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Eanes, Lake Travis, Leander ISDs respond to school safety legislation | #schoolsaftey

In the wake of tragedies across the country, such as the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde last May, the Texas Legislature and school districts statewide have bolstered school safety and security.

In June, the Eanes ISD board of trustees approved the policy and creation of a district police department, which will authorize an armed police officer at every campus.

EISD is the second-smallest school district in Travis County and so is in a unique position to create its own police department, Superintendent Jeff Arnett said. The district has six elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school.

“We never actually had dedicated armed law enforcement on each of our campuses with the exception of the high school,” Arnett said. “Over the last year … there was an increasing conversation [within the district] about the need to increase the presence of armed security on all of our campuses.”

EISD, Lake Travis ISD and Leander ISD have increased funding, proposed bonds and outlined plans to address safety and security amid a changing landscape with new legislation.

Filling the need

The discussions about the need for an armed presence on campuses in EISD gained momentum and coincided with the Texas House of Representatives’ passage of House Bill 3 during the 88th legislative session, which ran from January to May.

Under this bill, created by Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, all public and open-enrollment charter schools across the state must have at least one armed school security guard on campus during regular school hours. All school districts will receive $15,000 per campus annually plus an additional $10 per student to fund safety initiatives, according to the bill, which goes into effect Sept. 1.

Prior to becoming officers, individuals are required to complete training through the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. Upon completion of the commission’s training, officers can undergo additional training at the Texas School Safety Center, said Matt Greer, EISD director of safety and risk management and soon-to-be police chief.

The center was created in response to the Columbine school shooting in 1999 and conducts training, research and assistance for public school districts and junior community colleges, said Kathy Martinez-Prather, director of the Texas School Safety Center.

As school districts in Texas have been asked to do more to enhance safety and security, she said the role of the center is to provide support, resources, best practices and training for free.

Implementing new policies

Prior to HB 3 and the creation of the district’s police department, EISD only had two school resource officers, who were contracted through the Travis County Sheriff’s Office.

Logistically and financially, it made sense to pivot as the cost for the two SROs was nearing $1 million annually, Arnett said. It will cost an additional $700,000 to create and implement the EISD police department, which the district will have to foot the bill for.

“We can leverage that to actually provide law enforcement on all of our campuses,” Arnett said. “The economy of scale becomes greater and more affordable when we create our own police department, and the other benefit to that … is that we have more control over those officers.”

Greer and Brent Kelly, the director of safety and security and soon-to-be lieutenant, said they both served in the Austin Police Department and have a reliable network of colleagues that could fill positions at the district police department.

One recruit, Michael Cowden, has had multiple children go through EISD and will be serving as a police officer at an elementary school once the police department is fully commissioned.

“Having been a parent, I think it just enables you to see things as a parent, and it enables you to better help those children,” Cowden said.

The EISD police department is not expected to be commissioned until late 2023 or early 2024, Arnett said.

LTISD, on the other hand, has had an operational police department since 2021, and Chief of Police Andy Michael said he is working on hiring and staffing up his team ahead of the start of the school year.

“Going into next school year, I will have three officers at the high school, and I will have two officers at each middle school,” Michael said. “Three elementaries will permanently have an officer assigned, and the remaining four elementaries will share two officers.”

The current state

LISD has more than double the enrollment of EISD and LTISD combined at just over 43,000 students, according to the districts.

LISD Superintendent Bruce Gearing said “there is no way” the district will be able to have an officer at every campus by the start of the school year.

The district will have seven SROs across its campuses, leaving 40 without a guard, according to district officials.

Despite the additional funding as part of the new legislation, it will not be enough to fund LISD’s new measures, meaning the board of trustees will likely have to amend the budget throughout the year to meet the new standard, Gearing said.

When asked about how LISD will comply with HB 3, Chief Communications Officer Crestina Hardie said the district is still figuring out the next steps.

Even with this shortfall, LISD has invested several millions of dollars over the past few years for security and monitoring services. Voters also approved a $762.8 million bond package in May, which has $10.66 million earmarked for safety measures.

EISD and LTISD have increased their budgets for security and monitoring services by 50% or more from 2019-20 to 2023-24, according to the district’s adopted and proposed budgets.

Like LISD, EISD voters also approved a bond in May with $117 million slated for facility safety and security improvements, security cameras, and emergency medical equipment.

With the new school year underway and the bill’s effective date looming, districts will continue to work to provide safety, security and programs that aid in creating a conducive learning environment for students, according to district officials.

“We’re going to provide the security component and handle that. That’ll be the No. 1 priority. But I think the secondary component of our job is going to be what other things we can do to assist staff, the kids, parents in the community,” Cowden said.

Grant Crawford contributed to this report.

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