The recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida re-emphasized the importance of school security for two local superintendents.
“Any time this happens, I think all school districts, they take another look at what else can we do because it is, it’s very concerning for everyone,” Kilgore ISD Superintendent Cara Cooke said, lamenting the fact school shootings continue to be part of the national conversation.
Sabine ISD Superintendent Stacey Bryce echoed similar sentiments Thursday afternoon, saying a tragedy such as the one on Feb. 14 in which 17 people were killed inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School sparks a chain reaction of schools across the country assessing their own security protocols.
“East Texas is no exception,” he said.
Both Cooke and Bryce said their number one priority is the safety of students and employees.
“Our number one concern is the safety of our students, whether in classrooms, playgrounds or school buses. What can we do to ensure the safety of our students?” Cooke said. “When this type of thing happens it put us on more of a high alert. We’re always questioning ourselves because, heaven forbid, anything like this were to come our way, we want to be as prepared and proactive as possible to ensure we keep everyone safe.”
Both districts look into every reported or rumored threat.
Those follow-ups and investigations are key at SISD, Bryce said.
“We can’t afford to let just one go uninvestigated… We take every rumor seriously and we make sure we check it out thoroughly,” he said, noting SISD faculty and staff go through emergency response training to be prepared to respond.
Both districts have school resource officers on their campuses every day, with partnerships in place with the Kilgore Police Department at KISD and the Gregg County Sheriff’s Office at SISD.
These school resource officers (SROs) help investigate any threats or rumored threats in their school districts and make sure they and administrators respond appropriately.
With a security checkpoint at the entrance to the parking lot of Sabine Middle School and Sabine High School, the latest school shooting has included making sure the on-duty guard has a heightened awareness, also.
Security has been a focus of Kilgore ISD board members since the latest discussions on capital needs in the district began in early 2017.
One of the priorities, Cooke said, is Kilgore High School, the oldest of the five KISD campuses.
“We’re working on how to make that even more secure,” she said, noting some changes have already been made, keeping the details mum.
There continue to be plans to redo the front entry there to create a secure vestibule, such as the ones in place at the other campuses, Cooke said, but there will be a more immediate change before those larger projects can be completed.
“It may not look pretty, but it’s going to be safe,” she said, noting changes to other access points will be adjusted to allow people to exit safely without compromising the security of those inside the building.
The more entrances there are to a building, the more difficult it is to secure, Bryce said.
Sabine ISD has been working to improve its electronic security throughout the middle school and high school campuses.
“We’re moving towards our access points to be just like the ones at the new elementary school,” he said, pointing to Sabine Elementary School’s secured entrance. “Access control is a big part of it and that’s what we are in the middle of upgrading right now.”
It is possible to feel more comfortable with continued security improvements, but, Bryce said, “We will not ever think that there is no possible way that someone can enter a building. That doesn’t mean just the school building; that means any building.”
In addition to secured access points, the ability to automatically lock all exterior doors at a certain time creates a safer campus.
“The good thing about our board is they’re 100 percent behind doing this, and it’s something that’s going to begin taking place pretty soon as far as changing out our access points, our access control areas,” he said.
While additional security procedures can be put in place, Cooke said, she and other administrators need to make sure those plans are followed in classrooms and in the hallways.
“The main thing is helping our staff members and all to be alert and aware and know what the plans are if something looks amiss,” she said.
Included in drills students practice at SISD and KISD schools is active shooter or intruder drills, which lets the students and district employees practice the districts’ emergency plans.
“They know that this is what you do,” Cooke said. “You have your actions; everyone’s been trained. We practice that… Those procedures are just like a fire drill. They know to practice this. That’s all in place… Right after Florida, we didn’t go out and have a drill, but we did go around and make sure everyone has their procedures.”
Last week, Cooke met with KISD’s emergency management team to discuss the emergency operations plan and decide if anything needed to be changed or updated in response to the latest school shooting. Part of the team’s training is taking part in emergency operations sessions put on by Region 7 Emergency Service Center with the latest happening Thursday afternoon.
The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was just another reminder of the importance of KISD employees being ready to respond if needed.
“The whole thing is you want to make sure you’ve talked about it enough and practiced enough that it’s just a natural reaction… Emotions would be running high and fear would take over. You want to know that your staff is going to be able to react; that they’ll just react appropriately to what’s happening because they just know that’s what they’re supposed to do,” Cooke said. “If they have to think about it, a moment’s lost. If they’re informed and ready, they can just do it immediately, with the prayer that they never have to.”
“What comes with that is the heightened awareness of students and parents, which is good,” Bryce said. That does mean more reports, rumors and social media posts for the district to investigate.
If given the choice, though, he said, he would rather people report things than “sit on it and not report it,” whether they are rumored or perceived threats.
Bryce noted SISD also has an emergency plan all faculty and staff members are aware of and practice.
“That’s major. It would be total chaos if something happened at a school and they didn’t have a plan so no one knew what to do,” he said. “Communication at that point is a critical issue. If you don’t know the communication plan, then it throws everything into chaos. Number one is, I certainly want everyone to know, the safety of the kids. That’s the most important thing to us here.”
Along with the importance of school security, the incident in Florida has also reignited the debate over gun control and mental health.
When thinking about what needs to change, Bryce stayed away from the gun control issue, but pointed directly to the way people treat others as something that needs to change.
“Unfortunately with the way society as a whole is going, things like what happened in Florida is going to be difficult to put a stop to it, but education and awareness are the two things that would help the most… Just how people treat other people has a lot to do with some of these shootings that have been occurring,” he said.
Also steering clear of the gun control issue, Cooke said, school districts need funding to implement some of the suggested security measures.
“When budgets are so tight, that needs to be a priority, but the money has to come from somewhere,” she said. “Putting in secure vestibules and secured doors, I heard someone mention bulletproof glass. To do all that, that’s costly.”
She also stressed the importance of continuing to have conversations about identifying and addressing mental health issues in a school setting.
“How we as a society, as legislators, school districts and it just goes on and on, how do we all come together and how can we help the mental health issues that we’re continuing to see,” she said. “When you drill down to it, these children that are coming in and killing other children, that’s the mental health needs. There’s something that’s wrong and we need to address that. How do we come together to train people, to recognize it to have the right people in place in our school districts to provide – to come up alongside those students and their parents – to provide that support?”
Funding is critical to providing that support also, she said, noting the cost associated with bringing in those specialists trained in identifying and helping students and families with mental health needs and concerns.
“We’re going to have to work together to know how to provide this, so we can try to provide some healing to these children that are taking their aggression, and whatever’s going on in their mind, taking it to a level that it’s just incomprehensible to me,” she said. “We have to figure out how to make the school as safe as possible but also the root of the problem. Why are children killing children?”