In a cramped room at Austin school district police headquarters, several pairs of eyes roam across the rows of security-camera screens, on the lookout for anything amiss.
Even with 3,100 security cameras keeping an eye on the district’s 86,600 students, there are blind spots. Eliminating them has become a priority in recent weeks, with the district shifting money to buy more cameras and fix the broken ones, among other security improvements.
Similar changes are under way at other area schools, prompted by the mass murder of children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut in December. Districts are pulling money from reserves or using leftover funds from previous bonds so they can make the changes immediately. The Austin school district police department is asking for more officers. Over spring break, the Round Rock district is retrofitting the entrances to a few schools to make them more secure. Leander is looking to hire security experts for a comprehensive safety plan.
“It caused every school district in the nation to look at their security, protocols and systems and how to make them better,” said Austin school district police Chief Eric Mendez. “We want to build in as many deterrents as possible.”
Austin district leaders in recent weeks designated $500,000 in leftover money from a 2004 bond to move more quickly on safety improvements, installing new locks, security camera equipment and — a first for the district — panic buttons in undisclosed areas of elementary schools. The Lake Travis district also is installing such buttons.
“Panic buttons are for one purpose and one purpose only — an immediate danger to life,” Mendez said.
An additional $21 million from a 2004 Austin district bond was designated toward safety improvements, including transitioning to security card access for campus doors. But school leaders say more must be done.
The district is asking for $23.7 million in security improvement projects in the second of four bond propositions that will go before Austin voters in May.
Mendez is also asking the district to find money in its 2013-14 budget for an additional six officers to patrol elementary schools.
In the Round Rock district, school leaders didn’t want to wait until summer to get to work. Construction crews this week are transforming the entrances to three of 23 schools by creating security vestibules, a second set of doors that blocks entrance to the rest of the school. Before passing through those doors, visitors are routed to the school office for a security check. The remaining 20 schools will be completed in the summer. Trustees in January approved using $910,000 for 10 of the schools and last month approved $160,000 for the design of the others. The district staff plans to ask the board to approve more than $1 million to secure more schools and to add security cameras and locks to others by the end of the summer.
Leander district leaders are rethinking how they approach security. They are in the process of hiring a school security expert to develop a comprehensive assessment. The district had about $1.2 million from a 2007 bond package that was designated specifically to design more secure entrances at elementary schools. After the shooting in Newtown, Conn., trustees postponed the work and decided to get security recommendations for all of the campuses before moving forward.
“The board doesn’t want to run out and do these vestibules and then realize later that it would have been better to do something else,” said Jimmy Disler, the Leander district’s executive director of capital improvements. “They want to understand the entire picture. It might be better to spend money elsewhere.”
Some security experts say such comprehensive planning is the right move.
Kenneth Trump, president of Ohio-based National School Safety and Security Services, said district leaders need to make informed decisions about security.
“They really need to focus on the fundamentals, on implementing the nuts-and-bolts best practices and avoid getting caught up in making emotional decisions when they should be making cognitive decisions,” Trump said.
Trump points to obvious problems that are overlooked: Schools that have open or unlocked doors. Crisis plans that exist on paper, but the district emergency teams don’t meet. Campuses that conduct practice lockdowns in the morning, but never during chaotic lunch times or passing periods.
“People feel powerless,” he said. “They want to throw out the accepted best practices, things we know do work that help improve school safety, and go off on things like aren’t well-grounded and are high risk or have questionable results,” such as armed teachers or bulletproof backpacks, he said.
No Central Texas school districts have gone that far. Instead, most staff their middle and high schools with one or two full-time police officers.
In other parts of the state, a couple of districts already give educators the right to access their guns at school.
Last month, the Childress school board approved placing weapons in secure locations at its schools and giving access to selected employees who will be trained by an outside security company. In the Harrold school district, where the nearest sheriff’s office is 30 miles away, employees have been allowed to carry weapons since 2007. Employees must have a state concealed weapon permit and be individually approved by the board before being allowed to carry a weapon.
In Central Texas, the Capital Area Council of Governments, made up of governing leaders from 10 area counties, had offered a five-day course over spring break to give teachers tactical training in how and when to shoot an intruder. However, because of lack of interest — only a couple of educators signed up for the course — the group canceled the class, which would have provided the kind of training police officers routinely receive.
Security changes proposed at Central Texas school districts:
Austin: Installing panic buttons; adding new locks and security cameras; considering additional police officers.
Bastrop: Installing Raptor, a system that conducts an onsite criminal background/sex offender check, in all schools (previously the system was only at elementary campuses); upgrading existing camera systems; considering panic buttons and retrofitting school entrances.
Eanes: Purchasing an emergency notification system for broadcasts to parents, students and staff; considering adding fencing to an elementary school.
Hutto: Adding additional police officers on campus so two are at the high school, and one at each middle school.
Lake Travis: Installing panic buttons; adding security cameras; retrofitting one elementary school entrance with a vestibule; fencing all elementary school playgrounds; adding more keyless entries.
Manor: Increasing the number of lockdown drills at schools; considering electric buzzers that require visitors to be buzzed into the main building from the school office.
Round Rock: Retrofitting entrances of 23 schools with vestibules; considering adding more security cameras and electronic locks.