By Greg Ritchie
HOUSTON COUNTY – The Uvalde school shooting was a tragedy that left some hard lessons in its wake. Lessons for the local school district, lessons for the Uvalde city administration and law enforcement, lessons for that community. The biggest lesson for the rest of us is – unfortunately – these tragedies really can strike anywhere, at any time.
A debate rages throughout the country over gun laws, mental health and the detection of threats before they emerge. Meanwhile, local school administrators and law enforcement are continuing a process of security upgrades along with training in Houston County schools which began long before the Uvalde school shooting.
In the aftermath of the Uvalde tragedy, Governor Greg Abbot sent a letter to every school district in the state mandating improvements in training, coordination among staff, physical security at every campus. This letter also created a new position known as the Chief of School Safety and Security within the Texas Education Agency.
This week Sheriff Randy Hargrove held a meeting with all of the school districts in Houston County along with state officials and local police departments to plan for the worst.
At Crockett ISD, Superintendent John Emmerich says his district was ready for the new state mandates on school doors.
“We have to do door audits on all outside doors now,” Emmerich said. “Some of our doors that would not have passed are the ones we just spent money to replace. We were one step ahead on that.”
The Crockett district has replaced some doors completely and repairing others. They also unveiled a keyless entry door system that cannot be opened without an access card. Entries and exits can all be controlled and tracked.
Emmerich and his team knew that being ready would always serve the district best, and this was intensified by what happened in Uvalde.
“It wasn’t a surprise that something like that would or could happen again somwhere, but we had already started taking steps to do whatever we can do to prevent that,” Emmerich noted. “We do have school marshalls at our district and these are people that have gone through extensive training with the State of Texas. We have those people spread out around our campuses and we do have signs posted that we have armed individuals.”
Wendy Tullos, Lovelady ISD Superintendent, explained she had received guidance from local officials as well as from Gov. Abbot.
“We are making sure that we are taking care to follow all of those safety requirements,” Tullos said. “Those consist of behavioral assessments, facility assessments, forming committees, procedures, drills, and access controls. At our next board meeting we will be discussing starting our own police department for Lovelady ISD.”
Kennard ISD Superintendent Melinda Lindsey said safety of children and school staff has always been the top priority but Uvalde reinforced the importance of safety planning.
“After Uvalde we reviewed our safety and security plan, how students and visitors enter, how they get from one place to the other. Are they in confined areas where they could be exposed?” commented Lindsey.
Lindsey says she and others learned a lot at the county school safety conference.
“It wasn’t just superintendents, we had emergency management, local police, and the Texas Department of Emergency Management,” Lindsey said. “It was good to have everyone at the table and the biggest thing was to improve how we communicate with each other.”
Grapeland ISD superintendent Don Jackson agreed the safety conference helped, and praised how well coordinated local agencies seem to be.
“Our Houston County law enforcement – they’re tight. They work together. The police departments, sheriff’s department; they have a good close working relationship,” Jackson said. “And along with the emergency management, in the meeting it was obvious they were on the same page and trying to set us up for success.”
Several superintendents called it preparing for the worst and hoping it never happens.
Latexo ISD Superintendent Michael Woodard spoke at the Latexo ISD school board meeting, acknowledging some of the new safety measures could be inconvenient, but emphasized safety comes first.
“We just now posted a chief of police position so we are going to start our own police department here. We had that in the works already,” Woodard said. “We just have to plan for all the ‘what if’s,’ so we work to train our staff, train our kids, train our parents.”
History teaches us that there is no fort that cannot be taken, no river that never bends. However Houston County schools and law enforcement have taken the lessons of Uvalde to heart, making investments of time, money, resources, that all hope will never be needed.
Jackson stressed it was his belief that better communication and preparation could help prevent future tragedies from occurring.
“The first thing is to prevent as much as we can,” Jackson said. “How do you prevent? By being prepared. This is the thing that nobody ever wants. Test scores are important, but school safety should be the number one thing.”
Greg Ritchie can be reached at [email protected]