Whether it’s a whisper or a shout in the back of the mind, most area parents have one lingering thought as they send their kids back to school in the coming days.
Is my child safe?
After what seems to be a cycle of mass shootings, local school officials say they are taking note of national conversations and making sure parents know that safety is a top priority. They’ve spent their summers upgrading security systems, training for crisis situations and identifying the mental health needs of students.
“The main thing you want to do is to say that you did everything you possibly could,” said Jeff Russell, an area superintendent in Denton ISD, which starts the school year Wednesday. “There are things out of your control, but the last thing you want to do is look back and find that you didn’t turn that stone.”
Starting this year, Guyer High School has a secure vestibule system — an entrance with two sets of doors that require all visitors to enter the front office before they get to the interior of the school. Prior to this construction, Guyer was the only Denton campus without a vestibule entrance.
The district will also spend the year upgrading entrances at each campus, starting with elementary schools. By the end of the project, all visitors must be seen on camera before employees can buzz them through the outer doors. Students at middle school and high school campuses also will be required to wear school-issued ID badges to distinguish them from visitors.
In response to Gov. Greg Abbott’s 40-point safety plan unveiled in May, Russell said the district is working with local law enforcement agencies to establish a more uniform language in response to crisis situations. The Denton school district partners with six municipalities, so coordinating efforts can be a challenge, Russell said.
“When I was in another district, even the term lockdown meant different things in different places,” he said. “I think what the governor is wanting is for all the municipalities to say the same thing.”
Outside of catastrophic situations, Russell said the district is working on its preventive measures.
The city of Denton recently completed a long-awaited sidewalk along McKinney Street from Loop 288 to Ryan High School. Previously, students were walking along the shoulder of the road to get to school, prompting safety concerns from some residents. Construction to widen the road is expected to begin in 2019.
The district’s 12 school resource officers also will undergo state-mandated training as Denton nears the 30,000-student enrollment mark. A large portion of the training will focus on how to interact with special-needs students, Russell said.
In addition to physical security, districts are emphasizing emotional well-being. Denton counselors and administrators say they are working to better identify students who need help and provide them with more support systems.
The district also is launching a campaign to publicize its “Safe Schools” website and hotline that allows anyone to report bullying or suspicious activities. To make a report, go to www.dentonisd-tx.safeschoolsalert.com or call 940-312-7186.
Russell said the number of people using that resource doubled last year.
“You can look at that two ways,” he said. “You could say kids have more problems, but you could also say we’re getting more kids to communicate with us. Just because they’re not communicating doesn’t mean they aren’t having problems.”
Russell will talk more about the district’s student safety plan at the Denton school board meeting, which begins at 6 p.m. Tuesday at 1307 N. Locust St.
Other districts around the county are taking a similar approach to safety, but one is going a step further.
Following the path forged by Argyle ISD, Pilot Point ISD will implement its armed staff policy this fall. Superintendent Dan Gist said select staff members have completed about 30 hours of training this summer with Ector-based Texas Firearms Training Academy.
Gist said the employees will be re-evaluated each year and undergo additional training. To be able to carry firearms on campus, each staffer also had to pass a psychological evaluation. The district also added a second school resource officer to patrol its four campuses.
The Krum school board veered away from an armed staff policy this spring. Instead, they hired a new district security officer and are working to establish their own district police department.
Contractors spent the summer building secure entries for each Krum campus while nearly 300 employees participated in an active-shooter training drill last week with local law enforcement agencies.
“We’ve spent several months deciding the best way to conduct this training and felt that an active event simulation combined with presentations from police and mental health professionals would best prepare our staff for this type of situation,” Superintendent Cody Carroll said in a press release.
Aubrey ISD recently hired two additional school resource officers and will construct a secure vestibule at the high school this fall. Teachers also completed extra training to spot nonverbal signals from kids before a crisis occurs.
“Of course, you want to meet the physical needs of a student, but we also have to meet their emotional needs before they can learn anything,” Superintendent David Belding said. “The teachers and staff are vital when it comes to early warning signs. It could be grades dropping or behavior change, but teachers can then alert a counselor or administrator. They can check on them and if there is a need, then we can connect them to resources.”
Charter schools also are ramping up their safety efforts this year.
Responsive Ed, a company that operates several charters in the area, recently hired an executive safety and security director and put out a new crisis management handbook for its employees.
Susan Thomas, the campus director at Denton Classical Academy, said all of her teachers completed training on crisis intervention, suicide prevention, self-care and breathing techniques to help calm students.
“It’s our responsibility to improve our procedures every year,” Thomas said. “We need to make parents confident that when their kids are at school with us, they’re safe.”