Area school districts seek security upgrades

Hays CISD and Dripping Springs ISD administrators breathed a large sigh of relief when they officially graduated the 2018 senior class last week.

Part of that stemmed from the normal rigors of working in public education. Tim Savoy, Hays CISD public information officer, said the relief of avoiding a mass-casualty incident is part of a new reality.

Following a pair of tragic school shootings in the last six months, administrators in both districts seek to beef up security to keep students safe. It’s part of new statewide initiative, anchored by a 40-point plan from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, aiming to prevent the occurrence of incidents such as the Santa Fe High mass shooting.

“I applaud the Governor to come up with an action plan that’s not targeting one thing, because there are so many variables involved here,” said Eric Wright, Hays CISD superintendent. “They’re proactive and reactive and we are all in it together.”

Abbott’s plan, unveiled at the end of May, involves several possible measures, including closing loopholes in existing gun laws, according to a Texas Tribune report. Abbott seeks to report felony convictions, mental health adjudications and protective orders against people within 48 hours instead of 30 days.

Additionally, Abbott’s plan involves school districts and law enforcement officials working more closely together. One aspect is increasing the number of officers and armed marshals on campuses. Abbott’s plan also seeks to improve mental and behavioral health programs at schools, as well as increase social media screening for possible threats.

Wright said Abbott referenced Hays County’s Emergency Response Protocol, which has been in place since 2013. Savoy said prior to implementation of the plan, each district in Hays County used different terminology and did not have a uniform system.

With the plan, emergency officials from across the county can provide assistance in the event of an emergency, Savoy said.

“A need was identified to have uniform and common language among school districts and law enforcement,” Savoy said. “You want them to be on the same page and speaking the same language.”

Bruce Gearing, Dripping Springs ISD superintendent, said that, like other districts in the county, Dripping Springs regularly conducts drills associated with the county’s response plan. Gearing said DSISD has a strong relationship with emergency services in the area.

“We’ve been involved in (the plan) from the beginning,” Gearing said. “We are hopefully a leader in the state in helping other school districts in understanding how to implement these protocols.”

The Santa Fe High shooting, along with the Feb. 14 shooting at Stoneman Douglas High in Florida, is pushing both local school districts to enact more stringent safety measures starting next school year.

Wright said the district is “working out quotes” to place new security measures in schools that don’t already have them. That includes installation of a buzzer system within the front office of some campuses, along with changing of locks. Hays CISD is also contemplating the installation of video systems, which will relay a live-feed to the front office of campuses.

Other physical measures include the possible installation of non-breakable window film on some campuses, as well as the possible hiring of 16 school resource officers (SROs) for all district elementary schools. The latter proposal could require Hays CISD to hold an election to raise its maintenance and operations tax rate beyond the state maximum of $1.04 per $100 valuation.

Improving mental health of students and staff is also a point of focus for Hays CISD. Wright said one aspect is beefing up social and emotional learning and outreach for students and staff, along with revamping the Hays Hopeline to include anonymous reporting of threats. The district is currently employing tactics to screen and monitor social media traffic for any possible threats.

Wright said the district will also focus on making sure all students in the district take part in extracurricular activities. Savoy said most school shooting suspects may not be just bullied, but may feel invisible or undervalued.

“There are so many opportunities to have students connected to the group,” Savoy said. “We’re going to hit 20,000 students by next school year. We don’t want them to feel lost.”

Gearing said Dripping Springs ISD has placed a strong focus on social and emotional learning over the past year. The district hired a third party consultant to recommend paths for the process. Gearing said the end goal is creating a personalized learning plan for students and ensure who they are on an individual basis. This goes along with the possible hire of more SROs, as well as other security improvement measures to be made over the summer.

“We want to make sure faculty and students are doing well,” Gearing said.

Paying for it all, however, remains a big question mark for all districts. Wright said Hays CISD is waiting to see if state funding could be allocated for security improvements, or if there is the possibility of competitive grants.

But Gearing said the idiom of “it takes a village to raise a child” is true in today’s society. Communication, as well as safety at home, are critical aspects for the future.

“It takes parents working in tandem with us with their children to make sure we’re not missing something,” Gearing said.

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