13 Investigates: Districts still need more officers as law calls for one per campus

Friday, May 24, 2024
Districts still need more officers as law calls for one per campus
13 Investigates found Texas school districts are still competing for qualified police officers to meet HB3's mandate for one armed person per campus.

ALIEF, Texas (KTRK) -- Alief Independent School District Police Chief Dan Turner said he spends more than half his time trying to recruit and hire officers to comply with a new law that requires an armed individual on every campus.

But, as the school year comes to an end the district still has 25 officer openings.

"It takes a special person to be a police officer. You put your life on the line every day. You never know what you're walking into or what you're walking away from and it's going to take a strong-willed person to make the decision that I want to do that every day," Turner told 13 Investigates.

Alief ISD is competing with districts across the state to hire officers after House Bill 3 went into effect Sept. 1.

It takes a special person to be a police officer. You put your life on the line every day.
Alief Independent School District Police Chief Dan Turner

The law requires "at least one armed security officer is present during regular school hours at each district campus" and provides districts just $15,000 per campus and $10 more per student to help fund the mandate.

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," which means they have to develop an alternative safety plan approved by their school board.

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

13 Investigates found some school districts who cannot hire an officer are relying on security guards.

The Houston Independent School District said it is utilizing the "good clause exemption" as it works to staff all 274 of its campuses with officers or a "uniformed armed security guard" over the next three years.

"The safety of our students and staff is always our top priority," HISD said in a statement to 13 Investigates. "This exemption will be pursued alongside the submission of an alternative safety plan. Our ongoing efforts are directed towards crafting a comprehensive plan that aligns fully with legal requirements."

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

HISD also provided us with a Feb. 23, 2024, letter from its Police Chief Shamara Garner that says the district does have police officers at all of its middle and high school campuses, but not its elementary schools.

"HISD will add armed security guards at all of our elementary schools over the next three years," Garner said in the letter. "They are employed by a private licensed company and are not HISD police officers. Guards must undergo a background check and will not regularly interact with students."

At Alief ISD, Chief Turner said child interaction is important for prevention.

"You have to want to work with kids. If you don't want to work with kids, then you can't work for me," he said. "We do intervention before enforcement. Kids are going to make mistakes, so the officers aren't only there to protect the school. We have a lot of other mechanisms in place, but the officers are there to make sure that the student and the staff and the parents all feel safe."

Alief Superintendent Dr. Anthony Mays also said the district wants to maintain a high standard when it comes to who they will allow to be armed on their campuses and will only be hiring licensed peace officers.

We'd rather take our time to get that officer that fits what Alief is looking for versus just taking a shortcut that may be there for us.
Alief ISD Superintendent Dr. Anthony Mays

He said they're looking for officers that can not only keep students and schools safe, but also do a good job connecting with them.

"We'd rather take our time to get that officer that fits what Alief is looking for versus just taking a shortcut that may be there for us," Mays said. "We've heard several stories of armed marshals or teachers leaving their guns in the restroom, or principals leaving their guns in the restroom. I think there's a certain level of training. For me as the superintendent, there's a skillset that I have to be able to lead the district. For a police officer, there's a skill set that they have to carry a gun on a day-to-day basis and so we respect that and so that's why we're making the choice to go with trained officers."

13 Investigates asked Mays if he thinks there's enough police officers in Texas to place one on every campus across the state.

"I don't think so. I think that's why they gave you the opportunity to give a police officer or a teacher a gun because I think we knew when HB3 came down the pipeline that there wasn't going to be enough officers for all of us ISDs, city agencies, county agencies, state agencies to actually find officers," he said.

Chief Turner said Alief ISD mostly hires experienced officers who retired from larger city or county police agencies and are looking for a different environment.

When we put a badge and a gun on you, we expect for you to be the best of the best.
Alief ISD Chief Dan Turner

He said they also work with police academies to see if there are any strong cadets that they recommend.

But, he admits it has been difficult to find officers who meet their standards.

"I think the intent was good, but I don't think the research was done for us to be able to mandate the intent," Turner said. "They told us what we needed and what we had to do. The funding wasn't there and now the officers aren't really there. We probably only can hire three out of every five or six after we do any background investigations because we look at credit reports, financials, work history, parts of your family life, because when we put a badge and a gun on you, we expect for you to be the best of the best."

'We've got to fund it'

HB3 was passed as a result of the Uvalde tragedy, where 19 students and two teachers were killed when a gunman opened fire at Robb Elementary School on May 24, 2022.

Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, who is one of the sponsors of HB3, was part of a legislative committee tasked with investigating the shooting. Lawmakers determined it was a systemic failure, including school security, which HB3 aims to address.

Moody said the state did not provide districts who did not already have an officer on each campus the funding they need to comply. He said lawmakers cannot continue writing solutions on paper without actually funding them.

"I think lawmakers in the Senate failed these districts. Absolutely. I think the House put our priorities in place," Moody said. "We were the only body in this state that took the time to sit with those families in Uvalde to understand what they wanted, to meet with the teachers. I met with the teachers that survived that tragedy from that very hallway in Uvalde, and they wanted these protections. They wanted the security and when we didn't deliver that, we absolutely failed them."

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

Districts will receive $15,000 per campus and an additional $10 per student to go toward the new safety requirements. But, districts tell us that's not enough to cover the salary, training, vehicle and other equipment for officers.

Alief ISD's starting salary for an officer is $53,000.

Mays said the money they state provided is not nearly enough.

"It cost me over $1 million to actually be in compliance with the mandate," Mays said. "So there again is the rub and the challenge. I have to be able to figure out what am I going to go without so that I can make sure that I have this mandate in place."

Still, he said he's optimistic state leaders will recognize the funding concerns and address it next session.

"I think that other superintendents and myself have been clear about what you've given us is not enough," Mays said. "We need funding. I don't know how many different ways we can say it, whether it's due to inflation, whether it's due to rising costs, just to sustain wages for the district, the extra surplus (in state funding) that's available would be helpful."

With 25 openings, Mays said the district will be hard at work this summer to get those positions filled.

"We've talked about some creative things that we can do to make us competitive in a climate where you don't see school funding easily accessible for ISDs," he said. "It is even more challenging because we got to figure what are we going to without if we want to be able to, whether it's increase pay for police officers or incentivize police officers coming to Alief, so it's always a balancing act trying to figure out what you can do."

When the legislative session convenes again in January, Moody said he will back any bill that gives public schools more funding to keep them safe.

"My hope is that people will see we have passed a burden down to these schools," he said. "It's critical that we do this. We should have security. We should make sure the teachers and parents and students feel safe, but if we're going to make that requirement, then we've got to fund it. We got to find the dollars and we need to send it to those schools and we did not do that."

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