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With campus safety law starting Sept. 1, how are Denton schools adapting to new security measures?

Jun 09, 2023

Starting Friday, all Texas public schools are supposed to have an armed security officer on each campus to comply with House Bill 3, a sweeping school safety law passed in response to the deadly mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde.

The new law requires a number of changes for public education officials in the state and at local districts. Chief among them is the new requirement to have an armed security officer on every Texas public school campus.

Jeff Russell, Denton ISD’s area superintendent of academic programs, has helped lead the district’s preparations to comply with the bill. The district has a safety committee that includes law enforcement, school officials and community members.

Local families are already familiar with some of the district’s long-standing security protocols. There’s one way into schools for visitors, who have to show their driver’s license or official ID to get into the buildings. Visitors also inform the office staff who they want to see and why they are on campus.

“HB 3 has provided some facility standards that, for many years, we have had in our own district,” Russell said. “We’ve had security vestibules requiring visual identification. We’ve added impact-resistant film where we felt that was needed for our campuses. All of our campuses have a campus numbering site plan for our first responders when there is an issue. We’ve had a visitors check-in system that’s aligned throughout our district.”

Russell said campuses have also had 911 alert systems for each classroom prior to the new law.

Denton ISD has some features that go beyond the new law’s requirements, such as 24-hour video monitoring through video surveillance. At Denton schools, there are cameras inside and outside the buildings and in the stadiums. A cellphone app allows first responders to communicate with school officials during an emergency.

Denton ISD has had a robust student resource officer corps across the district, too. Resource officers are peace officers who work for local police departments and are assigned to a campus.

Russell said there were two pieces of House Bill 3 the district didn’t have.

“One is the panic buttons,” Russell said. “We didn’t have panic buttons because we had 911 access, and the panic buttons are an added piece that we’ve started through technology partners. The next piece is armed security personnel.”

The district has added impact-resistant film to school windows, a measure that would slow down someone who tries to break or shoot through a window — although a dogged assailant could still breach a building through a window treated with the film. The district is looking to fortify some parts of its buildings by adding ballistic glass, commonly referred to as “bulletproof” glass.

The state offers public schools three different avenues to bring armed security to campuses. Districts can hire student resource officers, which Denton ISD has in all of its secondary schools and many of its elementary schools. Districts can also employ a certified peace officer — someone who has served as a police officer. Finally, districts can have a school district peace officer, who wouldn’t be required to work for a police department.

Part of the rub with putting armed security at all campuses, Russell said, is the cost. Denton ISD needs about 20 security officials to comply with the law.

The state is giving school districts $15,000 per campus and an additional 20 cents per student.

“That’s roughly $700,000,” Russell said. “The personnel piece alone would require $2.3 million to fulfill the expectations of the state.”

In a previous interview, Wilson said relying on the $15,000 from the state would pay a security officer less than it pays its bus drivers.

Russell said the district will move to have student resource officers “rove” to support schools nearby. Denton ISD has several campus complexes where an elementary school and a middle school are across the street from each other.

But like other Texas districts, Denton ISD is looking for peace officers at a time when police departments across the country are understaffed. Russell said Dallas ISD alone needs an additional 167 officers to fulfill its legal obligations by Sept. 1.

The Denton school board voted this month to modify the district’s policies to allow security officers to carry firearms on campuses.

“The reason it’s important that we established the school security officers in this way is so that we can we can look at experienced retired law enforcement officers to possibly fill these roles for us,” Wilson said.

An ideal pipeline would be for a police officer with two decades or more of experience to retire with municipal benefits and move into a security position with the district, Wilson said.

“In working with our chiefs, our departments we worked with they really felt like this was the best option for us,” Wilson said.

The district will apply for a “good cause exception” because the district lacks funding and personnel to comply with the law.

“There is no HB 3, pardon the pun, police coming to look and see how these things worked out,” Wilson said. “A lot of communities do things a lot of different ways. We’re striving for some excellence and some different kinds of skill sets that we’re looking for. The buck stops with the board.”

