HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- An elementary school playground along a known prostitution corridor in southwest Houston finally has new secure fencing.
"When I heard the news that the fence was built, I was crying. I couldn't hold my tears," Marie Cortes said, who has good reason to be emotional over the new wrought iron fence at Best Elementary School.
"I didn't believe it until I came, and I grabbed it, and I touched it," she said.
Just days ago, only a broken chain link fence, that did not even connect, was all that separated the children on the playground from the sidewalk where the unscrupulous activity occurred all day long.
Cortes, a former first-grade teacher at the school, says the upgrade may seem like an obvious solution, but nothing was simple.
She began her fight to improve campus security in December 2021 when a trespasser walked onto the playground during recess, grabbed a child, and struck Cortes as she tried to intervene. Cortes reached for her cell phone, but the strange woman hit it out of her hand.
"Students were screaming. I ran to save the girl. I got in between them and the lady hit my right arm," Cortes recounted at an Alief ISD School Board Meeting in April.
Cortes said other teachers stepped in and the students were rushed inside the school, but not before the stranger was able to grab a second student.
Through tears, her mother also addressed the board in April and told the district leaders her daughter's arm was hurt over the force teachers had to use to release the first-grader from the trespasser.
Cortes immediately sent emails to Alief ISD leadership following the incident in December but says she never got a response, which led to her public remarks at the school board meeting in April. She says nothing had changed at the school four months after the incident.
She attended a Houston City Council meeting, begging the city to step in, saying, "From that day on, my life changed completely, and I'm here to get help."
After contacting ABC13 for assistance three months later, Cortes said she finally felt heard.
"No one wants to live or hear a story where your child was abducted or taken at a school," she said.
Though the new fence job is not complete, Alief ISD says this wrought iron fence installation will be ready to protect the children at Best Elementary by the first day of the fall semester.
"One of the kids told me (Monday), 'I get to come to recess now and I don't have to worry.' I said, 'Yes, that's it. We don't want you to worry,'" Cortes said.
Now a student advocate, Cortes hopes her story will motivate other students, parents, guardians, and teachers to push for campus changes to ensure children are learning in safe environments.
"You have the power to speak and be heard," she said. "When you see a problem, address it. Talk with the leaders. If (leaders) don't hear you, go to the next level and the next level, even if you have to go to the mayor's office to help you."