TASB Risk Management Fund

Keeping Our Schools Safe

July 23, 2018 Melanie Moss

Pictured above: Officer Ladarrion Brown of the Longview Police Department reads to elementary school children as part of Longview ISD’s collaborative HI-5 program. The program was developed to increase law enforcement presence on school district campuses. Photo courtesy of Longview ISD

Preparedness and response require strong partnerships

When Dennis Williams began his career in education in Beaumont 17 years ago, he had no idea that interaction with local law enforcement would become a regular part of his school schedule. Collaboration with law enforcement is an important part of his duties as assistant superintendent of Administrative and Pupil Services at Longview ISD, and this partnership has bolstered safety and security across the district’s campuses. The emphasis placed on partnering with law enforcement reflects the changing attitudes of what constitutes a safe, healthy learning environment and how the role of schools in their respective communities has changed.

Longview ISD’s HI-5 (High Five) program, launched by Williams in March, involves fostering an atmosphere of “community policing” by increasing positive interaction between area law enforcement and the district. As part of the HI-5 program, Longview ISD invites both active and retired officers to visit campuses and participate in student activities.

The HI-5 initiative is a strong example of successful collaboration between schools and the communities they serve. It augments the school resource officer program already in place at Longview schools and is just one of many ways that local police can become more involved in their community’s schools.

School-based law enforcement

Longview ISD isn’t the only district looking to strengthen ties with local law enforcement. Chief William Edwards played an integral role in the creation of the Pflugerville ISD Police Department and currently heads the Hutto ISD Police. In that role, he has seen the importance of ensuring that school district police work closely with their city and county law enforcement counterparts.

That collaboration is an important part of school-based law enforcement. School-based law enforcement is community policing to a specific target audience, he explained. “You could say that school-based law enforcement is community policing on steroids,” Edwards said. “It’s taking ownership of issues and remaining involved to educate, to prevent, and to address school and community needs.”

School districts that have strong school resource officer programs or school-based police departments have a good foundation for collaborative programs. Edwards pointed out that not only do school-based police departments serve as a deterrent for crime and disorder but also provide specialized resources. School-based police officers deal almost exclusively with youth and receive specialized training in areas of youth development, crisis intervention, bullying, and crime prevention. 

Williams echoed Edwards’ sentiment regarding the concept. “What could be a better link to the community than enhancing safe schools through a school-based law enforcement program rooted in a positive, meaningful school and police collaboration?” he said

He added that police officers foster relationships with the schools by reading to elementary students, joining them during meals in the cafeteria, and attending various campus events. This proactive approach spills over to the Longview law enforcement community at large, as explained by Corporal Josh Tubb, the Gregg County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson, whose office works closely with Longview ISD and its HI-5 program.

“The importance of safety and security at our school campuses cannot be overstated,” Tubb said. “Every school day, parents in our community drop off the most important thing in their lives: their children. These children walk into a school where hard-working, dedicated teachers pour their hearts into providing these young souls with the knowledge they need to grow into proud, upstanding adults, who one day may be the leaders in our community.”

He said that is why the Gregg County Sheriff’s Office is honored to be a part of the HI-5 program.

Community collaboration

Lessons learned from successful community policing and school initiative programs such as HI-5 and best practices in community interaction demonstrate that safe and healthy learning environments require well-established relationships among district leaders, first responders, emergency managers, and community leaders. It is important that schools reach out to all of these partners and potential partners and maintain open lines of communication. Emergency plans cannot be created or executed in a vacuum. When all community and school partners come to the table, everyone benefits.

Collaboration is an essential function for both safety and emergency management. It helps to ensure effective preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation. These efforts must include open communication and coordination, as well as documentation in the district’s emergency operations plans. Response protocols, memorandums of understanding, and other mutual-aid agreements should also reflect a collaborative approach.

It is important to recognize that community collaboration involves the whole community, including faculty, staff, first responders, emergency management, and parents. This is something that is well represented in central Texas, where school districts and local officials in three counties have banded together to create the Central Texas School Safety Consortium. The consortium allows school and community leaders to work together to address preparedness in a process that represents the best interests of each entity and ensures consistent communication and cooperation.

Scott Swearengin, assistant director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for the City of Austin, has seen the value of collaboration among school and community leaders and considers these relationships critical to the safety and well-being of the whole community.

“Since school district boundaries don’t match political boundaries, it is easy for a city to be served by several school districts,” Swearengin said. “Conversely, a single district may lie within multiple cities and counties.”

When this occurs, a collaborative approach to emergency preparedness helps to manage expectations. Swearengin advocates for consortiums to bring school and community leaders to the table before disaster strikes. “Consortiums provide an organized focus to look at emergency and safety issues as a whole community, not just within the confines of one school, district, or jurisdiction,” he said.

Swearengin cites several examples of how these partnerships have benefited the entire community, including preparedness and response for winter weather, public health emergencies, fires, evacuations, and even hurricane sheltering operations.

Darla Humes, director of Risk Management for Leander ISD, shared a school perspective, saying, “Being a member of this [consortium] group has been extremely valuable and a resource that I count on for emergency planning, training, best practices, and debriefing all sorts of incidents and emergencies. This consortium as a whole gains a great deal of knowledge, experience, and expertise from all of its members. I can’t even imagine doing my job without their support and participation.” 

Establishing lines of communication is not difficult, Swearengin noted. “If you aren’t already in touch with your local emergency manager, you should be able to locate them through your city or county government,” he said. School districts also may reach out to the local Texas Department of Public Safety office, which can put them in touch with their state emergency management district coordinator (who can connect the district with the local emergency manager).

Assistance from TASB

The Fund offers members emergency management and school security support, including information and assistance on collaborative programs, all-hazards planning, and help in reaching out to local first responders and emergency managers.

Collaboration and school safety go hand in hand. Longview ISD Superintendent James Wilcox noted that the district “is not content to accept the status quo, especially when it comes to the safety of our children.”

He added, “Our district is glad to partner with these agencies, and we’re always looking for ways to improve how we protect the many precious lives in our care.”

The Fund will host a daylong event focused on this topic September 13. Contact TASB Emergency Management and School Security Consultant Melanie Moss for more information about school safety and security.

Reprinted with permission from the June 2018 edition of Texas Lone Star magazine, published by the Texas Association of School Boards.

Tagged: "campus security", "emergency management", Safety