Preparedness

Will Your Kid's School be Safer This Fall? Here's What Educators Did After Mass Shootings

Weatherford students will know that some teachers and school employees likely are carrying concealed handguns.

by Diane Smith And Anna M. Tinsley, Fort Worth Star-Telegram / August 13, 2018


(TNS) - When Aledo and Joshua students head back to class, they’ll find police officers on their campus full time.

Weatherford students will know that some teachers and school employees likely are carrying concealed handguns.

And Fort Worth students will know police are monitoring school safety cameras in real time — and that school nurses are getting trained to treat victims of active shooters.

“We are consistently looking out for our kids,” said Susan Bohn, superintendent of Aledo schools, adding that teaching students in a safe environment is an everyday concern. “It’s never something that is out of our minds.”

This comes in the wake of mass school shootings last school year from Parkland, Florida, to Santa Fe, Texas.

Safety concerns subsided over the summer, but school officials locally and across the country worked to find ways to make students and teachers as safe as possible.

“It’s no surprise that things have been silent for a few months, it’s obviously because school’s out,” Anika Shah, a senior at Southlake Carroll Senior High School told the Star-Telegram in an email. “But now, students are back to being scared and wondering if they will come back home. Parents and teachers share the same fear. As far as change, I still feel as if much hasn’t been done.”

State lawmakers say they, too, are hearing from some worried parents and grandparents.

“Every parent is concerned for the safety of their child every moment of every day, and I can assure them that legislators — along with our local school districts — are working on many fronts to protect students,” said state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound.

Anyone else who has a safety concern should share it with the school district and elected officials, said state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie.

“Tell your children to tell you and their teachers if they see or hear something that is concerning,” he said.

An investment in safety

Santa Fe schools will be different than earlier this year, before the deadly high school shooting that left 10 dead and more than a dozen injured May 18.

Metal detectors donated to the district will be up and running before school starts Aug. 20. And officers who help patrol schools will soon be armed with eight donated AR-15s, rifle optics and ammunition.

“The children of Texas deserve safe schools,” said state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills. “Our hearts ached as we saw the terrible attack unfold in Santa Fe, and these acts of evil present a challenge we must tackle together — from families, school districts, churches, community organizations and local governments to the Texas Legislature.”

In North Texas, school districts have also been focused on helping their communities survive an active shooter. Some added more staff to address an array of issues outlined after the shootings in Parkland and Santa Fe, including safety experts, law enforcement officers and behavioral specialists.

Aledo and Mansfield schools, which have district police departments, have been adding officers to their forces. Aledo — which approved its first behavior interventionist to help with mental health issues of students — recently hired two and is working to hire a third. Aledo started a district police force in 2002 with one officer.

Joshua schools in Johnson County earlier this year added a police force to the district.

Also in Johnson County, Keene schools for several years have had a police force to protect four campuses. Chief Ronny Potts will patrol schools with reserve officers and a “guardian program,” made up of armed school officials, will help as well.

“We create layers of security,” Potts said.

In Mansfield, plans call for eventually having a police officer stationed at all 44 campuses. The district’s police force has 34 officers and plans to add six more this year.

“The safety and security of our students and staff are paramount to Mansfield ISD,” Superintendent Jim Vaszauskas said in a statement to the Star-Telegram. “We want to take every precaution to ensure our students and staff are safe.”

Districts are also hiring staff to oversee security efforts full time. Eagle Mountain-Saginaw schools, for example, hired a new director of safety and security.

Educators said districts communicate with each other and work with police and emergency management officials to monitor and improve school safety.

“This is not something schools can do alone and it is essential that we collaborate with our community partners,” said Superintendent Kent Scribner.

New technology

At the same time, expect more controlled entrances as districts allocate or use money for renovations at older schools or new building schools. These new areas feature security cameras and buzzers.

At Eagle Mountain-Saginaw schools a $524.7 million bond program includes funding to add controlled entrances at 11 campuses.

“This creates a controlled space that compels visitors to move through the office area to be screened before being allowed access to the rest of the school,” said Megan Overman, a spokeswoman for Eagle Mountain-Saginaw schools. “Only district personnel with badge access would be able to enter without going through the office first.”

And students and staff will continue to prepare for survival.

