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Security plans in place at local schools

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

On Friday, Dec. 14, a deranged gunman massacred 20 first graders and six members of the administration and faculty of the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. In the wake of that tragedy, administrators with the Bandera Independent School District responded with a media release on Monday, Dec. 17, reassuring parents that safety precautions are in place in local schools.
However, specifics of the safety measures were understandably not forthcoming. "It would defeat the purpose to have our security details published," said Tracy Thayer, director of federal programs and communication "We can't afford for them to become common knowledge."
Law enforcement
According to Thayer, Bandera ISD campus and district administrators regularly evaluate security and safety at each campus. Likewise, law enforcement officers with the Bandera County Sheriff's Office and the office of City Marshal Charlie Hicks often collaborate with the school district to address areas of concern on the campuses and within the district. Additionally, BCSO deputies have been providing an increased presence on Bandera ISD campuses since the tragedy on Friday, Dec. 14.
In spring 2012, the Bandera ISD Board of Trustees received an update on district safety and reviewed district and campus safety audits that had been completed in December. Even they, however, were not privy to the details of the security programs in place. "Since trustees' packets are public information, we had to be very careful about the specifics that were included in the briefings," Thayer said.
Since then, campuses have conducted safety drills and periodic walk-throughs. According to Thayer, safety drills might address building evacuation due to a variety of scenarios, or drills in which students are secured inside the building for a variety of reasons. During the walk-through process, campus and district administrators literally walk through a building, noting any safety or security concerns that need to be addressed.
"Just by chance, I did a safety walk through with Mr. Jackson the assistant principal at Alkek Elementary School today," Thayer said. "We had set it up several weeks ago to - prior to the events on Friday. This is a routine part of our safety process. We also invite law enforcement to campuses annually to ensure they are familiar with the layouts of various educational campuses."
Additionally, school staff regularly attends safety conferences to keep their knowledge of security practices current.
"Each campus has emergency procedures in place designed to respond to a variety of safety issues," the Dec. 17 press release stated. "Campus principals routinely address these issues and procedures during faculty meetings and in annual staff development trainings." In a second written statement issued on Wednesday, Dec. 19, Superintendent Regina Howell reiterated Thayer's assessment of district security plans, including site-specific school safety plans, crisis-response measures, annual training and regular drills and law enforcement presence and close monitoring of schools.
"In addition, our leaders are reviewing emergency operations plans and procedures in light of this tragic incident." Howell wrote. "We will work closely with our local Bandera law enforcement. At the school level, principals will be reviewing their site-based crisis plans and emergency protocols with their school staff members."
The statement concluded, "The well-being of every student is of the utmost importance to me, to our employees and to our school families. We will continue to work together toward our common goals to ensure that every school is a safe, engaging learning environment that brings out the best potential of every student."
Continual adjustments
Even as current events bring issues of school safety to the forefront of public awareness, Bandera ISD administrators continue to review school safety on a daily basis and make adjustments as needed.
According to Thayer, district administrators will meet in early January with county and city law enforcement officers regarding an on-going dialogue about school safety - a plan confirmed by Hicks. In fact, according to Hicks, he and Bandera County Sheriff Dan Butts will meet with Bandera ISD administrators the first of the year to discuss various security options and coordinated plans at the different schools and coordination. However, Hicks also noted, "We won't be releasing any specifics about the meetings. It would serve no purpose."
To allay concerns about safety issues, Thayer said she would be happy to meet privately with any parent. She also added, "Unfortunately, I won't be able to give them specifics about our policies and procedures in the matter." She can be reached at 830-796-3313.
November threat
The last perceived threat to local schools came in November when an anonymous telephone call precipitated the evacuation of three county buildings. During the initial conversation, the as-yet unidentified caller made veiled references to "the schools." He also indicated he intended to blow up the courthouse and kill unidentified county elected officials. Despite assistance from FBI agents specializing in cyber-crime, the unidentified caller has not been identified or arrested, according to BCSO Capt. Shane Merritt.
Although ill-defined, the threat prompted Bandera ISD administrators to put a security plan in motion. "We took that threat, as vague as it was, very seriously and reacted accordingly," Thayer said.
In light of the perceived threat, school administrators issued a statement that read, in part:
"Bandera ISD takes the safety of its students and staff as its highest priority. Routine safety procedures are in place at every campus to protect the well being of all students at all times. Administration and faculty remain vigilant to any situation that might endanger students."
Now, more than ever, the sentiment of that November press release continues to resonate.
Moment of silence
To help the healing process, the governor of the State of Connecticut declared a Day of Mourning in Connecticut, asking for a moment of silence in memory of the victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School. In solidarity with his colleague, Texas Gov. Rick Perry likewise called for a moment of silence at 9:30 am, Friday, Dec. 21. The observance concluded with a tolling of bells to honor the 26 victims claimed on Dec. 14.
"Though our hearts are heavy with sorrow, we find hope in the stories of courage and bravery that have emerged in the aftermath. Teachers placed themselves in harm's way to shield the children in their classrooms. Administrators laid down their lives to protect their students. There is no greater love than the love they displayed on that day," Perry noted.