13 Investigates: School district police go to greater lengths to stop violent threats

ByTed Oberg and Sarah Rafique via KTRK logo
Monday, August 22, 2022
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13 Investigates what officers in districts big and small are doing to keep students safe in school.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Officers began investigating immediately when the Houston Independent School District received a tip about a student allegedly planning a school attack during a previous school year.

"The student had written, 'Glock 9 in my bag, ready to roll,'" recalled Dr. Roberta Scott, director of the district's Social and Emotional Learning department.

The tip about the potential threat was reported to the district's "Say Something Anonymous Reporting System" app. Soon, Scott said her team worked with HISD police officers to obtain the IP address for the post. Officers also searched the student's locker and made a home visit.

"When they got to his home, the really alarming part was what they found," Scott said. "The guns (were) prepared to shoot up that campus or bring some type of havoc based on what was written in his journal that we found in the locker."

HISD says seven credible school shooting-related threats were reported when the anonymous reporting program launched during the 2019-20 school year. During the 2021-22 school year, there were 34 credible threats, each one thoroughly investigated, sometimes in the middle of the night.

"I have no choice. Every tip we get. Every lead we get, we have to follow through with it," HISD Police Chief Pete Lopez said. "Every night, almost every night, our night shift patrol officers have to go out to people's houses to investigate incidents of reported threats."

Lopez, who joined the school district after nearly three decades working with the Houston Police Department, said he didn't realize how often school resource officers are out in the community versus just providing security on campus.

When it comes to threats of someone bringing a weapon to campus, or even threats from a student to harm themselves, he said officers visit the student's home to determine if the threat is real and if the student has access to weapons.

"We show up all the time, one o'clock, two o'clock, three o'clock in the morning, and those are the scariest ones because school opens up between 6:30 and 8 o'clock, so we have to make sure (by the time school starts) is this threat credible or not credible," Lopez said.

"The police officer just knocks on the door and explains as a matter of fact, in plain English, 'Hey, we received the tip concerning your child. We need to investigate. Will you cooperate' and 95% of the time, the parents cooperate because they're concerned with that behavior."

As school starts Monday at HISD, junior Nicholas Porter said he is excited primarily but also a bit nervous, knowing last year ended with a deadly shooting at an elementary school 275 miles away.

He didn't know HISD officers make home visits when investigating possible threats at local campuses but said knowing the lengths they go through to keep students safe puts him at ease.

"It makes me feel a little bit more safe that they're taking precaution and actually going out and trying to do something about it after hearing about a possible shooting," Porter said.

A 13 Investigates analysis of discipline data from the Texas Education Agency found no community is immune to weapons possibly being located on a school campus, whether inside the school or just in the parking lot.

According to federal education data, more than 26,000 students were caught with a firearm nationwide at schools over the last ten years. Nationwide, it's only about six students for every 100,000 enrolled.

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In Texas, at least 72 students were caught with a weapon on campuses in rural and suburban communities during the 2020-21 school year, according to the TEA.

That includes instances like at Angleton ISD, where a weapon was found in the parking lot last school year by a dog that was patrolling the area for drugs.

Superintendent Phil Edwards told us evidence, in that case, shows the weapon was not intended for school. However, the district still notified the parents and properly disciplined the student.

"We now are so aware of what can happen with those things and so our senses are very heightened when it comes to schools and school shootings that anytime you have a weapon, or firearm in particular, on a campus, the alarm goes off and it's 'how did that happen? How do we make sure it doesn't happen again,'" Edwards said.

"One of the tenants we live by here is that children can't perform academically unless they feel safe and so we have to have our schools feel safe for students, and when you have an instance like this, that leads to that feeling of not being safe."

Edwards said the district is also proactive in visiting the homes of students who pose potential threats.

"I know there have been several times (last) school year our police officers have gone to homes to talk to parents about, 'does your child have access to a gun and can we come in and search your child's bedroom to see if there's access to guns.' They've always been met with a 'yes,'" Edwards said.

"Our police staff will go that extra mile to make sure those types of things are not happening. That kids don't have access to guns."

'This can happen anywhere'

At HISD's Wisdom High School, Virginia Aguilar said she feels like she has to be more aware of her surroundings lately. "And if I see something that doesn't click, report it right away," Aguilar said.

Aguilar said the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, where 19 students and two teachers were killed on May 24, was another reminder that an attack can happen anywhere.

"It was sad because of what happened; it kind of changed perspectives. It put into my mind, like one day I could be here and then I can't, you know, because you never know if this can happen anywhere," Aguilar said.

"It's always in my mind. I just try not to think about it, but you always wake up and wonder, 'Am I going to be next?'"

