State of Texas, Lake Houston-area school districts look for safety solutions following rising threats

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State, local school districts look for safety solutions
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State, local school districts look for safety solutions
In light of active-shooter incidents that took place in Florida and Santa Fe, Texas, earlier this year, state officials and school districts are trying to find ways to improve school safety.

In May, after the shooting at Santa Fe High School, Gov. Greg Abbott released his School and Firearm Safety Action Plan, in which he called for measures he believes will improve school safety.

Shortly after Abbott released his plan, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick appointed the Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security to examine different aspects of school safety and security. After four public hearings, the committee released a report on its findings in August, which includes recommendations on legislation for the legislative session that begins in January.

While the state is looking for ways to improve school safety and security, so, too, are Humble and
New Caney ISDs. For example, HISD added eight police officer and security positions to its staff for the 2018-19 school year, which began Aug. 20, along with other improvements.

“We know that the most important safety feature—outside of sharing of important information and tips to proactively disrupt a threat—is an armed, trained police officer who is prepared to defend our students and staff at all cost,” HISD Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen said.

Local efforts

Although officials said school shootings are a rare occurrence, the number of school-based threats made is increasing statewide. According to data from the Texas Education Agency, the number of terroristic threats made in schools increased 70.28 percent from the 2011-12 school year to the 2016-17 school year.

Also, during the 2016-17 school year—which is the most current data available—the TEA recorded the highest number of incidents of students reportedly bringing knives or firearms onto school property over the last six years. During that school year, the agency recorded 184 and 305 incidents of students bringing firearms and knives to schools, respectively.

Additionally, Fagen said HISD experienced a sharp increase in terroristic threats this year following the shooting at Santa Fe High School. HISD recorded 16 threats during the 2017-18 school year, after recording seven during the 2016-17 school year—an increase of 128.57 percent.

While these increases are occurring across the state, HISD officials are funding school safety and security measures across the district. According to documents from the Aug. 14 HISD board of trustees meeting, the district is using almost $3 million from the district’s $575 million bond program—which was approved by voters in May—to complete security projects throughout the district.

One of the projects being funded by the bond program is the addition of vestibules—which provide a barrier between the school’s front lobby and the rest of the school—to campuses that do not have them, which is being completed throughout the 2018-19 school year. HISD Public Communications Director Jamie Mount said the district is also installing visitor intercom systems at all of its elementary schools.

“The intercom system allows staff to interact with visitors from a protected place,” Mount said. “At some schools, office staff interacts through video. At other schools, office staff talks through a transparent wall.”

Along with physical enhancements to its schools, HISD is expanding its police presence. The addition of eight officers to the district’s police department prior to the 2018-19 school year brings the district’s total to 60. Mount said the officers are responsible for investigating tips related to student safety, conducting investigations and providing security at district events.

Scott Powers, NCISD public relations executive director, said the district added one new police officer to its department in August 2017, bringing the department’s total to 12. He said district officials are also constantly updating NCISD’s emergency operations plan that addresses emergency mitigation and prevention.

Along with school districts, local law enforcement agencies are also focusing on school safety. Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said 300 deputies from his office will patrol all school districts within the precinct—including HISD—throughout the school year.

“We will literally be working traffic enforcement in some school zones where [ISD police officers] are not, [and] we will be walking schools where they are not,” Herman said.

State solutions

The Senate committee’s August report makes numerous recommendations on how the Legislature can address school security when it is in session next year.

Some of the recommendations include providing school districts with funding to enhance physical aspects of schools—such as additional metal detectors; providing school districts with funding for additional security personnel; and finding methods to increase the availability of school counselors, social workers and licensed specialists in school psychology in schools.

Most of the recommendations call for the Legislature to consider bills that would allocate additional funding to school districts; however, in recent years many school districts—including HISD—have seen the state’s share of their total revenue decrease.

The state’s share of HISD’s total revenue decreased from 46.66 percent for the 2013-14 school year to 40.85 percent for the 2018-19 school year, according to HISD budget documents.

Morgan Craven, school-to-prison pipeline director at Texas Appleseed, said she is encouraged by the committee’s recommendation regarding school counselors.

“Counselors—when they’re focused on counseling and not just academic or career readiness—and social workers and [Licensed Specialists in School Psychology] can really help to identify problems early on and just set a general schoolwide culture of openness and relationship building,” Craven said.

However, Craven—who spoke at one of the committee hearings—said she would have liked to see a recommendation included in the report related to districts implementing a threat assessment model when addressing school safety.

The U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Homeland Security released a report in July presenting the threat-based assessment as their recommended approach to school safety. According to the report, this approach relies on learning about a student’s behaviors, the stressful events the student has experienced and the resources the student can access to overcome those challenges.

Kathy Martinez-Prather, Texas School Safety Center director, said this threat-based approach is effective partly because it creates open relationships between teachers and students. The center was created by the Legislature in 1999 to research school safety and provide training to school districts.

“There’s been a lot of research that this approach works and it ... improves school climate in terms of empowering educators, empowers students to trust they are in an environment where they have those support systems in place,” Martinez-Prather said.

For more local education news, please see all of the (local stories from our Education Focus edition).
By Zac Ezzone
Zac Ezzone began his career as a journalist in northeast Ohio, where he freelanced for a statewide magazine and local newspaper. In April 2017, he moved from Ohio to Texas to join Community Impact Newspaper. He worked as a reporter for the Spring-Klein edition for more than a year before becoming the editor of the Lake Houston-Humble-Kingwood edition.


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