Every weekday morning about 7:30, children dropped off by their parents at Tanglewood Elementary School can unfailingly count on a sight not present at other elementary campuses across Fort Worth ISD – an armed and uniformed police officer.
Officers Tracy Carter, Vicki Vergara or any one of nearly eight to 10 other off-duty Fort Worth police officers take turns rotating in daily shifts at the affluent west Fort Worth school. The presence of licensed peace officers was set in motion by Tanglewood moms and dads to protect and reassure their kids at a time when the frequency of school shootings is rising, including deadly attacks at elementary schools in Uvalde and Nashville.
“First and foremost, we have to have security in our elementary schools,” says Amber Spurgeon, the mother of two boys at Tanglewood and the president of Texans Against School Violence created by the parents in October. “Second, building those relationships between the officers and the students — that’s paramount, just seeing those kids light up when they see their officers.”
The course being pursued by the five Tanglewood parents who serve as the group’s board members effectively prefaced the goal of a massive school safety bill advancing in the 2023 Texas Legislature.
Authored by State Rep. Dustin Burrows of Lubbock, who chaired a legislative investigation into last May’s mass shooting that killed 19 children and two teachers at Uvalde’s Robb Elementary, House Bill 3 would require every school district and school charter to post at least one armed security officer on every campus.
Some advocates of the provision have raised concerns that funding may not be budgeted to finance the full extent of school law enforcement protection down to elementary schools, even with a much-touted $33 billion surplus.
Members of Texans Against School Violence plan to meet with lawmakers in Austin early next week to make a case for adequate funding and to discuss various aspects of their pilot program.
Burrows’ bill would reportedly provide about $10 for each student for armed officers plus $15,000 for extra safety and security measures. Spurgeon said independent calculations place the cost at $225 per student per year, which totals about $94,000 when stretched out over the 505 students at Tanglewood or comparable-sized schools.
‘We just saw a security gap’
Many middle schools and high schools, including those in Fort Worth ISD, already have school resource officers but funding has never been available to provide the officers in elementary schools.
Until the Tanglewood parents stepped forward with their initiative, Fort Worth had no elementary schools with police protection, say the parents.
Now it has the one at Tanglewood, although the parents are hoping to extend the program to at least one still-undesignated sister campus in a disadvantaged neighborhood in Fort Worth. The school district confirmed that Tanglewood is the only elementary school with armed officers, and that the school’s parents fund the initiative.
“When we realized that nearly a quarter of school shootings occur at elementary schools, and in Fort Worth ISD there’s not a single elementary school other than Tanglewood that has someone with an armed security guard there,” said treasurer Charity Aughinbaugh. “That’s just too risky.”
In contrast, Fort Worth police assigned 42 school resource officers to 12 high schools and 22 middle schools for the 2022-2023 fiscal year, extending a protective reach to nearly 30,000 students in schools staffed with SROs, according to a breakdown by the police department.
School resource officers are full-time law enforcement officers trained in school-based policing and crisis response, according to police officials. The student-per-officer ratio in 2022-23 amounts to 862-1 in high schools and 520-1 in middle schools, according to Fort Worth police.
The mass slayings at Robb Elementary in Uvalde prompted immediate calls in Fort Worth and elsewhere to extend police protection into elementary schools. Just weeks after the Uvalde attack, Fort Worth council member Chris Nettles called on city officials to come up with funds to provide police in elementary schools, saying “we cannot allow money or budget to be an issue when it comes to saving lives,” according to media reports.
Aughinbaugh, the mother of two daughters at Tanglewood, ages 10 and 7, said parents at the elementary school began talking about the potential threat to their children and decided to take action.
The parents’ initial intention, Aughinbaugh said, was to protect their children in Tanglewood, but “then as we got together and spent more time talking, we realized it’s not just our children, we want to protect every elementary child” in Fort Worth and beyond – leading to the creation of the nonprofit group.
“We just saw a security gap in our elementary schools,” said Spurgeon. “There was no security presence there. So we thought, you know what, we’re going to take this upon ourselves as concerned parents, and we’re going to start a nonprofit … that we can spread to every elementary school in Texas.”
‘They see them in the hallways’
The next step was taking their idea to the Fort Worth Police Department, which introduced Carter, a public relations officer who has 16 years with the department and specializes in community relations. After being approached by Spurgeon, Carter recalled, he then reached out to a core of “six or seven” other officers to get their mission started.
They work off-duty hours and are paid an undisclosed amount through donations from the parents and other nonprofit sources, and are present from the time classes start at 7:30 a.m. until they end at 3:30 p.m.
“Our model utilizes the cream of the crop, the best officers who are already out there, ” Aughinbaugh said. “They know how to speak to children.”
A fundamental goal is to always show a police presence, such as stationing themselves out front or walking the halls with the school monitor, Carter said.
While “one of the main goals is safety and security,” Carter said, the officers strive “to build relationships with the kids and make them where they’re not afraid of police officers when they see them. It’s the building of relationships, making them feel comfortable.”
Fort Worth council member Michael Crain, whose district includes Tanglewood, echoed the assessment.
In addition to enhancing children’s safety, Crain said, “the byproduct…is at an early age these kids are getting a positive interaction with police officers. They’re out on the courts playing games with them at recess. They see them in the hallways.’
‘We’ve had other schools reach out to us’
The undertaking, say the group leaders, is drawing increasing attention in Tarrant County and Austin as legislative leaders such as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the presiding officer of the Senate, and House Speaker Dan Phelan push school safety as a dominant issue of the 140-day session.
One advocate is Rep. Craig Goldman, whose Fort Worth district includes Tanglewood.
Goldman said he will help his constituents arrange key meetings, possibly with Burrows and others, when they arrive in Austin to begin talks on April 3.
“It’s wonderful,” Goldman, who chairs the House Republican Caucus, said of the nonprofit group of parents.
In addition to Spurgeon and her husband, Eric, the group’s vice president, and Aughinbaugh, the other board members are Keeton Monahan, an attorney with three children, and Peter Dean, a sales director at an acoustics and drywall company and the father of two children.
The group plans to take the concept to as many schools as possible, including those facing funding challenges, said the group leaders.
“We’ve had other schools reach out to us,” said Spurgeon. “What we’re trying to do is tailor it to other schools and basically add chapters.”