Conroe, Montgomery and Willis ISDs are increasing safety and security measures on district campuses as the 2022-23 school year gets underway, including investing in additional officers.

Conroe ISD police Chief Matthew Blakelock said his department will fill eight vacancies and hire as many additional officers as it is able to. However, he said the effort to keep campuses safe is multifaceted, and a variety of safety measures have already been put in place, including secure vestibules and new radio systems.

Throughout the remainder of 2022, CISD will be completing the third phase of safety and security updates from the $654 million bond approved by voters in 2019, $44.5 million of which was dedicated for security improvements.

Montgomery ISD officials are also launching new security initiatives this year, investing $87,566 in startup costs to launch ID badges for students and staff and debuting a campaign called “Stop the Prop,” encouraging students and staff to ensure all exterior doors remain locked. Stickers are placed on each exterior door about the campaign, Justin Marino, assistant superintendent of communications and public relations, said in an interview.

“We want to shift our mindset in the district that the exterior doors on our buildings should be closed and locked at all times,” Marino said. “The expectation moving forward is that all the doors will be closed and locked even if they’re going out to their vehicle for two minutes to grab their drink.”

The district also approved two additional police officer positions in late June.

“The last two budgets we have added police officers. This isn’t a new thing because of what happened in Uvalde; we’ve been adding police officers every year,” Superintendent Heath Morrison said in an interview.

From a national perspective, Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, said he anticipates there to be an even greater need for a security presence in schools across the country following the May 24 shooting in Uvalde.

“We have experienced fairly steady growth since [the 1990s],” Canady said. “School shootings drive the demand [for security in schools]; there is no question about it. I wish it was not that way, but it is.”

CISD adapting security

One security update in CISD that has been accomplished over the past year is an overhaul to the district’s radio systems, which was estimated to cost $3.6 million, according to bond documents.

“Anytime you talk about preparedness or crises, communication is one of the biggest issues,” Blakelock said.

He said the new radio system extends to safety outside of schools as they are also in buses. Previously, the radio system was localized and limited in range, and if a bus had an emergency, multiple calls would have to be made before the issue could be resolved.

There has also been an increased focus on preventive measures at CISD.

“We do not want people to be complacent; we want safety to be on their mind every day,” Blakelock said. “We are always looking at new technologies that work for us and are a good solution—things like a panic button solution as a potential option for the district, adding security cameras where there could be vulnerabilities and increasing the staff to manage those and looking at ways to control access to the building.”

Among the physical changes planned for schools across the district are more limited, secure entrances.

“If you go to any of the campuses now, you will see they have a secure vestibule [at the front entrance],” Blakelock said. “Someone has to be buzzed in, and before they can enter a campus, they will have to be buzzed in through another door. The actual structures of the buildings have changed, ... so we have the most secure environment.”

In Conroe, Armstrong Elementary, Caney Creek High School, Conroe High School and Runyan Elementary are among the campuses that will see bond-funded improvements, including upgraded security cameras, extended radio signal amplifiers, limited access to doors and the addition of emergency generators.

The costs of the upgrades total $245,000 at Armstrong, $300,000 at Runyan, $1.37 million at Caney Creek and $1 million at Conroe High, including the ninth-grade campus.

The school district is in its third phase of completing updates from the bond, and according to a March meeting of the CISD Safety and Security Committee, the phase will continue through the end of 2022. The fourth and final phase is anticipated to start in early 2023, according to information presented at the Aug. 2 school board meeting.

Montgomery, Willis ISDs

In MISD, about $5.34 million was set aside for safety and security improvements in the $326.9 million bond package approved by voters in May, which includes funds for perimeter fencing for campuses, radio systems and security cameras, Morrison said.

“As we build Elementary No. 7, it will be built with all the things—the sensor detectors, the secure vestibule, the perimeter fencing [and] cameras,” he said.

At each of its campuses, the district is implementing ID badges in the 2022-23 school year that students and staff will wear on campus to help spot unidentified guests more easily. Morrison said he believes the ID badges are necessary to maintain campus safety with the growth in the district.

“When people hear that we grew 500 students from the start of last year to the end, you just can’t know every student anymore immediately,” he said.

Each campus will also have a campus parent safety committee this year, Morrison said. The committees will give parents the opportunity to give input and suggestions on safety measures.

In addition, the district is upgrading its platforms for students, staff and the community to submit safety tips, including a panic alert app that will allow staff to alert local police if there is a potential intruder or a crisis, Marino said. The district’s existing Let’s Talk website for feedback has been expanded to allow users to submit a safety tip, and a text feature has been added to allow students or staff to text a safety tip directly to district administrators.

In WISD, the district announced in early August new additions to its safety measures, including conducting schoolwide lockdown drills with students, installing metal detectors at Yates Stadium and implementing a clear bag policy for district events.

The clear bag policy became effective Aug. 5 and is in place for all sporting, fine arts and districtwide activities, according to the policy, allowing clear backpacks, totes or purses of any size.

In addition, trustees approved the addition of a ninth officer to its school resource officer team July 13. The district is investing $65,000 for the new position’s salary, Superintendent Tim Harkrider said.

“We are excited to bring another officer on board, and that’s something that our board of trustees over the [next] few years—as we are growing as a school district, we really want to continue to add officers to our force,” he said.

Access to mental health services

With an increased need to create a safe, secure school environment comes additional mental health stress, officials said.

As such, CISD has added to its school counselors each year. In 2018-19, the district had 142 school counselors at a cost of $10 million total for base pay; that number increased to 169 counselors for 2021-22 at a cost of $12.7 million, according to CISD.

Kim Earthman, CISD director of student support services, said there are 180 counselors on staff in 2022-23, including two crisis intervention specialists, a mental health specialist, a college and career readiness supervisor, and a coordinator of guidance and counseling. According to CISD, counseling services encompass academic, social and emotional needs.

To increase the mental health service offerings for students and staff, CISD has also partnered with Tri-County Behavioral Health, which offers mental health services to Liberty, Montgomery and Walker counties, for four clinics in the Caney Creek and Conroe high schools’ feeder zones.

“Demand is high for services across our service area, regardless of age,” TCBH Executive Director Evan Roberson said. “During my tenure as executive director, we have quadrupled the number of kids we see on a monthly basis, and the only reason we have not done more than that is that I have a hard time finding the staff to do it all, but the demand is very high.”

To meet the demand, Roberson said TCBH used $6 million in funding this year from the American Rescue Plan Act through the Montgomery County Commissioners Court to open a child-only clinic in Porter for the Caney Creek feeder zone for CISD. The clinic opened June 6.

“We added that clinic and capacity to serve potentially another 500 kids,” Roberson said. “One of the features of that clinic is that over half of our staff is bilingual Spanish, including the psychiatrist. By doing so, we are also able to give a little more space for our existing clinics.”

Peyton MacKenzie contributed to this report.