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Under state rules, Midway OKs armed staff, WISD contractors | #schoolsaftey

A handful of Midway ISD employees will be armed and trained to complement other new state-mandated security measures being implemented this school year, while Waco ISD will contract with licensed officers to meet the requirements in a competitive market for law enforcement employees.

The addition of armed personnel to cover every campus will not always be visible, but alert Waco-area students returning to classes will see other changes at their schools.

Some will see clear backpacks, new fencing, updated doors, outside-facing windows with a film overlay, and metal detectors at more secondary schools.

The requirement for armed personnel at every school, the fencing and window film are part of a school security law that advanced as House Bill 3 in this year’s legislative session and will take effect Sept. 1.

School administrators and boards agree protection of students and employees is essential, but implementing the state law has presented challenges. Waco Independent School District maintains a police force of 14 school resource officers, 13 security guards, three commanders and two dispatchers at the annual cost of $1.6 million in salary and benefits.

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Putting an armed person on each of the district’s 25 campuses would mean hiring another 13 school resource officers for $500,000 more, Waco ISD Police Chief David Williams told Waco ISD trustees at a meeting July 27. Williams said he prefers school resource officers for those positions, but not every candidate is suitable for school work.

“We have to have that person who wants to work with children,” Williams told trustees.

Armed personnel options

State law allows districts several options for armed personnel on campuses: a school resource officer, usually a police officer or security guard with training to work at schools; a “school marshal,” who is a school educator or other employee with 80 hours of required training and the ability to act as an armed security guard; and a “school guardian,” who is a school educator or employee with 16 hours of required training and a role limited to protecting others from an active shooter until law enforcement arrives.

Trustees, some expressing uneasiness with the idea of arming a teacher or school staffer, and Superintendent Susan Kincannon supported Williams in his preference for security professionals. During last month’s board meeting, Kincannon cautioned that statewide demand for law enforcement officers would make that difficult to achieve by the Sept. 1 deadline.

In an interview last week, she said the district has opted to fill security vacancies by hiring certified officers as independent contractors, roughly comparable to how schools cover teacher absences through a substitute teacher pool.

“We will comply with the state law,” Kincannon said.

While the Waco ISD Police Department has 13 vacancies to fill, other area law enforcement agencies have an abundance of openings and often pay better.

The Waco Police Department has 22 openings, with hourly wages from $30.94 for a newly commissioned officer to $53.99 for a newly promoted police sergeant, and extra pay for certain certifications and bilingual ability, spokesperson Cierra Shipley said.

Other police and sheriff’s departments in the seven largest cities of the 12-county Region 12 Education Service Center report an additional 13 vacancies they are trying to fill.

Williams, recently named a regional director for the Texas School District Police Chiefs Association, said the shortage of police officers is not a local but a statewide problem. In fact, state legislators this year removed the age cap for law enforcement officers to broaden the candidate pool.

Even with a recent salary increase and signing bonus for a school resource officer, the Waco district finds itself at a disadvantage where money is concerned as city police departments such as Waco can offer some $15,000 more for similar positions, Williams said.

Funding gap

Much to the chagrin of many school administrators, legislators provided little money to defray school security hiring. A $15,000 per campus allotment and a small increase in the school safety allotment will bring in an additional $377,777 to Waco ISD, making a total of $658,000 in state money for school safety. But much of that money is going to required facility improvements. Kincannon said the new security requirements come at a time when the district is looking at a budget shortfall of about $5 million.

“That’s the challenge,” she said. “We were already stretched.”

Faced with the same high personnel costs and small candidate pool as Waco ISD, Midway ISD will use school guardians, armed teachers or other employees, to meet its requirements, alongside school resource officers already serving the district, for armed personnel at all of its 11 campuses, Superintendent Chris Allen said.

Manpower availability was a factor in the decision. Discussions with Hewitt, Woodway and Waco police departments found all three also seeking law enforcement officers to fill their own vacancies, Allen said.

He said the district is hiring more guardians than needed to fill the immediate vacancies, but declined to specify how many, in part for security reasons.

“My answer is between six and 13,000,” he quipped.

The teachers and school employees hired as guardians have the role added to their job description and would have to pass psychological and drug testing to qualify, but they will not receive additional pay. Guardians would provide their own district-approved weapon. Midway, however would supply frangible ammunition, which shatters on impact, reducing the risk of bystanders being injured or killed by ricochets, Allen said.