While Texas private schools aren’t required to comply with HB 3, they aren’t shrugging off the dangers of school violence. The Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth announced earlier this month that all 17 Catholic schools in its territory would start the year with enhanced security for the second year.

Immaculate Conception Catholic School in Denton is among them.

What is “enhanced security”? It’s not much different than what communities find at public school campuses. It means police officers on campus, who are also called student resource officers.

““The best form of security is for students to have a police officer on campus if anything happens,” Brinton Smith, the Fort Worth Catholic schools superintendent, said in a statement. “As much as we appreciate technical security, like cameras and door [access controls], you can’t do any better than having a police officer on campus.”

Diocese officials said increased security on campuses became a higher priority after Bishop Michael F. Olson hired retired Lewisville police officer Mike Short as the diocese’s director of security.

Like their public school peers, diocese schools also added impact-resistant film on school windows, more security cameras and technology that helps first responders. Where it’s feasible, the diocese’s campuses have added fencing.

Texas charter schools aren’t required to have armed security on campus, but that doesn’t mean their campuses don’t have security officers on site.

North Texas Collegiate Academy, a charter school with campuses in Denton, Lewisville and Little Elm, has what it calls the Guardian Plan. Each campus has a trained staff member on campus — who might be armed — who completes a psychological and agility screening in addition to a yearly training that includes physical training and simulations. The annual training takes place over several days.

The charter school implemented a comprehensive crisis shooter response system called SafeDefend for the 2023 school year to prepare for an active shooter situation.

Earlier this month, staff and faculty from all three campuses gathered in a private room at Zera Coffee in Denton for their annual convocation. One day was dedicated to SafeDefend training with Greg Vecchi, the retired chief of the FBI Behavioral Science Unit and a longtime hostage negotiator.

SafeDefend is part technology — a notification system that alerts first responders and devices to help school staff access safety tools and equipment — and part training to teach school staff and faculty to overcome their instincts. North Texas Collegiate Academy is the first school in Texas to buy the SafeDefend system.

Vecchi told teachers that once a school and its classrooms lock down, they will stay locked down for hours. And that if they see a student or colleague wounded, they should leave them and continue with protocol. Vecchi also explained that once a classroom is locked down, staff members shouldn’t open the door to a child stranded in the hallway, but instead follow protocol to direct the student to safety.

Teachers murmured and stared when Vecchi explained that stopping to render aid to a fallen student or colleague would expose them and students in their charge to harm.

“If you’re evacuating a building and you see officers running into the building, you’ll notice they have their weapons drawn and won’t stop to help anyone on the ground. Their mission is to neutralize the threat.”

One teacher spoke out.

“No. Absolutely not,” he said to Vecchi. “If I’m at a restaurant or a bar with my wife and someone starts shooting, sexual politics aside, it’s everyone for themselves in that situation. But in my classroom? No. I’m sorry. My well-being isn’t important. My kids in my classroom are the priority. That’s just the way it is, morally, for me.”

Vecchi told the teachers he understands that some of the training sounds difficult for teachers, who often consider their students almost like family just weeks into the year.

“I know it’s a hard one,” Vecchi said. “It’s really hard, and you’re not going to want to leave a wounded person. I’m not saying that you don’t do that. I’m giving you what are best practices based on the statistics for the probability of you being able to survive, and that kid you’re trying to help survive.”

Teachers threw themselves into two exercises: extending a periscoping baton with one flick of their wrist and then thrashing a mat to experience attacking an active shooter. They also took turns spraying pepper spray into the face of a training dummy. (The training spray didn’t have the active ingredient used to temporarily disable and blind an attacker.)

Lisa Stanley, the superintendent of North Texas Collegiate Academy, said a crisis shooter training system and response technology was a priority for the school more than a year after the Robb Elementary School tragedy.

“Over the last eight months, we were able to find the funding and the training,” Stanley said. “The board made this happen for us. ... We all feel more prepared for an emergency. We are more prepared now.”