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Austin-area districts pump more money into security after shootings


Highlights

Some districts are considering creating their own police forces.

Improvements include making campus entrances more secure and providing more active shooter training.

In the wake of mass school shootings in Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe, Central Texas districts are beefing up their security budgets for the new school year, hiring more police officers, creating safety positions and examining whether to set up their own police departments.

Austin-area districts, from Georgetown to Hays, are collectively pumping millions more into security. Among the changes, multiple districts are making campus entrances more secure, including requiring that visitors be buzzed in by the staff individually; offering more training to teachers and staffers in active shooter and emergency preparedness; and removing fire alarm pull stations, saying the manual pull stations are obsolete and could exacerbate a shooting incident by sending students running into hallways instead of remaining locked down.

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Austin

The Austin district has budgeted $13.2 million for safety and security for the coming school year. An additional $1.7 million will pay for five more police officers and another mental health officer, more cameras and emergency call boxes at all middle and high schools that provide a direct line to the front office, and improvements to the campus-level instant background check system.

Of the dozen districts closest to Austin, the Austin and Hutto districts are the only ones with a fully autonomous police force.

Round Rock

The Round Rock district has increased its security budget by $200,000 to $2.5 million, including paying three local law enforcement agencies for 21 school security officers and sergeants to staff its secondary schools. The district is considering starting its own police force because of concerns that the law enforcement agencies making officers available to schools no longer will be able to lend out their officers by 2021, and there already are gaps in coverage.

Round Rock created a community task force to explore options for improving police presence and security for its schools. If the group recommends creating a district police force, the district could hire a police chief and the first few officers by March.

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“Our public schools are some of the safest places in America, but in this day and age, it doesn’t mean something couldn’t happen,” Round Rock district Superintendent Steve Flores said. “By being proactive, we’re doing everything within our authority to be as safe as possible.”

Some parents have voiced concerns that a district-run police force could lack proper oversight, would be costly and could make schools feel too much like prisons. District officials estimate that after startup costs, a district department’s costs would be comparable.

Supporters of district-run police forces say districts have more control over operating policies, hiring and training. Officers also have more intimate knowledge of the schools and floor plans, the staff and students, and district-specific emergency operation plans. Call response times also tend to be shorter, supporters say.

“One of the benefits is having a dedicated police department that is familiar with the school system,” Austin district Police Chief Ashley Gonzalez said.

Hays

The Hays district increased its security budget by $125,000 to $1.8 million, which will pay for installation of impact-resistant film on key interior windows to reduce the ability of bullets to shatter them, and staff training on what to do immediately after a shooting or other crisis. The district also is hiring its first security director, who would lead any discussions about possibly hiring security officers for elementary schools or starting a district police department, said district spokesman Tim Savoy.

“We are large enough and the potential threats are real enough that we need to have someone who has no other task that would distract them from the mission of safety,” Savoy said.

RELATED: Texas lawmakers weigh bolstering school security, mental health

Leander

The Leander district, which has budgeted about $1.9 million for 10 officers at its high schools, among other things, last month hired its first director of safety, who will coordinate with the three law enforcement agencies that make officers available to work as school resource officers, and assess future priorities, including possibly creating a district police force, said Trustee Pam Waggoner.

“Anything we can do to make the environment feel safer, work safer, be safer, of course we want to do that,” Waggoner said.

Pflugerville

The Pflugerville district is increasing its security budget by about $113,000 to $3 million. The district is adding 11 security officer positions. Those salaries will be funded through another part of the budget; the amount was not immediately available. The school board is considering calling for a November bond election, which could include $8.1 million in safety and security items, such as security cameras and secure administration building entrances, that are being recommended by an advisory committee.

The district has a hybrid district-city police department with its own police chief and the ability to choose its officers but might need to start its own police force next year. City officials recently notified district officials that the city’s police could end the current agreement as early as next June.



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