Conroe ISD officials are increasing safety and security measures on district campuses as well as expanding mental health offerings for students and staff as the 2022-23 school year gets underway.

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

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; there is no question about it. I wish it was not that way, but it is.”

Evan Roberson, executive director of Tri-County Behavioral Health, said the demand for mental health services at CISD has also risen.

“Demand is high for services across our service area, regardless of age,” Roberson said.

Adapting security

According to Blakelock, parents and students were worried in the final days of the 2021-22 school year after the Uvalde shooting, which killed 19 students and two teachers.

“The last few days of school last year, we had parents dropping their kids off, and the parents were crying,” Blakelock said. “They were very scared, and they were very upset.”

The number of active shooter incidents—which include schools and other populated locations—across the country has risen over the past two years, according to the FBI. An FBI active shooter report comparing 2020 to 2021 stated the number of shootings increased from 40 in 19 states to 61 in 30 states. The report also states the number of casualties excluding shooters increased from 164 to 243, and the total number of people killed increased from 38 to 103.

One security update that has been accomplished over the past year was an overhaul to the district’s radio systems. When completed, the bond-funded initiative is 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 the school 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.

“Now we have the capability with our new radio system. ... It affords us to have more channels we can use and more people able to communicate across campus,” Blakelock said.

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

“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,” Blakelock said.

Blakelock said along with filling vacancies, he wants to hire additional school resource officers and has been authorized to continue hiring as long as he can find qualified individuals to serve in the district. The minimum starting pay for an officer is $50,142.

Mamie Prejean, CISD coordinator of guidance and counseling, said officers with the CISD police department receive mental health first aid as part of their training.

Canady said he believes the role of student resource officers is not for everybody.

“They have to be specifically trained. Some of the things we focus on is training them to respond to violent situations,” Canady said. “They are working with students every day, so they have to understand adolescents are going through the second-most brain development in their lives, and that affects how they react to things.”

Ongoing and future developments

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 The Woodlands area, College Park High School, Glen Loch Elementary School, Oak Ridge High School and The Woodlands High School are among the campuses that will see improvements, including upgraded security cameras, extended radio signal amplifiers, limited access to doors and the addition of emergency generators.

The Woodlands High School will see $1.87 million in improvements; College Park High School is slated for $1.37 million in improvements; and Oak Ridge High School, including the ninth-grade campus, is slated for $1.82 million in upgrades.

A total of $30 million of the $44.5 million of bond funds for safety and security projects is earmarked for annual projects until 2024.

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 current 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.

Access to mental health services

With an increased need to create a safe, secure school environment comes additional mental health stress, officials said. In an effort to increase the mental health service offerings for students and staff, CISD has partnered with Tri-County Behavioral Health with four clinics in the Caney Creek and Conroe feeder zones.

The district has also 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 information from the district, counseling services encompass academic as well as social and emotional needs.

Roberson said students have been struggling with anxiety, depression and trauma, and he is expecting to see more general anxiety from students about going into a classroom following Uvalde.

According to a March report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 37% of high school students reported poor mental health in 2021, and 44% reported they felt sad or hopeless during the year.“

They are still trying to figure out how to manage appropriately,” Roberson said. “We have been very busy for years. 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 stuff to do it all, but the demand is very high.”

Roberson said the Texas Legislature put funding into creating the Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine program in 2019. Part of the program includes training more child psychiatrists, and TCBH is working to bring residential rotations for local training, although the planned fall timeline is anticipated to be missed as of July 29.

However, Roberson added there have been difficulties in filling vacancies at TCBH with 27% of positions being open as of July 29.

Roberson said he believes CISD has taken a deliberate approach to keeping the school system safe.“They are always working to improve their plan,” he said. “But it is difficult, probably impossible, to eliminate all risk.”