Nearly three months after the Santa Fe High School shooting near Houston left nine students and one teacher dead in May, school safety continues to be at the forefront on the minds of Katy-area parents, students and school officials who are gearing up for the 2018-19 school year.
Local school districts like Katy ISD, private schools and local elected officials have made swift responses to the rise in active shooters by implementing new policies that they hope will increase overall school safety and security.
“We are a reactive society, so when something bad happens then we think we’ll we need to do something about this,” KISD Police Chief Robert Jinks said. “Now it’s hit close to home with the Santa Fe incident, and so people in this area are saying, ‘Wait a minute, this can happen here.’”
KISD’s response to shootings
Active-shooter incidents have increased nationally since 2000, with 250 active-shooter incidents reported over the last 17 years. The U.S. saw 30 active-shooter incidents in 2017, the highest number ever recorded by the FBI during a one-year period, according to an FBI report. The number of incidents rose 50 percent between 2016 and 2017, alone.
According to local experts, it is typical for an active-shooter event to lead to an increase in terroristic threats to campuses. A terroristic threat is defined by the Texas Penal Code as a person who places the public or a substantial group of the public in fear of serious bodily injury.
After the Santa Fe, Texas incident in May, KISD saw a significant rise in terroristic threats and increased its police presence. In 2013, KISD reported a total of four terroristic threats the district responded to. By 2016 that number jumped to 34, and in 2018, it reached 53, according to a records request by Community Impact Newspaper.
“Any time you have these incidents, you are going to have an uptake in threats,” Jinks said.
The district is debuting several new security policies this school year. In late June, the district announced its launch of a new Bullying Prevention Campaign that lets students anonymously report bullying incidents through an online app.
As part of its 2017 bond, the district set aside $16.7 million solely for campus security upgrades.
“All of our schools are getting security upgrades of some sort,” Jinks said. “There are other security upgrades that we are putting in, but we don’t want other people to know that they are there … [because]somebody will figure a way around it.”
This school year, the district is also testing out a new social media monitoring threat service called Social Sentinel that scans 12 different social media sites for potential threats. Representatives from the KISD technology department said the service could help identify a potential shooter.
Another policy that debuts this school year requires secondary students to wear ID badges, and another policy requires only clear bags to be used at athletic events.
The clear bag regulation was announced in a release to parents Aug. 8, in which the district announced several other new policies, including a parent and visitor ID requirement and main entrance door unlock times.
Controlled access systems will unlock main entrance doors at a set time each morning, and students who are dropped off before the doors are open will not be able to enter a school.Police involvement in design
Another significant change KISD is making includes involving police on design plans for new buildings.
Jinks has worked for the KISD Police Department since 1984 and said it was not until recently that police were asked to help with design plans. Other Texas school districts are starting to involve their police chiefs in design plans thanks in part to a new committee formed by PBK Architects, a prominent firm that designs schools in multiple local districts, including KISD.
PBK Architects’ Texas School Safety & Security Council was created in late June to help local school district police chiefs collaborate with architecture representatives on best practices for implementing safer design plans.
“They have a useful voice, and we think that that’s the best voice to help districts do a more intelligent, stronger, more comprehensive job of doing safety and security planning,” PBK partner Ian Powell said.
The council held its second meeting Aug. 8 and met with local area police chiefs and school administrators to establish a list of recommendations for schools to consider implementing in design plans. Some of the recommendations discussed include facial recognition systems, weapons detection systems and remote lockdown hardware.
Interagency school efforts
Local private schools are also making changes to improve school security. Coy Martin, director of security at Faith West Academy in Katy, said he is working with local schools and law enforcement professionals to establish a board that will coordinate trainings.
“It would be a board of mostly law enforcement that can share their experience and let that school make a decision after they receive the best information that they can,” Martin said.
Candace Brawner, director of student life at the International British School of Houston in Katy, said she is working with Martin to engage the community. Brawner said she hopes to involve law enforcement, school districts like KISD, medical professionals and other first responders to develop regional emergency plans.
“We have to make interagency, multiple school efforts to support each other in this process,” Brawner said.
Addressing mental health
In late May after the Santa Fe shooting, Gov. Greg Abbott released his School and Firearm Safety Action Plan that contains 40 recommendations to increase school safety. Despite the $110 million price tag, local officials said the governor’s plan provides an all-inclusive approach.
“It’s designed to deal with the hardening of the schools, with the school marshal program [and]with mental health research,” state Rep. Mike Schofield, R-Katy, said.
Schofield stressed an important aspect to decreasing active-shooter incidents is to tackle mental health.
“We need to do a deep dive and find out what is it about the kid’s situation today that is leading them to go and commit acts of violence,” he said.
On Aug. 6, the Texas Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security released its final report to the 86th Legislature after two months of testimony from school officials, counselors and social workers.
Recommendations in the report push for more mental health-based solutions, including increasing the availability of school counselors, expanding mental health first-aid training and considering legislation to strengthen the state’s mental health system.
Other recommendations focused on hardening schools through additional security measures and increasing funding for the state’s school marshal program, which designates a trained professional to prevent the act of murder or serious bodily injury on school premises, according to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.
Local officials agreed one of the critical methods to addressing mental health and the rise in shootings is to encourage students to speak out.
“If you know a kid is having a problem no matter what it is, say something,” Jinks said. You might be saving someone’s life, so come forward.”
Additional reporting by Renee Yan