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

Friday, August 11, 2023
13 Investigates: Some campuses won't have an armed security officer
13 Investigates why some districts won't have an armed officer at every campus despite a new law mandating it.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Interim Police Chief Shamara Garner says she spent the summer making sure Houston Independent School District officers are up-to-date on school safety training.

"We're ramping up. We're getting ready for the beginning of school," Garner said. "We're working with the administrative side of things to make sure that there are no gaps in coverage and making sure that the kids are safe. But our focus does not change. Our mission does not change. The safety of the students and staff is always a priority."

Still, with just weeks until the first day of class, the district does not have enough police officers on staff to assign at least one to each of its 274 campuses.

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."

Shamara told us she has about 20 officer openings right now. But a 13 Investigates analysis of HISD PD employment data from May shows the department had 217 officers, sergeants, and guards, so those new additions to the force don't come close to getting HISD in line with HB3's target for one officer at every campus.

"Our patrol officers are readily available to be there to address any needs that may come about," Garner said. "We have, right now, over 200 officers, sworn officers on our staff, and as funding becomes available and as the department grows, we would definitely be able to put an armed officer at the campus, on those elementary campuses."

Districts will receive $15,000 per campus and an additional $10 per student to go toward the new safety requirements. HISD's starting salary for an officer is $68,000.

Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, who is one of the sponsors of HB3, said he has already heard concerns that the legislature "didn't send enough money out to the districts to help enough with this."

"I don't think we should be obligating districts to do things without coming with a check to pay for them," Moody said. "I think we did increase the pot of money available for these programs, and if it didn't increase by enough, and that's a concern that we get going forward, then we need to remedy that, absolutely."

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.

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 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.

At HISD, Garner said they will have officers on every middle and high school campus. But, when it comes to elementary schools, there won't be a full-time officer at each campus.

"As it pertains to our elementary schools, our patrol officers are readily available to address that, so no child is vulnerable or their safety is at risk because we will continue to do what we have been doing until we can fully be (compliant) with House Bill 3," Garner said.

13 Investigates reached out to school districts across the region and found HISD isn't alone in not having an armed officer on each campus.

Cypress-Fairbanks and Fort Bend ISDs will also have officers at the middle and high school levels but have to share resources among elementary schools.

13 Investigates' Kevin Ozebek asked Chief Garner for a timeline on when there would be an armed officer on every campus, but she couldn't give one.

"By the end of the school year?" Ozebek asked.

"I can't say by the end of the school year," Garner responded.

Although the law doesn't impose any penalties for not having an armed officer on each campus, Moody said he expects campuses to comply with the law "as soon as possible."

"The accountability piece is if we say we've got it, and we're putting it in place, are we really doing it?" he said.

Moody said he understands school districts may not have the funding or staff to have armed officers at each campus, but he wants districts to remember the law that was passed in response to the Uvalde shooting last year, where 19 students and two teachers were killed in a deadly shooting at an elementary school.

"My caution would be the tragedies that we've seen have visited every kind of campus and every type of location," Moody said.

Despite the need to hire more officers to ensure each campus has a full-time law enforcement presence, Garner said the district is committed to keeping students safe.

"We are being diligent because we understand the ramifications, and we wanna make sure - because ideally, we would like to have a sworn officer on every campus, and that's why we're actively recruiting to make sure that occurs," Garner said. "Utilizing our patrol officers and the other officers we have available, we are readily ready and able and prepared to address any issue that occurs on any elementary campus, middle school campus, or high school campus."

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