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As Texas passes law requiring armed officers at schools, one district plans its own police force

Eanes ISD Superintendent Jeff Arnett said the plan is to have two police officers at the high school and at least one officer stationed at both middle schools and the district's six elementary schools, including Forrest Trail (above).
Michael Minasi
Eanes ISD Superintendent Jeff Arnett said the plan is to have two police officers at the high school and at least one officer stationed at both middle schools and the district's six elementary schools, including Forrest Trail (above).

A small school district in Central Texas is one of the latest in the state to move forward with plans for its own police department. The Eanes ISD school board voted in early June to approve a policy to form a department.

At least 340 other public school districts in Texas already have police departments, according to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. Among them are Austin ISD, Pflugerville ISD, Del Valle ISD, Manor ISD and Lake Travis ISD.

The Eanes ISD school board’s approval of a police department coincides with new school safety legislation Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law last week. House Bill 3, among other things, requires school districts to have an armed security officer at every campus.

“We had been looking at the possibility of increasing the presence of law enforcement on our campuses, probably since the fall of 2022,” Eanes ISD Superintendent Jeff Arnett said. “And it accelerated this spring, obviously, with discussions in the Legislature around HB 3.”

Under the new law, if a district is not able to hire a peace officer or school resource officer because of a lack of funding or qualified candidates, the board of trustees must develop an alternative plan. The plan could involve having a school marshal or another school employee, who has undergone certain training, to act as a security officer.

Arnett said Eanes ISD did not want to be in the position of having teachers or other staff carrying guns on campus.

“We felt like we needed to have someone on each campus who is a qualified, commissioned, experienced peace officer," he said. "Someone who knows how to handle a firearm, someone who has the background in law enforcement, and can transfer that to what the environment is like at a school."

Eanes ISD currently has a partnership with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, which provides two school resource officers who primarily work at Westlake High School. School resource officers are peace officers who work for a local law enforcement agency and are assigned to a school district or campus. In addition to the two school resource officers, the district also employs six security staff. Altogether, those positions cost the district $935,000.

Eanes ISD officials anticipate it will cost the district $1.6 million annually to fund the new police department positions. Arnett said the district’s goal is to hire a chief of police and 10 other officers to staff all campuses. Two officers will be stationed at the high school, and there will be at least one officer stationed at both Eanes middle schools and the district's six elementary schools.

'It really gives us control'

Arnett said one of the benefits of forming a school district police department is that Eanes ISD can hire people who align with its values.

“It really gives us control in making sure that we have individuals who we know are fully qualified and competent," he said, "and who can act in a traditional law enforcement capacity but can be much more than just your typical police officer."

The policy the school board approved requires officers to be trained in a number of areas, including student mental health, trauma-informed care, restorative justice and de-escalation techniques. The district will also require training on working with students who have disabilities, as well as diversity, equity and inclusion.

Arnett said this training is vital.

“So that we can ensure that we’re enlisting these individuals to help us create an atmosphere and an environment of welcoming and belonging for all of our students,” he said.

According to data from Eanes ISD, nearly 65% of the district’s student population is white, 15% is Hispanic, 13% is Asian/Pacific Islander, and less than 1% is Black. Ten percent of students receive special education services.

While Arnett expressed optimism about finding officers who will be a good fit, some parents and advocates have reservations about the impact of school police. During a school safety town hall in May, participants raised a range of concerns.

A couple of people pointed out municipal police departments were struggling to find candidates, so they worried about who might be available for Eanes ISD to hire. Another person urged the district to make sure it uses training that is up to date.

One attendee pointed to research that found the presence of school police might make shootings more likely. According to an article published in the medical journal JAMA Network Open, previous research “suggests that many school shooters are actively suicidal, intending to die in the act, so an armed officer may be an incentive rather than a deterrent.”

Andrew Hairston is the director of the Education Justice Project at Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit that opposed the provision in HB 3 to require an armed officer on all school campuses. He said training for school police sounds good on paper, but it’s not effective and can entangle students in the criminal legal system.

“There’s so many Black and brown children, LGBTQ young people and kids with disabilities who are subjected to terror at the hands of their school police officers,” he said.

The Center for Public Integrity, which analyzed U.S. Department of Education data, found that school policing nationwide has a disproportionate impact on students with disabilities and Black students. That is true in Texas, where Black students and students with disabilities were referred to law enforcement at a higher rate than their peers.

Eanes ISD officials said there will be procedures in place to report any officer misconduct. The policy the board approved includes a process for filing both informal and formal complaints. The district also has a system that allows people to report concerns anonymously that will go to several individuals, not just the police department.