Fort Worth schools will roll out an active school shooter training video produced with Fort Worth police.

The district is also enhancing mental health training for counselors and teachers.

And Mansfield officials are looking at providing pepper spray — to be kept in a secure lockbox — for every classroom.

A Texas response

School safety is an issue many state lawmakers already are working on as well.

“The fact remains mass shootings are getting deadlier and deadlier,” said state Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth. “I find it unfortunate and incredulous that, in light of all the tragic and recent mass shootings on campuses, ... we lawmakers remain divided from a political party perspective on the issue of guns and public and school safety.”

After the fatal Santa Fe High School shooting, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott held a number of roundtable discussions and released a 40-point school safety plan geared to boost law enforcement at schools, use social media to prevent deadly shootings before they occur and potentially enact red flag laws.

The committee recently recommended potential legislation to give schools more funding for metal detectors, alarm systems, cameras, fusion centers, more school marshals and more.

Other recommendations included finding ways to boost the availability of school counselors and social workers, expanding the use of telemedicine and telepsychiatry to help children and legislation to boost the state’s mental health system.

Some testimony showed that mental health resources must be provided to students before violence erupts. But many worry that school counselors, like many others, have too many additional duties and don’t have enough time to help every student with mental health needs.

“Funding, expanding and piloting mental health programs and initiatives in schools will be a high priority for me going into the 86th Legislature,” Collier said.

Nelson, who heads the Senate Finance Committee, said she will “make sure that we have the resources necessary to make our schools safer and to continue our ongoing expansion of the mental health system.”

She plans to file bills including those to create psychiatry hotlines to help pediatricians working with youth with mental health needs and establish a mental health consortium with medical schools to promote best practices, research and more access to services.

Several lawmakers — including Nelson, state Sen. Konni Burton and more — say they won’t intrude on Texans’ gun rights.

“I enthusiastically support the 2nd Amendment and will not support limiting the ability of law-abiding citizens to own specific types of firearms currently available under state and federal law,” said Burton, R-Colleyville.

Working for safer schools

Many state lawmakers are looking ahead to the next legislative session, which begins in January.

State Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, said she heard the Richardson school district already has canceled classes on Election Day because some schools there will serve as polling sites. That might be a move that should be considered statewide, she said.

“It’s a smart thing,” Klick said. “There’s an influx of people on Election Day in those buildings. The right to vote is a federally protected right. But school districts have some flexibility in their calendars.”

Turner said he’s looking at ways to generate funds for school equipment and personnel to keep students and teachers safe. He also said schools need more options for when a student shows signs of destructive behavior.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, has been meeting with school superintendents in his district to determine what school safety needs they have.

And state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, said he, too, isn’t sure yet what school safety bills he might file next year. But he wants to see if he can address burgeoning technology needs.

“Are there ways with new technology that we could protect students and teachers when they are at school?” he asked. “We want to make sure we do something that’s effective and helps.

“We all have the same goal,” Krause said. “Maybe the strategy to get there varies, but this is something we all want. ... We need to take the appropriate steps to keep our kids safe.”

Burton said parents should talk to their children.

“Make time for your kids, be truly engaged and invest in their lives,” she said. “Know their habits, know what’s going on, know their friends, responsibly monitor their social media accounts and take any genuine concerns about their peers seriously.

“Ultimately, we must be accountable as parents.”

Texas lawmakers can start pre-filing bills for the next session on Nov. 12.

Student activists promise not to quit ‘this fight’

Student activists said they will be paying attention and have a list of issues they want addressed at the local school district level, as well as federal and state levels.

At Carroll schools, student activists plan to build on the efforts of their Students Demand Action group and urge 18-year-olds to take the issue to the polls in November.

“The movement is still in the hands of student and clubs but we are wanting it to excel to lawmakers and politicians,” Shah said, explaining that she favors federal and state level universal background checks on all gun sales and transfer of ownership.

“A national standard like this is very important because it makes the law uniform all across the states which I think is more effective,” said Shah, who also wants a ban on AR-15s.

Shah said Texas schools need to hire better counselors, be transparent about safety procedures, implement better reporting systems, and follow laws that require principals to provide high students access to voter registration.

“Students will definitely not be quitting this fight any time soon,” Shah said.

Diane Smith, 817-390-7675, @dianeasmith1

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley

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