How Texas School Security Has Changed Since Sandy Hook
Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
The shooting left 20 students and six adults dead. It also caused school districts and lawmakers across the country to re-examine security protocols in schools – including Texas.
“When you talk about Sandy Hook Elementary and what happened that day – I think that a lot of people believe that it created or caused a reaction by law enforcement, first responders – that somehow changed from what we had been doing," says Austin School District Police Chief Eric Mendez.
Instead, he says school safety has been a priority for him over the past decade.
“When you look at Columbine, Jonesboro, Paducah, Big Lake and all these other places where school shootings have occurred, you realize that Sandy Hook just brought another dimension to the violence."
Immediately after the shooting last year, Mendez says district police officers made additional patrols around elementary schools in Austin. In the following year, the district has focused on increasing safety at elementary schools.
“Any death is tragic, but young children – and the vulnerability and the senselessness and the shock of this happening to children – went deep," says Victoria Calder with the Texas School Safety Center.
She adds that Newtown led a lot of school districts across the state to clarify their policies.
“Prior to Sandy Hook, education code required schools conduct drills,” Calder says, “but there was no specificity as to how many and what type of drills.”
This year, state lawmakers passed a bill requiring all schools to conduct at least one evacuation drill, one lock down, and one shelter-in-place exercise, along with severe weather and reverse evacuation drills every year. The Texas School Safety Center says it recommends schools conduct one of those drills every month.
The bill also creates a school safety task force that studies emergency operations and makes recommendations to school districts and the legislature about proper school security procedures and protocols.
In Austin, the school’s police department went a bit farther. While Chief Mendez says emergency drills and plans are confidential, he says that after Sandy Hook the district installed more safety measures: security cameras, door buzzers and panic buttons. Now, every school in the district has those three safety measures and the entire district has 3,600 security cameras in place. Individual campuses can monitor the cameras, as well as police officers at district headquarters.
The district also added six more police officers specifically to monitor elementary schools. “Each officer has a set number of elementary schools their responsible for,” Mendez says.
Mendez adds the district can’t prevent every emergency – but the goal is to avoid as many as possible.
“People have to realize where there’s a will people will find a way. We have to make sure we have enough deterrents in place to keeping that will from finding a way," he says.
In May, the Austin School District asked voters to approve $23 million in bonds for safety and security measures district-wide, among other proposals. Voters rejected that specific request, which means Mendez and the district police department don't have the money to make updates to some of the department's security features.
Statewide, more districts are taking matters in their own hands.
The School Safety Center’s Calder says for years, teachers and administrators in Texas could carry weapons in school if they had a concealed handgun license and the approval of their school board.
Before Sandy Hook, only Harrold School District exercised that right, but as of April, at least 13 other school districts have followed suit.
Known as the Guardian Plan, it differs from another bill passed during the most recent legislative session widely known as the School Marshall Bill.
It allows administrators to designate a trained employee to act as a school marshal. Starting in January, employees can enroll in a training program designed by Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education, the same state agency that sets training requirements for police and other law enforcement officers.