While schools across the nation are struggling with what is best to protect their students, Magnolia Independent School District is taking a hard look at what is already in place including armed police protection on campuses.
"We have had a long-standing agreement with Pct. 5 Constable (David)Hill's office," MISD Director of Student Services Rob Stewart said. "In fact on the day of the Newtown tragedy Constable Hill sent additional officers to all campuses in the district and the week before Christmas he pulled in every officer he had, including reserves, to place an officer at each school."
Since the Dec. 14, 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary school shootings that took the lives of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., MISD resource officers have been reassigned to be more visible at elementary schools in the district.
"We will never prevent all school violence, but if they are driving by and see an officer, maybe they will drive on," Hill said.
For 17 years MISD and the Montgomery County Pct. 5 Constable's office have had a memorandum of understanding placing resource officers on campuses in the district, making officers already on district campuses official. Currently MISD has eight officers covering its schools. Officials from both entities say the relationship could not be better.
"We want to be highly visible but low-keyed," Hill said. "On the day of the school shootings in December, I was greeted by students on the campus. They thought nothing of my being there; it was normal to them."
This approach to student protection is working, they said.
Magnolia West High School (MWHS) junior Adriana Mendoza, who has grown up in the district, says she is comfortable with officers on campus.
"We have always had them," she said. "In fact MISD upholds its motto that we are the best district, and the officers are part of that."
MWHS seniors Bob Harris and Logan Frenchak agree.
"When I returned to MISD in the seventh grade, I didn't really notice the 'armed officer' at school," Harris said. "My first exposure was with the DARE (Drug Alcohol Resistance Education) officer and it became normal."
"I have always felt safe in MISD," Frenchak said. "I don't really think there is anything the school could do to make it a safer place."
Acknowledging the rare loner who might pose a threat, all three high school students agree counselors are key and would like to see them have more time for guidance rather than scheduling. The three cited school counseling that was made available last November in the wake of a traffic fatality that claimed the lives of two MSID graduates, as a good example of reaching out to students.
"We need to establish more teacher-student relationships," Mendoza said.
District auditing safety of schools:
When school reconvened after the Christmas holidays, MISD conducted a campus-by-campus safety audit, reviewing access points to buildings, procedures, personnel, technology, and traffic flows among other things. Magnolia ISD Superintendent Dr. Todd Stephens summarized the audit.
"The District and Board is working to ensure that every campus has a safe and protective environment in place," Stephens said.
"Working with the Board of Trustees and local law enforcement officers, we are looking at procedures and facility improvements that will help make everyone in our schools feel safe, everyday."
Magnolia ISD Assistant Superintendent Dr. Jason Bullock identified one reinforcement the district has enacted.
"We are making sure that throughout the school day we have personnel and eyes on our public access points," Bullock said. "I think we all agree we still want a school to feel like a school."
Last fall MISD opened the school year with new security initiatives in place in order to improve security and better control visitor access. Changes include expanded and upgraded camera systems at Magnolia High School and Magnolia West High School along with modified main entrances at Magnolia Elementary, Williams Elementary and Bear Branch Junior High.
"We have built these community-friendly campuses and now we are reviewing access, especially appropriate access for parents," Bullock said. "The problem comes with these events that mark time: Columbine, 9/11, now Sandy Hook."
Having schools that are part of the community¾open to visitors and often street accessible¾creates a security challenge for MISD. Soon keys may be replaced with keypads at strategic exit/entry points, according to Bullock. Like many school districts MISD has had a locked classroom policy for at least five years. Each day every classroom in MISD is secured with a one-way locking door that releases easily from the inside. If a student leaves the classroom, the door is opened from the inside to let her return. Because these doors and other access doors in MISD schools have the one-way locks, they are fire safe but allow for lock-down.
"We learned a lot after Columbine," Bullock said. "Now, unfortunately we may learn more since Newtown."
DPS Officers innovative with aid:
Last year, two Texas Department of Public Safety Officers, Sgt. Derik Leitner and Trooper Eric Lopez, developed Rapid Response Cards for all 16 Magnolia ISD schools.
There is one 5x7-inch laminated card for each school with a clear, full-color aerial photo of the campus on one side and a floor plan on the other. The card sets also list Key Map pages and latitude and longitude coordinates in case additional support is needed. Every Rapid Response Card set is on a ring and can be clipped anywhere for officers' convenience.
"This is an idea that is so simple you think, why haven't other people done this," Stewart said. "In the event of an emergency, it allows us to have all the information needed in-hand."
Rapid Response Card sets are carried in peace officers' service units and are kept by campus and district administrators. When a school emergency happens the constable's office is assisted by the state troopers, the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office, the Magnolia Police Department and even the Tomball Police Department.
What parents can do
Parents are sometimes without the intimate knowledge of their child's school day. What may seem alarming ¾ locked doors, campus officers, procedures ¾ is all a part of the child's norm on campus. Dr. Stephens' advice for parents is straight forward.
"One of the most important things parents can do to help our teachers build a safe protective environment for our students, is to stress the importance of the students knowing the school’s safety procedures and plans,” Stephens said. “Students should be able to explain what’s expected of them during emergency situations. Parents should emphasize the importance of knowing and following school procedures so everyone in the school can feel safe. I would also remind parents to tell their students that it’s important to talk to their teachers or principal about anything that makes them uncomfortable or threatened at school. Students need to know it’s the right thing to do to help keep their school safe."
Officials also advise parents to keep their contact information current by updating at the campus level, immediately sign in at the front desk when visiting a campus and to know campus and district procedures.
"We are trying to find middle ground," Bullock said. "We want to be safe without being overprotective."
Menawhile, Magnolia ISD held its first district-wide safety drill day Friday Feb. 15. Teachers, principals and school officers reviewed campus safety plans with students and every school in MISD did practice runs of the drills.
"I want to ensure that everyone in MISD knows how to appropriately respond to an emergency situation in their school," Superintendent Stephens said.