“Our schools, they’re our No. 1 resources for the future, so we like to keep an eye on them,” said Chris Jones, chief of the Montgomery County Precinct 5 constable’s office.
After 17 people died during an active-shooter incident Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Tomball and Magnolia officials said they saw an uptick in the number of school-based threats and tips reported in the weeks that followed. However, the districts saw no violent incidents during that time.
“Right now, with some of the issues that came up with Florida, people are very sensitive to the alarms. We have had to partner with parents to investigate every situation to make sure there is safety involved,” said Rob Stewart, Magnolia ISD director of student services. “We haven’t had anything pan out as a serious issue. But it has made people feel really good because we are checking [threats] out.”
While officials said they believe Tomball and Magnolia schools are safe environments for students, law enforcement and district officials said multiple initiatives are on the books to improve school safety, including weekly safety audits, additional funding for safety features and practical exercises.
“In our community, we have good relationships with the parents. It’s all of us hearing and looking,” MISD Director of Communications Denise Meyers said. “As a student, if you see something that is not right, yes, you can tell the administration. We count on all of us working together for the safety of our schools.”
While Tomball and Magnolia ISDs have not seen a sustained increase in violent activity, Texas ranked No. 1 in the U.S. for the most school-based threats and violent incidents reported Feb. 15-28 with 61 instances, according to research from the Educator’s School Safety Network, a nonprofit organization specializing in safety training from an educational perspective.
For the 2016-17 school year, Texas ranked No. 4 in the nation—just behind California, Florida and Ohio—for the most school-based threats and incidents, according to ESSN research.
“Texas consistently has been a state of concern for us in terms of it being somewhere up in that Top 10, and some of that is the nature of the fact that it’s a big state, a lot of people [and] a lot of stuff happens,” ESSN founder Amy Klinger said.
While Texas had the seventh-most threats and violent incidents nationwide in fall 2017, Klinger said there has been an uptick in violent school-based activity across the U.S. since 2016.
“When we compared the fall of 2016 to the fall of 2017, we found that there was a 12 percent increase in threats [nationally], which was somewhat alarming. But even more scary is there was a 59 percent increase in violent incidents nationally,” she said.
Jones said the number of school-based threats and arrests went up in Magnolia in mid-February following the school shooting in Florida. Throughout Precinct 5 and the county, a zero tolerance policy was adopted.
“We had to do some investigations. We had to arrest some juveniles, but once that happened, it spread pretty quick that these [threats] aren’t jokes anymore, and it’s serious. We haven’t had any threats recently on it,” he said.
The Tomball Police Department arrested one high school student in Tomball ISD in mid-February for making a threat on his Facebook page toward a TISD school, Chief Billy Tidwell said. The student was charged with a felony crime. No other arrests have been made, although multiple school-based threats were investigated earlier this spring in February and March, he said.
“Even if you show a gun on your Facebook account and you make a threat with that toward a school, that’s a felony. You can’t do that. You can’t make threats,” Tidwell said. “We and the school [district] do monitor these things, and I feel like honestly we have a safe environment.”
As required by the Texas Education Code, each school district must adopt and implement a multihazard emergency operations plan to mitigate, prepare for, respond to and recover from crisis events.
The plan requirement was added in 2005 and also requires school districts to conduct a safety and security audit of the district’s facilities at least once every three years, reporting the results of the audit to the Texas School Safety Center. However, specific details of safety procedures cannot be released for security reasons, district officials said.
While law enforcement agencies, such as the Magnolia Police Department and Harris County Precinct 4 constable’s office, may respond to a school crisis within their respective jurisdiction, both Tomball and Magnolia ISDs have School Resource Officer partnerships.
The Montgomery County Precinct 5 constable’s office partners with MISD to provide eight SROs to the district’s 15 campuses, Jones said. TPD provides five total SROs at TISD high school and junior high campuses and an additional SRO at Concordia Lutheran High School, Tidwell said.
“Just having that presence there can deter something and help respond to anything that was to happen [in school],” Jones said.
For the 2017-18 school year, TISD invested $373,000 in its SRO program. The district expects to spend $385,000 to continue the program for the 2018-19 school year, TISD officials said.
MISD spends $675,000 annually to fund its SRO program with an additional $90,000 investment planned for the upcoming school year, Meyers said.
In MISD, Montgomery County Precinct 5 constable’s officers conduct weekly safety audits on every building within the district, which includes checking for small safety hazards, such as broken door locks and cracked windows, Stewart said. Additionally, each district has security cameras and performs various emergency response drills throughout the school year, including lockdown, shelter-in-place and severe weather drills, officials said.
In MISD, there are 430 cameras—some of which were added by funds from the district’s $92 million bond referendum approved by voters in 2015, district officials said. The bond referendum included $500,000 for security updates.
TISD officials said an undetermined amount of funds from its $275 million bond referendum approved by voters last year are earmarked for school security improvements as well. Additionally, the district has security cameras installed at each of its campuses.
“Tomball ISD has not committed any bond funds yet, but we are conducting research on different systems and have met with consultants regarding school security improvements,” TISD spokesperson Justin Warnasch said.
As the districts continue to audit school safety and security, Tomball and Magnolia ISDs have streamlined communication within each district by using Anonymous Alerts, a mobile application and web-based form. Students or parents can anonymously report suspicious activity, bullying or student issues to district officials by completing the form.
“Parents or students may report threats through the Anonymous Alerts app, which is located in the homepage of the district website,” TISD Chief Administrative Office Chris Trotter said. “Another option for reporting threats is to meet on campus with a campus administrator.”
The alert system is monitored daily when school is in session.
“Students must actively participate in making sure their environment is safe,” Meyers said.
To keep Tomball and Magnolia schools safe, local officials emphasized better communication between parent and child.
“My big thing is [to] communicate,” said Billy Masden, captain of the Montgomery County Precinct 5 constable’s office. “See what’s happening. If there’s anything abnormal, let us know. If you see something happening, [or] if you hear something, let us know.”
To better prepare area law enforcement, rapid response training sessions are planned this summer in Precinct 5, Jones said. TPD is also working to roll out a practical exercise this fall to gauge the department’s emergency response capabilities.
“We’re working with our officers on some shooting scenarios, and we’re hoping to do by the end of the year a full-blown practical exercise with the school, the fire department and public works so that we kind of run through some scenarios and see if our procedures are working,” Tidwell said.
In addition to SROs on campus, the Texas Education and penal codes allow boards of trustees to appoint district employees to serve as school marshals or authorized eligible individuals to serve as armed guardians. The rule is an exemption to Texas law stating all weapons are prohibited on school campuses. However, trustees in Tomball and Magnolia ISDs have not moved to allow employees to carry firearms on campus, officials said.
“There is a lot of people who want that [to change],” Stewart said. “There is some good things and bad things that can happen. Before we do anything, we need to sit back and determine if it really gets us safer. And, if it gets us safer, I am sure [the board] will consider it. If it doesn’t, they will not.”
Stewart also said the district is considering manning the guard shafts at the front entrances to each high school and modifying its nighttime surveillance and visitor policies. Next fall, the district will also conduct consistent bag checks at sporting events.
“Everything is up for decision and debate,” he said. “We have a responsibility to provide a quality education in the most secure environment without stepping into a lockdown. It’s a delicate balance to providing sensible safety solutions that do what they need to do and allow kids to be kids.”
Additional reporting by Tierra Smith