The state requirement for armed personnel on every school campus comes at the same time the district struggles to fill teacher vacancies due to competition from nearby districts for candidates. That competition is pressuring districts like Midway to raise its starting salary. Waco ISD recently passed a 3% increase for its employees while Connally ISD boosted employee salaries by 5%.

Midway’s status as a property-rich district limits its ability to cover rising operational costs through tax revenue. If the district brings in more revenue than the state determines is necessary, the state “recaptures” the excess and redistributes it to property-poor districts.

As a result, Midway may ask for a voter-approved tax rate election that will allow the district to retain more of its tax revenues in future years, a measure Allen feels is being forced on the district. The district’s plan would cut the debt-service portion of its tax rate by 3 cents per $100 property value, then ask voters in November to approve an equal increase to the operations portion of its tax rate, though the ballot would only reflect the increase, not the preceding cut.

Funding more security officers plus rising teacher salaries without additional state funding will increase budget pressures on districts for the foreseeable future, he said.

“We are backed into a corner by ill-conceived and poorly funded legislation,” Allen said. “I think it will be a struggle going forward. How do we make this plan sustainable?”

Facility upgrades

Other area school districts also spent the summer and the new state funding to beef up their security measures and comply with House Bill 3.

Robinson ISD safety coordinator David Wrzesinski said the district plans to add an officer to its police force, but also employs several school marshals at each campus.

Robinson spent more than $200,000 this summer to replace some fencing and install protective film to windows and doors, Wrzesinski said. Future security improvements include upgrading interior and exterior security cameras and adapting school clocks so they will display emergency messages that hearing-impaired students might not otherwise receive, he said.

China Spring ISD Superintendent Marc Faulkner said the district will tackle $130,000 in door replacements on older campuses in coming weeks, once the new doors arrive. The district also will install window film at all campuses that, like the replacement doors, is funded by the state.

At the three-school charter Rapoport Academy Public School, administrators are still evaluating how to comply with House Bill 3’s requirements within its deadlines, spokesperson Sarah-Jane Menefee said. The district’s strategic plan already called for hiring at least one school resource officer by 2026, she said.

At Connally ISD, officials added a licensed security officer to the school resource officers in its school police force, completing coverage of its four campuses with armed security personnel, spokesperson Michael Donaldson said.

La Vega ISD Police Chief Kerry Blakemore said his officers already were doing many of the things in the latest state requirements: checking building doors and access, monitoring campus visitors and patrolling district property.

“The things they suggested were the majority of things we were doing,” Blakemore said. “We were absolutely in front of everything.”

This year’s extra state security funding allowed Waco ISD to replace exterior door locks at 15 schools, add new fencing at five elementary schools and install intruder-resistant window film at all campuses.

The district also continued and expanded security improvements that started in the spring at Waco High School, Kincannon said. Metal detectors, including ones using artificial intelligence to locate questionable objects, are at the secondary schools and will be at Waco ISD Stadium this fall. Students at all schools now are required to have clear backpacks.

Waco ISD is creating a district safety coordinator position, continuing mental health training for teachers and staff, and implementing social-emotional learning curriculum for students.

Kincannon said the metal detectors and clear backpack policy implemented at Waco High after several incidents of weapons discovered on campus have been effective, reducing fights and allowing students to refocus as they adjust to new routines. She said the Waco High members of her student advisory committee reported most perceived a small number of students were behind the earlier disruptions and the changes implemented at spring break had allowed the majority to pull back together.

Regional resources

Region 12 Education Service Center coordinates and conducts school safety audits, required every three years, for districts in its 12-county coverage area.

Heather Wheeler, the center’s school safety specialist, said the audits not only include a check of a school’s exterior doors, locks and windows, but interior classrooms, bathrooms, cafeterias and playgrounds.

Districts with older facilities tend to have more issues with security hardware, but state funding for building security has helped to address the problem, Wheeler said.

The center also assists in state-mandated emergency safety plans and participated in a recent reunification training held at Waco’s University High last week. The two-day session informed and trained school officials on how to coordinate and manage student-parent pickup after an emergency evacuation of a school.

Protecting students and staff from threats outside and inside schools is a multifaceted problem with no single solution, Wheeler said.

“It’s a puzzle we have to put together,” she said.

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