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Threats to San Antonio Schools More Than Doubled in 2022

Asked for numbers, officials at many San Antonio-area school districts have declined to say how many lockdowns their campuses endured this year or what triggered them — actual threats, false rumors or outright hoaxes.

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(TNS) - On the afternoon of Dec. 1, the safety and security committee for Judson Independent School District held its quarterly meeting in a district office boardroom.

A three-minute drive down the road, Kitty Hawk Middle School was on full lockdown.

Police had been told of a student with a gun and shots fired in the gymnasium. That turned out to be false, but at the time, Judson ISD's new director for safety and security, Jesus Hernandez, could only say he was aware of it and had "all the right people" working on it.

The meeting continued, with officials and police officers from neighboring cities, clergy representatives and school board members present.

As they opened their binders to discuss Judson's emergency protocols, parents were arriving at Kitty Hawk, frantically checking on their kids as police searched classrooms. By the time the meeting adjourned two hours later, students had been released and the school was clear.

The next day, at Judson Middle School, it happened again. Another report of a weapon, another lockdown, another assembly of worried parents. Another false alarm.

Asked for numbers, officials at many San Antonio -area school districts have declined to say how many lockdowns their campuses endured this year or what triggered them — actual threats or dangerous situations, false rumors reported to the authorities in good faith or outright hoaxes.

But the San Antonio Police Department's Southwest Texas Fusion Center collected data on threats to area schools, including hoaxes, that added up to 202 incidents in 2022, more than double the 79 recorded in 2021.

District officials say they don't believe the overall danger to schools has changed but that students, parents and educators — more anxious and aware after the May 24 mass shooting in Uvalde— are much more willing to relay their suspicions. They also have new reporting avenues available.

The Kitty Hawk lockdown began with an altercation between two students. The school checked out a report that one student might have had a weapon but found none. As administrators prepared to send a note to families, more reports came in, along with a call to the Universal City Police Department alleging that shots had been fired.

In an email to parents when the lockdown was over, Principal Shearil Hall said students and staff "did an incredible job staying calm and following directives during the lockdown."

But parents who took to Facebook and other social media repeated a confusing mix of information from their students' texts and online chatter.

The resulting crowd that gathered outside the school was still far more orderly than the one in which scores of parents confronted police outside Jefferson High School in Septemberin a meltdown that authorities are still trying to learn from.

Among the challenges — perhaps impossible — is the need to alert parents quickly about rapidly changing situations.

On Dec. 2, Judson Middle School experienced not one lockdown, but two. The first, a drill, was a "perimeter lockdown," a fairly common response to possible danger outside school grounds. The real lockdown that afternoon was only 15 minutes old when Principal Kayone Carter sent the first message announcing it to parents.

"All students are safe and we will start dismissal soon. More information will be sent out. Thank you for your patience at this time," she wrote.

The note didn't mention what emerged later: An "identified individual" had been suspected of carrying a weapon but was searched and none was found, according to a summary later released by the school district's communications team. Versions of that story were soon circulating on social media.

Judson High School, meanwhile, went into a perimeter lockdown at the same time because of "activity in the surrounding area," Principal Richard Mendoza told parents in an email.

Parents called the official briefings inadequate and lamented that students in schools feel more targeted than ever.

One mother wrote on Facebook that her son, a JMS student, sent her a text about the weapon report, and it "shook me to the core."

Students in and around San Antonio, including in younger elementary grades, feel an increased responsibility to report something when they are concerned, several school officials said.

"There is an onus for them to keep the community and schools safe," said Hernandez, the Judson security director. "It's a level of maturity with students of any age I haven't seen in a long time."

It's good that they're taking their safety more seriously, but the underlying cause is fear, much of it reverberating from the tragedy in Uvalde, district officials agreed.

And parents feel that fear, too, in light of the poor police response to the Uvalde gunman. For many, trust in school security has waned.

Fast-paced fear

On Dec. 13, in Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City ISD, an 8-year-old brought a loaded handgun to Rose Garden Elementary School, showing it off in a backpack during lunch to another student — who immediately reported it. A search of the gun carrier also turned up two knives. An investigation is ongoing.

In mid-November, Central Catholic High School underwent a "hoax active shooter alert" stemming from a "prank phone call," according to a news release sent out after the incident. Students were placed on lockdown until San Antonio police cleared the building, classroom by classroom. Through a spokeswoman, school officials declined an interview request.

San Antonio ISD campuses have gone through more threats since the highly publicized chaos outside Jefferson High School, the district's police chief, Johnny Reyes, said, including reports — unconfirmed — of a man seen near Hillcrest Elementary School carrying a machine gun.

"We secured the perimeter security inside, ensured that this guy was not walking around anywhere" and then communicated with parents, Reyes said.

"Now, what we have to be prepared for: 'What (is) the parents' response going to be?'" Reyes said.

Some districts have decided to be more selective about letting parents know, including the crucible of this year's security debate, Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District. The district received eight terroristic threats in December and seven in November, according to its monthly student discipline report, two and three more than in the previous year, respectively.

