Walking toward school safety

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Conversations have been held on the national, state and local level regarding school safety in the wake of the Parkland, Fla. shooting in February. Ideas such as metal detectors, clear backpacks, armed teachers and congressional rifle legislation have been floated as ways to reduce the scenes of carnage witnessed at multiple schools over recent years. In Fort Stockton, school and law enforcement leaders have progressed on plans involving safety, security, and common sense.

At the recent Fort Stockton ISD school board meeting, Superintendent Ralph Traynham led a short discussion with board members about measures the district could take toward student safety. Fort Stockton Police Chief Ryan Skelton was on hand to lend his thoughts. While arming and training teachers was mentioned, the police chief's latest method of creating trust and harmony between students and members of his force were commended.

Skelton has initiated what he calls a “walk through program,” where his officers are required to make daily stops at the many FSISD campuses and casually walk through the facility, not just to show a presence of safety and authority, but to make connections and friendships as well. On one recent walk through, officers sat in with elementary students during their lunch period. One deputy even brought in the K-9 unit to the delight of the children.

Superintendent Traynham said that Skelton's plan was having the desired effect on the schools.

“I think it is having a very positive effect on all campuses,” he said. “Adding more law enforcement officers is definitely an option the district is taking serious. FSISD will continue to aggressively pursue all avenues in search of the safest environment for our students and staff.”

Skelton mandates this even though his force is two officers short and are already stretched thin because of other matters in the city. But, the safety of the schools is a top priority of his, and that is why he insists this of his officers.

The chief has first-hand experience in school shootings, having been with the Alpine PD when a student shot a classmate and took her own life at the high school. He took what he learned there and applied it when he was placed in charge here. He updated the policy manual and got his officers familiar with all of the campuses.

“The protection of our kids and the relationship between students and police officers is a priority for our team,” he said. “My team feels that this approach will hopefully maintain a lifetime of friendship between the two.”

Alamo Elementary Principal Betty McCallister agrees. Many of her teachers already have those relationships with some officers, having taught several of them years prior. The teachers have been known to give their former pupils some good-natured ribbing about behaving. And sometimes, they call on those officers to help correct a current student's undisciplined actions.

“It's a great feeling to see them making relationships with the kids, and the kids trust them and know that they are somebody that they can go to,” McCallister said. “Plus, it's a great feeling to know they're coming by so often.

She is also a native of these parts.

“It's wonderful to know that they are taking care of Fort Stockton,” she said.

Skelton employs a school resource officer (SRO) to give their full attention to the schools. She is not only a product of FSISD, but has children that have been students here. One of her concerns is bullying, and she feels compelled to put an end to it, as well as some of the other issues that have plagued districts.

“Hopefully my presence will stop all that,” said SRO Christina Moore. “I've asked [students] several times, what do you think I can do more to make you feel safe? Or what do you think we need to do [as a police force] to prevent what has been happening.”

The response has been positive, she said. Being a parent gives her added insight to the inner working of teenagers, tools that can be a great benefit to someone looking to de-escalate a situation or find out who mat be causing trouble. And though being a woman in this profession is difficult, she says, it often helps in what her goals are.

“I think kids open up more,” she said. “I just try to be myself around them, say hi to everybody, to be respectful to everybody.”

Her partner that day agreed. Officer Jordan Falcón has seen a difference in children since he began conducting walk throughs. Where before, a child might turn and run at the sight of a cop, they are more approachable now.

Both officers are trained should something truly horrific happen, like an active shooter. Skelton explained that monthly trainings are conducted when school is out, allowing officers to shoot starter pistols and “simulations guns” — borrowed from the U.S. Border Patrol — that actually shoot non-lethal projectiles filled with paint or powder so that when it hits an officer, they will feel an impact and see a mark. The sounds add to the reality of the training, he said, which sometimes get fairly intense.

“It's like the real thing,” Moore said. “You don't know what to expect. You don't know where they're at in the school. We had people yelling, screaming for help, and you want to get there but at the same time you want to be safe in getting there. It's a good learning experience.”

Multiple area departments are involved in the drills. The Pecos County Sheriff's Office and U.S. Border Patrol are trained in the same manner as the FSPD, so no matter who shows up, they all know the protocol.

“We've been successful with the trainings we've had. Hopefully none of that ever happens here,” said High School Principal Gil-Rey Madrid. He notes the school-wide safety plan that has been in place since the Columbine, Colo. shooting in 1999. Within seconds, he said, all area law enforcement could be alerted to a crisis with a response almost immediate. Still, a national debate rages on about the rationale of arming teachers and school officials.

Madrid questioned the logic in arming teachers. In a far-flung district where a response time by authorities is long, such measures may be warranted. But locally, that might not be necessary.

“In Fort Stockton, I'd have to really seriously think about that,” Madrid said. “I'm not too comfortable with that at all, but if the school board wanted to do that, because there are laws that allow that already, it just has to be approved by the school board.”

The laws he referenced do allow some sort of armed resistance on school grounds. One, the School Marshal Program, was authorized by the Texas legislature to allow a school employee to take training provided by a law enforcement academy certified in the school marshal curriculum. The employee would have access to a weapon located at a secure spot on campus but would not carry it on their person. The other, known as the Guardian Program, allows for specific school employees to be armed at all times after they have gone through extensive training including a psychological exam.

Madrid also addressed having metal detectors or additional fencing around a school, which are other pieces in the school safety debate. He said that several safeguards are in place to look for trouble signs, such as the extensive camera network at the school and teachers trained to pick out students that may be hiding a weapon or acting erratically. He doesn't see a need for fortifying the campus.

“You want to be as secure as possible without it feeling like a prison,” he said. “You have armed guards in prison.”

Fortunately, Madrid's biggest concerns at his school are not fending off active shooters but dealing with unlicensed teen drivers, who he calls a safety risk. On the larger issue of school shooters, he sees a focus on prevention to these types of acts. He encourages kids to be friendly, to talk to others, smile, and tell them they're happy to have them at school. Because, as he said, you don't know what it took for them to simply get to school that day.

In all, he, along with Skelton and the other officers, consider Fort Stockton ISD a safe place with plenty of measures to insure it stays that way.

“My family goes to this school. I have nieces and nephews that go to school here. I know they're safe,” Madrid said.

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