Parent Paul Hill cannot walk straight into Eastern Hills Elementary to visit his son. He has to wait outside until someone at the front desks buzzes him into the east Fort Worth ISD campus.
Yes, it’s a slight inconvenience, but it reassures Hill that his son is in a safe place.
“My child’s safety is always No. 1,” Hill said. “Eastern Hills has done a good job of keeping kids safe, so that aspect of safety has never really been an issue with that school.”
Even before the Uvalde school shooting, security was a top priority for Fort Worth ISD. The district increased its spending on security by nearly 70% from the 2020-21 school year. Bond dollars funded major upgrades at some campuses. Still, district leaders recognize securing schools is a balance between keeping campuses welcoming and completely locking them down, especially in the wake of the nation’s second deadliest school shooting.
“We cannot completely eliminate vulnerability 100% in Fort Worth ISD,” Superintendent Kent Scribner told the Fort Worth Report. “We believe our schools are safe. We can always strive to make them safer.”
The district has not had an active shooter situation like those seen across the nation. However, nine shooting incidents have happened on Fort Worth ISD campuses between 1976 and 2021, according to a national database. The Center for Homeland Defense and Security, a postgraduate school that focuses on national security, built the database of K-12 school shootings. The data is assembled from sources including news reports, peer-reviewed studies, government reports and more.
More money, more upgrades
In the past decade, Fort Worth ISD has more than doubled its annual spending on security, according to budget documents. For the 2021-22 school year, the district planned to spend almost $21.4 million on security. In the 2011-12 school year, Fort Worth ISD spent almost $9 million. Many of these dollars have been spent on improving door-locking systems, communications, cameras and radios.
However, the district has spent far more on security than what has been allocated in the annual budget. In 2017, voters approved a $750 million bond for improvements mostly at high schools. About $50 million of that bond has been spent to install vestibules at some campuses. The vestibules are part of a school’s entrance, and are similar to a foyer. They act as an additional buffer between a school’s reception area and the outside world. Typically, someone at a school’s front desk has to hit a button to allow visitors access to a campus.
Those features are the first to come to mind when thinking of a safe campus. However, a secure campus goes beyond that, Scribner said. Portable classrooms are found on school grounds throughout Fort Worth ISD. They can pose security issues because students have to exit their main school building to get to their class. That could be a security vulnerability.
Through the 2017 and 2021 bonds, Fort Worth ISD is working to add additional classrooms onto schools so that students do not have to leave the main building for class. So far, more than 100 portable classrooms have been removed from school grounds as part of the 2017 bond, Scribner said.
Fort Worth ISD’s campuses are old. Built in 1910, Rufio Mendoza Elementary is the oldest campus in the district. All but 14 campuses were built before 2000. New campuses, such as four elementary schools coming to different parts of the district, will see the latest in campus security. Older campuses also have seen various other security upgrades through major renovations.
Because buildings in the district have a wide range of ages, security measures are not uniform. Recent bonds have started to change that. Most high schools in the district have similar security measures because of the 2017 bond. At the middle and elementary school levels, it’s more of a mixed bag. The $1.2 billion bond from 2021 is expected to bring some uniformity, but Scribner noted future district leaders likely will have to consider another bond to ensure all schools have the same security features.
Seungmug Lee is an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Texas at Arlington who studies mass shootings. Increased security and monitoring on a campus can only do so much, he said. Schools have to use them on an everyday basis to ensure the safety of students and staff.
In his research, Lee has found that schools where mass shootings have occurred often have invested in security upgrades, such as metal detectors, cameras or school resource officers. About half of those schools saw some sort of security failure, he said.
Since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, more schools have beefed up their security, Lee said. However, those investments do not necessarily translate to a decrease in mass shootings.
“Since the better security and training, you and I as citizens expect the number of cases should be down, right? No, it’s increased,” Lee said.
The most common type of mass shooting tends to be domestic, Lee said. However, mass shootings in schools get more attention because they occur in a place that is the heart of communities.