After the Uvalde shooting, Kenneth Brantley, principal of Wisdom High, said a group of students came up to him and said they wanted more information on how to react if there are threats of a school attack and asked if he could review it across the campus.

Brantley said that prompted a school-wide virtual assembly where he discussed each individual student's, teachers, staff and administrator's responsibility when it comes to keeping students safe. The assembly also provided an outlet for students to seek mental health help.

"I was in my second-period class, and the whole school just all of a sudden had a virtual meeting with all the teachers and principals, and they're all talking about the Uvalde shooting, talking about if we need any help, there's counselors. Counselors came into our classrooms. They were talking about the procedures that we need to take in case of a school shooting happening. And some teachers came into our class talking to us one-on-one, just pulling us out of class, talking about, 'How are you? Are you okay? How do you feel? Do you need to talk about this?'" Porter said.

"It calmed me. I was scared about the school shooting at first because I was scared that it might happen at our school."

That worry of a possible school shooting is something HISD Police Chief Lopez said he thinks about every day.

"With a school district this size, we have over 280 campuses and facilities," Lopez said. "The numbers don't add up. I only have 202 officers, so obviously, the numbers don't match. I have to put my resources where the calls of service dictate it, like mostly the high schools and middle schools, so the elementary schools, I think about it every day."

Lopez said he speaks with police chiefs at other area school districts daily, facing the same issues.

"We don't have enough officers, and I don't know if that's the solution, having officers on every campus because that's going to be a community discussion," Lopez said. "We all need resources. We need more teachers. We need more counselors. Everybody needs resources, but the community must decide what resources they want at their school."

Earlier in August, HISD approved an additional $2 million in funding for district police after Superintendent Millard House II expressed concerns that "if there was an active shooter in HISD, our police department is not prepared."

The funds will allow the district to purchase more equipment for officers and, House said, ensure they're prepared.

At Angleton ISD, Superintendent Edwards said the district invested over $2.5 million in security improvements after the deadly Santa Fe High School shooting in 2018.

It includes new cameras and doors, and security system upgrades. Edwards said the district also makes sure officers have the right equipment.

"If there's a bad guy with a weapon, we want officers to be at least at that same level," he said.

Building community among students, admin

In between classes, when he's in the hallways of Wisdom High, Porter said he sometimes starts thinking about his peers walking alongside him.

"I'm just like looking at all the other students, just thinking what are they really going to do? Like, are they just here just to be here? Are they here to like harm us?" he said.

"The only time I remember not worrying about school shootings is when I was just younger, didn't really think of the world like that, thought everybody was just good, just went to school happy, came home, happy."

Brantley said it's essential for him to make sure students feel safe at school. Whenever he took over as principal, he started meeting with student organizations biweekly to get a pulse of what students were saying they needed to have a better, safer experience at school.

He said the majority of student concerns weren't safety-related, for example, asking for changes to the cafeteria menu. Still, he said, building that relationship with students makes them more comfortable speaking up when there is a real threat.

"There have been times where students have come, and they'll say, 'Hey, we do notice that this particular group of students on campus is creating a lot of uncomfortable situations around campus. Is there anything that you can do,'" Brantley said.

"Before we can start teaching algebra, psychology, all of these different content areas, we have to create a space where kids feel safe in their environments to focus on the learning."

Scott, who joined HISD 17 years ago as a teacher, said she would never have imagined the conversations she has now as she oversees students' social and emotional needs.

She said self-regulation is an important tool that students should learn. This includes self-awareness, social awareness, relationship-building, and responsible decision-making.

"A lot of times, I hear my teachers say, 'our students, they don't know how to behave. They don't know how to act,'" Scott said. "Compassion, forgiveness, empathy, humility, cooperation, patience, those are your taught skills and so until we have an opportunity to embed those skills into our academic lessons, then we'll start to see our students do different things as it relates to behavior."

Scott said she believes it's important for teachers and administrators to build relationships with students and foster an environment where they feel comfortable reporting suspicious activity by talking to campus leaders or utilizing the anonymous app and giving them multiple opportunities to speak up.

"In the cases where we had an active shooter (threat reported to the tip line), we were able to prevent it," she said. "They saved lives."

Scott said every year, middle and high school students learn how to use the app and are shown real-time examples of how reporting something could help keep their campus safe. But, it is ultimately up to the student whether or not they use it.

She admits some campuses don't take advantage of the anonymous reporting system but said the district is working with them to create a culture where students know how and where to report suspicious activity.

She said the anonymous aspect of reporting helps because it puts students at ease knowing they have a safe space to share their concerns without the risk of their peers finding out they're the ones who told an administrator about an issue.

"A lot of times when things happen on campuses, even without the app, students will talk if you allow them that opportunity or you have those relationships or those systems in place for students to be able to do so," she said.

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