of our campuses. It was a worthwhile investment for our district.”

District practices

Gonzalez said he was relieved to find that prior to his arrival to AISD the district had already been practicing some techniques that were suggested in a school safety plan released by Gov. Greg Abbott’s office in May. The plan included 40 recommendations that Abbott said were a starting point to provide strategies to enhance school safety.

The district was ahead of the game in a lot of areas, but particularly with mental health awareness, Evoy said. The district already uses mental health therapists that work with students to identify problems before they come up, he said. All AISD officers also have mental health certifications that prepare them for identifying and interacting with students who could suffer from mental health problems.

“This summer our employees taught a 40-hour certification course,” he said. “Not only did we invite our officers but officers throughout the area and other districts. The mental health piece I think is very important.”

AISD has also invested in adding six new officer positions, one of which will be a full-time mental health officer, Evoy said, aligning with another item in Abbott’s plan.

The “I Love You Guys” protocols and drills practiced by both districts also follow the governor’s recommendations for school safety. AISD also has an emergency management team in place already, while DSISD currently has a new threat-assessment team in development, Whitaker said.

“We’re always looking at protocol, making sure that our emergency management [team]is doing drills with staff and students, and make sure we are preparing them,” Evoy said.

In terms of transportation safety, AISD installed stop-arm cameras on school buses in 2016 to deter drivers from passing stopped buses.

Gonzalez said the district launches back-to-school campaigns each year that remind residents and students of safety tips for busing, walking and biking to school. 

“Keep your patience, keep your head up, put down your devices and remember that school zones are posted at 20 mph for a reason, he said. “We want people to slow down because a lot of our kids walk to school and take bikes.”

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Nicholas Cicale
Nick was born in Long Island, New York and grew up in South Florida. He graduated from Florida State University in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in writing and a minor in music. Nick was a journalist for three years at the St. James Plaindealer in Minnesota before moving to Austin to join Community Impact Newspaper in 2016.
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