District spends millions for school resource officers
Fort Worth ISD has 48 school resource officers for its 140 campuses. The district uses officers from the cities of Fort Worth and Forest Hill. Each of the district’s 14 high schools has two school resource officers. The remaining 20 officers are assigned to a middle school and visit the elementary schools that feed into that campus.
The cities and the district split the cost of school resources officers in half. This past school year, Fort Worth ISD set aside more than $4.1 million for its officer contract with the city of Fort Worth. The school board considers renewing the police officer contracts every year. An agreement between the city of Fort Worth and Fort Worth ISD has been on the books since 1994.
The superintendent recognized that some parents and students hesitate to have police officers in schools. However, he is confident in his decision to have school resource officers across the district.
“There are going to be folks on either extreme of the continuum — those who think we need more police and those who think we need no police. It’s my job as a leader to navigate through that conflict, and make the best recommendation possible in the interest of all of our students,” Scribner said.
A Center for Public Integrity analysis of U.S. Department of Education data found that school policing often disproportionately affects students who are Black and Latino and children with disabilities. In Fort Worth ISD, Black and Latino students were more often referred to the police than white students in the 2017-18 school year. That year, 53 Latino students and 50 Black students were referred, while only seven white students were referred. Referrals are actions in which a student was reported to any law enforcement agency.
Students of color are most of Fort Worth ISD’s enrollment. More than six out of 10 students in Fort Worth ISD are Latino.
School leaders encourage other police officers, including those who are assigned to nearby neighborhoods, to be visible on campuses. Some invite them to do their paperwork while sitting in the school parking lot. Scribner considers this one way to build up a good, working relationship between police and students.
Joseph Sparrow, an assistant chief in the Fort Worth Police Department, told City Council members on June 7 that school resource officers are some of the most trained police. School resource officers have to go through de-escalation training. They also are required to be certified mental health peace officers. All of this helps these officers identify students who may need their help, Sparrow said. School resource officers frequently attend training, especially during the summer when campuses are closed.
Texas law requires all school resource officers to take the School Based Law Enforcement Training within 180 days of being assigned to a campus. Additionally, officers must get a certificate from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement showing they are proficient in their training. They also must complete an active shooter response training program.
At a June 7 workshop meeting, Council member Chris Nettles questioned why school resource officers are not at every elementary school. As an example, he pointed to the Uvalde shooting where 19 students and two teachers were killed inside an elementary school.
Fort Worth ISD has 81 elementary schools. The city also has 12 other school districts within its boundaries, and each of them have elementary campuses. The Fort Worth Police Department would have to add an additional 200 officers to be stationed at all schools in the city, Sparrow said. The department has more than 1,500 officers.
Simply put, it’s not cost-effective to have officers stationed at all elementary schools in the city, Sparrow said. That did not sit well with Nettles.
“We cannot allow money, the budget, to be an issue when it comes to saving lives,” he said. “We need to consider working with the school districts and with our budgeting or whatever funds that we have to make sure we can start staffing at the elementary schools.”
Balancing students’ needs
Days after the Uvalde massacre, educators expressed frustration to Scribner about shootings, he said. They told him gun laws are too lax. Schools leaders and other other local officials can only do so much to prevent a shooting. The only way Scribner sees schools becoming safer is if lawmakers tackle the issues that have caused mass shootings.
“It’s my hope that our elected leaders will have the courage to address it,” the superintendent said.
Lee, the UT-Arlington professor, does not expect lawmakers to make any progress on gun-related legislation, even after local elected officials like Mayor Mattie Parker say now is the time for action. Local officials likely will have to make decisions to keep students safe. Any solution, though, needs to be data driven and based on evidence, Lee said.
Scribner is leaving Fort Worth ISD in August. A new superintendent will come in and have to make decisions that affect the safety of students, teachers and staff. These decisions will not be easy to make. Still, schools are places where students learn new ideas and get to see their friends, and often are gathering places for the surrounding areas. Any security decisions must keep that in mind and strike the right balance, Scribner said.
“We want our schools to be safe. But do we want them to be fortresses? Do we want to eliminate outdoor recess for our elementary students to keep them safe?” Scribner said.
Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.