A spokesperson for the district said campus administrators and staff will be trained on the role school police do and do not have on campuses. School police officers in Texas, for example, are barred by law from engaging in “routine student discipline.”

Hairston said this prohibition is one that should be at the forefront for parents, young people and other education stakeholders.

“And for them to think about, ‘OK if this security has to be on the campus, then it should be such a specific role that this person is playing,’” he said.

Some of the responsibilities Eanes ISD police officers will have, according to the presentation at last month’s town hall, include responding to critical incidents, supporting mental health initiatives, directing traffic when needed, completing safety audits and training other staff.

Hairston said it is challenging to see state lawmakers push for more police on school campuses, especially in the wake of the Uvalde mass shooting that left 19 students and two teachers dead.

“We saw the stunning failure of police officers on that school campus at Robb Elementary in May 2022,” he said. “There’s been this feeling of reticence about if school police do secure school safety [and in] that really horrific and public event, you can see absolutely not — they don’t equate to public safety.”

But during the 88th legislative session, a bill that had support from families of the victims of the Robb Elementary shooting did not pass. It would have raised the minimum age to buy a semiautomatic rifle from 18 to 21. Instead legislation that was successful, like HB 3, focused on continuing to secure schools.

Hairston said Texas Appleseed will be monitoring how school districts throughout the state implement HB 3, which takes effect Sept. 1.

"We'll be trying to document, as best as we can, inevitably and unfortunately the abuses that will come from having more armed security and police on campuses," he said.

Just one layer of school safety 

At the June board meeting, one parent urged members to do more to keep students safe, such as continuing to fortify buildings.

“A gun on campus will be helpful but it won’t give the kids on the playground the tools to survive the first shots of a sniper attack,” Andrea Marwah said. “A gun on campus will be helpful, but it won’t stop the first bullets penetrating through unprotected windows.”

Eanes ISD voters last month approved a school bond package that includes more than $1.8 million for facility safety and security improvements. Another $1.3 million will go toward security cameras and emergency communication systems.

Kathy Martinez-Prather, the director of the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University, said any district's approach to security needs to be multifaceted.

“When we talk about school safety we talk about school safety as layers,” she said. “When you talk about everything from how do you prevent and mitigate to how do you recover if something tragic does happen on your campus.”

HB 3 actually requires the Texas School Safety Center to work with the Texas Education Agency and districts on developing school security plans and standards.

Martinez-Prather said having a police officer on campus is not the be all, end all for safety; it is critical for officers to have appropriate and regular training.

“I think it’s part of that layered approach when we talk about security, but it can also play a huge part in prevention and early intervention,” she said.

School districts also need to be continuously reviewing the effectiveness of all safety measures they put in place, Martinez-Prather said, from law enforcement to security cameras and metal detectors.

“All of those measures that school districts implement, they should be actively collecting data, setting goals and determining if those mechanisms are having the intended impact they are wanting to see,” she said.

Martinez-Prather said districts that are forming police departments for the first time, like Eanes ISD, should learn from other school systems that have already done this. She said school administrators and board members also need to be clear on their expectations for officers, continuously seek to make improvements and focus on positive outcomes for students. She emphasized it's important for school staff to understand the role of officers.

“It’s not just training for the officers, but for teachers, campus staff and even parents to really have a full understanding of why that officer is on that campus and what their roles are, and what they’re not,” she said.

Next steps

Funding included in HB 3 for school safety will cover only a small portion of the cost of a new police department. The law gives school districts $15,000 per campus, which amounts to just over $100,000 for Eanes ISD.

While Eanes ISD expects to launch a fully commissioned department in early 2024, the district is already recruiting officers with the goal of having one at each campus by the beginning of the 2023-2024 school year.

“Now we’re working toward finding those individuals," Arnett said, "making sure that they meet all of our qualifications, that they’re ready for the trainings that will be required of them, so that we can have them employed ideally on an interim basis in August.”

Arnett said the decision to form a police department was significant for Eanes ISD and not one that was taken lightly.

“This was a big step forward and it was really an acknowledgement by our board of trustees that society is changing,” he said. “And while this transcends what you would think of in terms of providing a typical education, we can’t educate our students, we can’t provide a safe learning and teaching environment, unless we’re also protecting our students and our staff.”

Copyright 2023 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Becky Fogel is the newscast host and producer for “Texas Standard.” She came to the show from Science Friday in New York where she produced segments on zombie microbiomes and sneaker technology. She got her start in radio at KWBU-FM in Waco and she’s happy to be back in the great state of Texas.