But Uvalde CISD administrators often won't alert families and unnecessarily alarm the community if they determine that a verbal threat is not credible, and they limit messages to parents to "issues that we think are serious concerns," said interim Superintendent Gary Patterson.

"We aren't going to call a lot of attention to that, because it is just like the 'cry wolf' thing," he said. "They might be doing it for attention, so we aren't going to give them a lot of attention."

The exception is if the alleged threat catches fire on social media. If so, the district will send out communications to try to debunk it.

Social media's role as a channel for threats or an arena that can embellish and amplify them can quickly get out of hand, said Brandon Oliver, communications director at East Central ISD.

"I've seen it go from zero to 60 miles an hour in like, half a second. Like, 'My kid said this,' and here comes all these comments," Oliver said. "A lot of that is just rumors, kids being kids."

Because of this, East Central has stopped posting information publicly to social media platforms, instead relying on "one-way" communication to families via email and phone. Other districts are moving to put more information on social media, not less.

School districts must take every threat seriously, but no lockdown is without consequences, including loss of learning time. When threats are aired, some parents keep their children home, sometimes for days, which poses a problem because "attendance and success go hand in hand," Oliver said.

Some parents have described traumatized kids unable to access their phones or forced to ride out a lockdown in a bathroom, if the procedure began while they were outside of a classroom.

The fear among students and staff is real.

"My kids have anxiety, they are going to counseling, they are getting help, but when someone makes a threat, and they hear about it, it's hard," said Uvalde first-grade teacher April Elrod, who lost her daughter Makenna Elrod, 10, in the May 24 shooting that killed
19 students and two teachers. "When I've heard (about a threat), I've not let them go to school that day."

Teachers have learned techniques to help calm their students during these scares. At Briscoe Elementary School in SAISD, art teacher Krista Powell teaches her students deep breathing exercises, and she used it during a lockdown that occurred the week after the tragedy in Uvalde.

"We weren't in danger, but in the moment we didn't know," Powell said. "I had a group of fifth-graders, and I was scared. They were scared. We had the tables up on the side. I whispered to the group, and I said, 'I'm gonna take some deep breaths. And if you want to take deep breaths with me, you can.' And because we had this culture in the classroom, it was easy to lean on."

To ease the potential trauma in an already traumatized community, Uvalde CISD made it a policy to tell teachers when lockdown drills are going to occur. That will end in February, because lockdowns should be practiced "organically" to really be effective. The district is building a security center to centralize its monitoring of campus cameras and keep an eye on social media using search software.

"Social media is a moving target," Patterson said. "The detection of disruptive behavior and language is still a work in progress, and I think we are making strides in that area, but not near as fast as the technology is advancing and changing."

Preparedness vs. distrust

In the coming year, East Central ISD will hold active shooter training at its campuses, and it will coordinate future training with Uvalde CISD officers. East Central and Judson have significant security upgrades on the way thanks to successful bond elections Nov. 8.

As the "point person" for security at Judson, Hernandez is working on a detailed crisis response guide, in addition to the already-written emergency plan, and wants to streamline the language used. Soon, he hopes to implement the I Love You Guys Foundation response plan, something that has been adopted across the country and by many area districts.

Converse City Manager Ronnie Guest, offering his take on Judson's plans at the Dec. 1 security meeting, noted that he lost a nephew to gun violence in 2000 and has a granddaughter attending school in the district.

"I worry about the same things," he said. "I take this seriously."

But the melee at Jefferson High School hangs over all such discussions. It followed a by-now familiar trajectory: A fight between students that ended without major incident became the source of reports of a gun being pulled, then a gun being fired, which circulated among students, then parents, on their phones.

There was no gun. As police methodically searched classrooms so they could end the lockdown that resulted and release the school's 1,700 students, angry parents — including a man who injured his hand on a glass door — tried to get past some of the 87 officers from the district and the SAPD who responded.

A majority of the parents stayed back and waited patiently.

Reyes, the SAISD police chief, said his department has been working on how to respond to these situations for more than 20 years, but "no one walks around today without a cellphone in their hand," and the district has to get accurate information out as quickly as possible without adding to already circulating noise and rumors.

"And that's what we're working towards," Reyes said. "We're making a big push now, to possibly push things out on Twitter, and push things out on Facebook, because those are probably the biggest platforms of social media that everybody has."

School administrators and police cannot stop parents from coming to a locked-down campus, but they can communicate with them clearly, give them direction and hope they listen, Hernandez said.

In an early December post on Judson's Facebook page, Rene Newbauer Brown asked if parents should go to campuses at all when a lockdown occurs. The commenters argued in 65 responses.

Some said parents could hinder the ability to clear a campus safely or could be sitting ducks in a real active shooter situation. Others said they had to respond to parental instinct. And when students are released directly into the embrace of parents or caregivers, that, for many, is reason enough to be there.

One commenter ended the thread with a reminder of why parents were dubious about schools telling them not to try to enter the building during a lockdown.

"Because in Uvalde," wrote Veronica Billingham, a parent in Judson ISD, "no one went in."

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