Wednesday, September 27

S.A. schools tighten security, increase police presence

School districts across San Antonio increased security, tightened rules about what students could bring to campus and sent anguished notes to teachers, principals, and parents about how to react to a horrific situation happening 85 miles away.

An 18-year-old gunman killed 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvalde before noon on Tuesday, and starting that evening San Antonio schools were fielding questions from worried parents.

Students arriving onto campus Wednesday saw more police officers than normal and were advised to reach out to counselors if they needed to talk to someone.

Some districts sent counselors to Uvalde to help students directly impacted by the tragedy.

“Over the years, I have written far too many letters like this,” Sarah Baray, the CEO of Pre-K 4 SA, said in an email to parents Wednesday morning. “There is no way to make sense of the devastating tragedy and loss that occurred in Uvalde, Texas yesterday. Our hearts are heavy as we think about the children and families of Uvalde.”

Principals at many school districts were instructed to review their safety plans, including lockdown drills and the channels set up to report any threats of violence. Virtually all of them have spent a decade improving school safety policies and practices.

“It is not like we are changing anything in these next few days,” said Barry Perez, the spokesperson at Northside Independent School District. “We have established protocols and procedures in place that are effective and good. Events like yesterday serve as reminders that we have to be vigilant and we can never let our guard down.”

Earl Rudder Middle School Principal Paul Ramirez was finishing up his weekly newsletter on Wednesday and added a recap of Northside ISD’s ongoing safety precautions. Among the reminders for the end of the school year: no backpacks are allowed during the last week of classes.

“As a principal of a campus I have a lot of feelings, but I also have to be the leader of the campus and make sure my teachers, and my kids, and my families, and everybody understand that we are all in this together,” Ramirez said. “Their anxiety levels rise, and they worry about what’s going to happen.”

In the decade since the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting in December, 2012, area schools have added bullet resistant entrances, digital video surveillance systems, lockdown drills, locked perimeter fencing, tougher classroom door hardware and more police officers.

“We have safety procedures and safety protocols that we follow every single day,” said Aubrey Chancellor, spokesperson for North East ISD. “Unfortunately, when you have a tragedy like this, and especially so close to home, it is just a stark reminder that we need to be reviewing those safety protocols on a regular basis and really know what to do when an event such as that occurs.”

Physical safety wasn’t the only concern.

“No doubt people are scared,” Perez said. “Situations like yesterday bring it all to the forefront. We also want to be mindful … of the emotional safety of kids.”

Patti Salzmann, the deputy superintendent of San Antonio ISD, said that besides safety precautions, “there is no substitute for building strong relationships with our students, families, and staff.”

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At Maverick Elementary School in SAISD, a “Career on Wheels” festival was partly why students were able to cope with the jarring reality of Uvalde hanging over them Wednesday morning, said counselor Jeanette Zuniga. The parking lot was full of music, games and inspirational talks from community leaders.

“We were thinking of canceling the event but even the superintendent said go ahead, and keep doing whatever you’re doing because we don’t want the kids to come to school afraid,” Zuniga said. “I know that they did, some of them were afraid, some parents were concerned. But they knew that here at Maverick we will keep them safe.”

Annette Anderson, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Health Schools, advocates for better mental health remediation and more resources to attend more deeply to students who show signs of stress or violence.

Kids need more counselors and social workers who can listen to them — but increasing police presence on school campuses is not going to help them, she said.

Statistically, schools with more police have higher rates of suspensions or arrests of students of color, and it “doesn’t make kids feel safer,” Anderson said. “If anything it is more traumatizing for young people.”

But the guidance sent to principals at many school districts advised them to make their presence felt, and that of their police, to families dropping off their kids in the morning.

“We made sure the East Central Police Department was visible today,” said Brandon Oliver, the East Central ISD spokesman. “All campuses have an officer assigned to it, but with yesterday on everyone’s minds we just thought, out of an abundance of caution, we would make them even more visible today.”

More effort needs to be placed on identifying, reporting and acting on any concerning behavior by students before a threat is even made, said Kathy Martinez-Prather, the director at Texas State University’s School Safety Center.

“That is a common theme we have seen through a lot of these shootings throughout the decades,” she said. “There was someone who knew something, there was someone who had a concern or didn’t report it because they didn’t think it was that big of a deal or they thought someone (else) would report it.”

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