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School board establishes armed security program

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Last week, the Elgin ISD board of trustees voted to create the district’s own armed security department to provide commissioned officers to work in Elgin schools.

According to state education law, a school board can employ armed or unarmed security personnel, enter into an agreement with a local law enforcement agency for school resource officers (SROs) or develop a district police department with its own peace officers.

Matthew West, the director of safety and risk management for Elgin ISD, last presented the different school security options to the school board during a special meeting right before January 11’s regular meeting. During the March 22 meeting, he discussed the armed security officers option ahead of an agenda item regarding the creation of such a department.

West said he, deputy superintendent Dr. Peter Perez and Superintendent Dr. Jodi Duron decided to go with an armed security department to most effectively meet the needs of Elgin ISD.

An armed security officer for the district must be a commissioned Texas peace officer, but can be commissioned by any law enforcement agency instead of by the school district. The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE) already mandates law enforcement agencies perform an extensive background check for each commissioned officer, and West said Elgin ISD would also conduct a background check just as they would any other new employee.

Texas peace officers are required to take 40 hours of mental health training and 40 hours of crisis intervention training. Armed school security officers must also complete training on school-based law enforcement, de-escalation techniques and legislative updates. West added that officers at Elgin ISD could not only meet, but exceed, these training requirements.

“We want the most professional employees that we can get here,” West said.

One of the advantages of creating a security department instead of a school district police department is that Elgin ISD would not have to pay a fee to apply for an agency license through TCOLE, and would instead just have to register for free with the Texas Department of Public Safety. There would also be a lot more paperwork and continuing costs, and it would increase the cost for Elgin ISD by about 20 to 30% to create a law enforcement agency, West said.

Armed school security officers would just arrest for felonies or breach of the peace, but could not arrest, write tickets or get warrants for misdemeanors.

Before, the school district paid about $150,000 per year for SROs from Elgin Police Department. Instead, the armed security officers would be district employees, their salaries and benefits would be paid directly from Elgin ISD, and the district would hire and terminate them. They could also take on additional safety-related duties, such as education and awareness programs directly for students. 

“We have that opportunity that we didn't have with the SROs, to allow our security officers to be positively engaged with our student body and provide education and prevention services that we didn't get with the school resource officers, because they were not our employees,” West said. “This allows us to broaden our horizons and to provide more proactive, positive interaction between our security officers and the student and staff body.”

Board member Juanita Valarie Neidig asked if the school district has pursued hiring counselors for mental health and community intervention, versus using armed security guards to stop a potential shooting event in a school.

“I'm always so proud of Elgin, because we're so proactive,” she said. “But are we talking about mental health interaction with our kids at all levels? … Where are we budgeting for some type of mental health counselors or intervention support?”

Duron said that Elgin ISD has increased the number of counselors on campus over the past several years; the district has implemented a social-emotional learning curriculum throughout all grades; and the school district’s health clinic partners with Bluebonnet Trails for mental health support and services.

West stressed the importance of providing mental health training to officers, as well as cultural diversity and de-escalation techniques. He said that an officer’s actions and words, rather than a firearm, is what can stop actions.

“We want to train them to be professional, if there is a crisis,” West said. “The only reason why they have a gun on them is for that small percent chance of an active shooter. … It's the goal of the district to have our security officers engage positively with students, and if they see signs of issues of mental health or some type of social behavior disorder, to be able to identify that and to get them the counseling they need.”

Neidig also asked about hiring officers that mirror the demographics of the students. West noted that, for example, Spanish speakers are in short supply in Elgin ISD, but so far, he has heard from a number of Spanish-speaking candidates who are interested in the position.

“That's always the goal, to try and get those qualified individuals that can serve the community and the school district that meet the demographic needs of the community,” West said. “I think we're going to get a good candidate pool. There are a lot of police officers out there, because of the climate today, who really want to do a good job, but they don't want to be out on the streets anymore.”

