TASB Risk Management Fund

Balancing School Security and Public Health

October 15, 2020 David Wylie

Elementary school campus

A Conversation with Chief Jeffrey Yarbrough

Jeffrey Yarbrough has worked in nearly every facet of law enforcement during his 25-year career. Each stop reinforced his belief that police work takes a reactive approach to issues that could have been prevented. Looking to make an enduring impact on the people he served, Yarbrough joined the growing ranks of school-based law enforcement officers in 2015.

“I found my true calling when I invested my passion and human compassion in K-12 schools,” said Yarbrough. “Every day, I get to be a superhero, mentor, role model, big brother, and advocate!”

Yarbrough’s experience and commitment to helping kids make him a natural fit for his current role as chief of Round Rock ISD’s new police department. He graciously shared his insight on balancing school security and public health during a school year like no other.

What are your top priorities coming into the school year?

Like all campus police departments, our priority is to ensure school safety through training, protocols, procedures, and building security. But I want our team to achieve so much more. I believe we have to serve the whole child. That means not only keeping kids safe but also meeting their social, emotional, and behavioral needs. We are hiring officers who bring a strong student advocacy commitment to the job. Our team also includes the district’s Behavioral Health Services Department, social workers, and mental health clinics.

Can you share an example of what serving the whole child might look?

Let’s say you catch a student with marijuana. You could arrest him, but that approach might not best serve the student. What if he’s self-medicating because he’s getting bullied at home or school? Or he might be carrying pandemic-related stress, fear, or isolation. In most cases, we would connect the student with our counselors and try to address the underlying issues. I am committed to using every available resource to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.

What should schools do when COVID-19 and school security best practices contradict each other?

School security should remain foundational to all student-related decisions. During the pandemic, you have to apply a COVID-19 overlay to your security protocols. For example, masks are critical to containing the virus, but they also hide facial features. If you need to identify someone on campus, you can consider other factors, such as clothing, physical description, location, and direction of travel. Similarly, air quality and circulation help control the virus’ spread, but that doesn’t mean you have to open windows and doors. You can invest in MERV-13 air filters and adjust ventilation systems to ensure air is constantly circulated and filtered.

Which strategies is Round Rock ISD using to manage the risk of visitors introducing COVID-19 onto campuses?

We continue to allow anyone who has a legitimate business need to enter our facilities. But they must follow our COVID-19 safety procedures, which include limiting their facility access. On the other hand, we stopped allowing parents to eat lunch with their kids or walk them to class. We communicated our expectations to visitors. If they need to visit a campus, we encourage them to call and schedule appointments so staff can prepare to safely assist them.

How might schools need to adjust emergency drills and exercises this year?

Start by understanding that we are required to conduct a certain number of emergency drills and exercises, despite the pandemic. Again, you have to align your drill and pandemic protocols. Instead of having kids huddle together during a drill, staff could show videos that illustrate the process or talk students through it and hold class discussions. If it is difficult to maintain social distancing during a drill, instruct staff and students to wear masks and use hand sanitizer when entering and leaving the building. Most importantly, remember that during an actual emergency, safety takes priority over COVID-19 concerns.

Are there one or two simple, impactful tips for ensuring pandemic-related mental health issues do not evolve into security issues?

I recommend leveraging your threat assessment team (TAT).  The TAT should include mental health professionals who specialize in providing support and resources to students, as well as wrap around services to families. At Round Rock ISD, we modified our TAT processes to assess issues such as the pandemic’s social and emotional impact, social distancing fatigue, and the toll that limited peer interaction takes on students. We also have to acknowledge that adults are not immune to the pandemic’s emotional toll. We need to make time to take care of ourselves, as well as our students.

Missed the webinar?

Chief Yarbrough elaborated on the concepts in this article during a webinar with TASB Emergency Management and School Security Consultant Melanie Moss. Fund members who missed the live webinar or who want to share it with co-workers can watch the recording.

About Chief Jeffrey Yarbrough

Chief Jeffrey Yarbrough is a servant leader with over 25 years of law enforcement experience. He is the inaugural chief of police for the Round Rock ISD Police Department, where he previously served as executive director of safety and security. Chief Yarbrough is responsible for the safety of over 51,000 students, 7,000 staff members, and visitors to over 57 campuses and facilities. He is a strong student advocate who promotes an environment that is equitable, student centered, and serves the whole child through racial equity, behavioral health, and law enforcement student advocacy.

Tagged: "best practices", "campus security", COVID-19