Districts 'competing' for officers to staff each campus as new law goes into effect Sept. 1

Tuesday, August 22, 2023
13 Investigates: House Bill 3 putting a strain on district leaders
After the horrific school shooting in Uvalde, a new Texas law will require an armed officer on every campus to keep children safe. 13 Investigates dives into the officer shortage and how schools plan to meet the requirement.

BRAZOSPORT, Texas (KTRK) -- When Kirsten Hernandez graduated from the police academy, she knew she wanted to one day work at the school district where she grew up.

"Ever since I graduated, I wanted to be a school police officer, but you just need more experience out on the streets before you hit the school," Hernandez said.

After spending a few years working for rural police departments in her community, Hernandez applied for an officer position at Brazosport Independent School District.

She was one of six officers the district hired over the summer to comply with a new law designed to keep students safe on campus.

RELATED: House Bill 3, which requires armed employee at school, closer to law

"It's going to be like a second home. Like those are going to be my kids," Hernandez said.

House Bill 3 goes into effect Sept. 1 and requires "at least one armed security officer is present during regular school hours at each district campus."

If a school district is unable to employ an armed officer due to funding or staffing issues, the law allows the district to claim a "good cause exemption."

In a statement, the Texas Education Agency previously told 13 Investigates, "How these exceptions look locally is determined by the school district's board, and they must develop an alternative safety standard with which the district is able to comply. School systems have the opportunity to present their good cause exceptions to their board of trustees this month. Once adopted by the board, the good cause exception would be in effect."

Texas law says the alternative plan can include hiring a school marshal who has 80 hours of training. Districts can also arm an employee who has completed school safety training.

Brazosport ISD Police Chief Wade Nichols said he wants to hire trained and experienced police officers for his school campuses.

"You have to have the right person that has the right mindset, that wants to get along with the kids," Nichols said.

He wants officers to have years of training on how to safely de-escalate and resolve situations and, most importantly, how to protect students and staff in a worst-case scenario.

SEE ALSO: Uvalde school shooter's cousin arrested after being heard saying he'll 'do the same thing,' mom says

"Our primary goal is, of course, to make sure the students and staff are safe so they can learn," Nichols said.

To find experienced officers, Brazosport ISD is hiring officers, like Hernandez, away from local city police departments.

Nichols said being a school officer, which offers weekends and some summer days off, is an appealing job that, in turn, puts pressure on small-town agencies to keep up with staffing.

"What we are doing is we're taking away from the local PDs, and they're having issues filling their spots," Nichols said.

INTERACTIVE: Will your child's campus have an armed officer when classes start this year? Search for your district to see what security staffing looks like at the start of the 2023-24 school year. On mobile device? Click here for a full-screen experience.

13 Investigates found some larger districts are struggling to find enough officers to fulfill the requirements of having one per campus.

"There's no way that I can find 35 police officers in this small amount of time and do backgrounds and everything that's required to hire the officer," Alief Independent School District Police Chief Dan Turner said.

Although the law allows districts to have an armed school marshal or other individual with training, many of the districts we spoke with hope to avoid going that route.

"We definitely appreciate the intent behind the bill on the heels of Uvalde. We definitely all want to make sure that all of our students and all of our faculty and staff are safe, but we want to make sure that as we put guns and weapons in the hands of individuals - I think, for us, we are more comfortable with making sure that it's a trained professional in the form of a police officer," Alief ISD Superintendent Dr. Anthony Mays said.

RELATED:13 Investigates why some campuses won't have an armed security officer despite new law

While schools have issues finding qualified candidates to fill officer positions, districts say the law didn't provide enough money to fund the new positions.

Districts will receive $15,000 per campus and an additional $10 per student to go toward the new safety requirements.

Humble ISD told us they received $800,000 in school safety funding, but that will pay for just 10 of the 13 additional officers they plan to add this year.

Pearland ISD says the new law will give them half a million dollars, but they need $4.8 million to be fully trained and staffed at each campus.

Alief ISD Superintendent Mays said on top of having to take dollars away from a classroom, campus, or other critical support area to fulfill the mandate, districts are also competing against one another for qualified officers.

"It is robbing Peter to pay Paul, so we are literally competing with other districts," Mays said. "Our gain is a loss for another agency that definitely needs a law enforcement officer."

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