West said the armed security department option would allow the program to grow as the school district grows, eventually allowing it to transition into a full police department if the school board decides to do so in the future. School police departments are also useful for school districts that operate in more than one county or jurisdiction, West added, which could come into play if Elgin ISD added a campus closer to Manor or in Lee County.

The plan is to hire three officers: one would be stationed at the high school, another at the middle school, and the third traveling between the intermediate school and the elementary schools. During the summer, the officers can use their time to work on their training and participate in emergency management exercises.

The program does not include a canine officer, as West said they are very expensive to maintain; it would be more cost-effective to contract out canine services.

The cost to start up the security department in the first year totals $354,000. This includes $28,000 for uniforms and equipment and $74,000 for four patrol vehicles, both of which are initial investments that would not need to be bought each year; $241,000 for salary and benefits, $115,000 of which is already in the annual safety budget; and $11,000 for training, which includes travel to other law enforcement agencies or entities such as the Austin ISD police department or the Capital Area Council of Governments.

“As a former training officer, training is near and dear to my heart, and that's what really makes your professional officers is how well they're trained,” West said.

Although the officers would be wearing full uniforms, they will be labeled as “security” instead of “police.”

“Seeing police in the schools, that's something in our society that we're really trying to get away from,” West said. “We still want them to have security, we want to have safety. That's really the message we want: they're not here to police our students and our staff, they're here to provide safety and security for students.”

West said he could begin working on creating the department as soon as the board approved the action item on last week’s agenda.

After the discussion, the board voted 5 to 1 to approve the creation of the armed safety and security department, with Neidig voting against. She reiterated her concerns about armed officers in schools and supported more focus on counseling.

“I do think that it's a better option for our school district than what we had,” Neidig said. “I do feel that there's issues that we could not get the support that I thought we should from the Elgin Police Department. I just don't know that it's the best for our school district with what's going on in society today.”

 

Architecture firm presents update on long-term facilities plan efforts

The school board also heard a presentation on the efforts to develop a long-term facilities master plan for the district and potentially hold a bond election this fall.

In January, the district hired PBK Architects to provide a facilities condition assessment, long-range master planning and bond planning services for a November 2021 bond election.

Darrell Pearson, a partner at PBK and one of the four PBK employees working with Elgin ISD, delivered the presentation. PBK has worked to gather data from the district, analyze demographics, evaluate costs, assess facilities, develop a long-range master plan and design a potential bond referendum in November.

There are four steps in the process: planning and discovery, facilities assessment, master planning, and bond planning and public engagement.

The planning and discovery phase, where PBK gathers information about the district and its building, is about 95% complete. They are about 75% through the facilities assessment phase, where they bring engineering and construction professionals to walk through each facility, analyze the condition of all of the buildings, model costs, discuss needs with facilities staff, issue a district-wide questionnaire and conduct meetings with departments and department heads.

“It's pretty comprehensive, from looking at every square inch of all your buildings, to getting information from the people that maintain those buildings and keep them up every day, and then people that use those buildings, and stakeholders that want to give us input as well, even beyond some of your administrators and teachers,” Pearson said.

PBK had planned to conduct the building walk-throughs over two weeks last month, but due to the winter storm in mid-February, had to compress that work down to one week after the storm was over. The building walk-throughs are complete, Pearson said, and they are right on track with their established schedule.

The master planning process has just begun, where the school board looks at the information compiled by PBK and begins to think about where the district should go. For example, they could determine if more school campuses are needed based on existing buildings and future demographic growth. The board can also establish priorities on projects that are most needed in case not everything can be included in the initial bond.

Finally, PBK will begin the process to set up a bond election as the master planning phase progresses. They would help the school district establish an oversight committee, conduct outreach to voters and put together the bond package itself. 

Committees can range from 15 to 90 people, Pearson said; the ideal number would be between 20 and 30 people. The makeup of the committee is up to the school district, and can include members from community members to teachers to school administrators.

The last day for the school board to decide whether or not to call a bond referendum for the November 2021 election will be August 16. 

Pearson said PBK will wrap up the master planning process by the end of May, and the bond referendum would be planned between late May through August. The community outreach component begins once a bond referendum is established.