While conversations about protecting students from potential threats take place at the state and national levels, Cy-Fair ISD has planned several initiatives for the start of the 2018-19 school year.

Gov. Greg Abbott released a School and Firearm Safety Action Plan on May 30 in response to the May 18 mass shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. He recommended increasing law enforcement presence at schools, improving the school marshal program to arm teachers, reinforcing campus facilities, providing mental health evaluations for at-risk students and expanding Campus Crime Stoppers programs. 

While the plan identified $120 million in potential federal and state funding, Abbott said it serves as a starting point as lawmakers consider strategies ahead of the 86th legislative session—particularly regarding mental health.

“As long as mental health challenges trouble our children, there will never be enough safety barriers that we can build to protect our students,” he said at a May 30 press conference. “If, however, we can address mental health challenges faced by our students, it will do more than just make our schools safer. It will also build a better future for those troubled students as well as for our state.”

Through CFISD’s internal, anonymous reporting system, the administration and police department received 1,424 online tips in 2017-18—up from 801 in the previous year and 239 in 2015-16. In the last school year, district data reports about 30 percent of tips were related to threats of on-campus violence. 

District officials have been working to improve student safety since voters approved a bond referendum in 2014 that included $55.4 million for safety and security upgrades. Many of the bond’s plans have already been implemented, and district officials have set aside an additional $1 million for safety initiatives for the 2018-19 school year.

Making schools safer

The $1.2 billion bond approved in 2014 included funding for the installation of emergency call stations at all secondary campuses, additional security cameras, card reader access devices, lockdown panic buttons and security vestibules at all district campuses, CFISD officials said.

Vestibules at front entrances—which will be installed at each campus by the end of 2018—feature bullet-resistant glass and buzzer door releases controlled by receptionists. These projects keep outside visitors from entering the school before signing in with photo identification at the front desk, Chief Operations Officer Roy Sprague said. 

Another new policy decision was made early this summer. On June 21, Superintendent Mark Henry announced all middle and high school students would be required to carry clear backpacks this academic year. These backpacks can be purchased at each secondary campus for $10 each, and economically disadvantaged students can access them for free.

“There’s only two or three things that we’re asking our students to do—wear their ID, if they’re a secondary student, use a clear backpack and then follow the dress code,” he said.

Julie Hinaman, who leads CFISD’s Community Leadership Committee—a group of community members who advocate at the state level for issues affecting the local public school system—said parents can be quick to express concern over changes.

Although Hinaman said some parents may balk at the new clear backpack policy or taking more time to check in when visiting campuses, she believes these steps can deter students from bringing dangerous items into schools and keep individuals wanting to cause harm from entering.

Officials are also studying the prospect of installing secure fencing around portable buildings, additional walls in open-concept schools, removing certain types of door handles and purchasing metal detectors, Sprague said.

Preventing threats in advance

Hinaman, who has two high school students in CFISD, said she believes the district has effectively made campuses more secure, but she would like to see an increased investment in mental health services.

However, she said because of stagnant state funding, she believes CFISD does not have enough resources to meet needs. The state’s portion of the district’s budget decreased from 50 percent in 2010-11 to about 40 percent in 2018-19, according to district data.

“My kids say they do feel like they can talk to their counselors, but they also acknowledge that the counselors are so busy working on scheduling or testing,” Hinaman said. “There are so many students assigned to each counselor. They’re doing the best they can, but we need more [resources].”

In his action plan, Abbott recommended better utilizing counseling resources and using behavioral threat assessment programs in schools. With more than 240 counselors in the district, officials said they have already been using these types of training programs.

However, CFISD officials are launching two districtwide mental health intervention teams in 2018-19, each consisting of two licensed professional counselors, one school psychologist and one mental health officer.

Traci Schluter, CFISD’s director of psychological services, said the teams will ensure students are supported by the district while including parents in the process. Duties may include initial screenings and follow-ups, individual counseling, consultation and referrals.

The district plans to educate parents throughout 2018-19, covering warning signs they can look for in their children and fighting misconceptions surrounding mental health, officials said.

“There’s never anything positive that comes out of tragedies like we saw last spring, but the one thing we did see is that people in high places were finally realized or made aware that we do have a mental health crisis in this country,” Henry said.

CFISD uses systems such as the Houston Fusion Center—which is operated by the Houston Police Department and gathers information on individuals deemed to pose a threat—and has its own tip line where students and community members can report concerns.

The district police department reviews each tip from the Cy-Fair Tipline, determines its validity and takes appropriate action, Police Chief Eric Mendez said.

Hinaman said school safety will likely be added as a top priority for the leadership committee heading into the 86th Texas Legislature that begins in January.

“I think it’s high on everyone’s list of priorities, and I’m hoping the Legislature will not just talk about it but actually look into how they can better fund the schools to address these issues—particularly mental health intervention,” she said.

A layered approach

Before Wasiq Javed graduated from Cypress Lakes High School earlier this year, he spoke before the CFISD board of trustees in April about the work he and several other students had done to advocate for safety on campuses.

Lakes for Lives launched in the midst of the national student-led March for Our Lives movement this spring. The group is now an official school club with 50 members.

Javed said he thinks having lockdown panic buttons in schools, students wearing ID badges, the Cy-Fair Tipline and secured entrances are all effective security measures. He said he would like to see violence prevention be implemented into the curriculum to teach students signs of potential violence to look for in their classmates, how to report concerns and how to proactively reach out to those classmates.

Javed said he wants to see continued focus on creating a positive culture by providing ways for troubled students to engage socially with peers or members of the community such as the mentorship program, which currently has about 700 volunteers meeting with students one-on-one each week.

“For those outliers who are isolated or those people who eat lunch alone—that mentor becomes an outlet for their problems,” he said.

Henry said no one approach to safety will be effective alone, but layering those efforts will help make schools in the district safer.

“If you held up a piece of Swiss cheese, there’s holes in that Swiss cheese,” Henry said. “But as you stack one slice on top of another, eventually you have a solid piece of cheese—and that’s our approach in Cy-Fair ISD.”