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Texas School Safety Center

law enforcement officers in school hallway

Texas School Safety Center

by Catherine Duncan

Providing research, technical assistance, and information for K-12 school, junior colleges

On May 18, 2018, the horror of a school shooting forever changed Santa Fe, a town of approximately 13,000, about 35 miles southeast of Houston. A 17-year-old student opened fire on his campus, killing 10 people and wounding 10 more.

For the first time in Texas, a mass shooting at a high school became a reality, reminding residents that no community is immune to this all-too-common tragedy. Texas’ low incidence of violence in a school setting may be the result of state legislators’ foresight in 1999 when legislation — which followed the April 20, 1999, Columbine High School shooting near Littleton, Colorado — created the Texas School Safety Center (TxSSC), a university-level research center at Texas State University.

Center director Kathy Martinez-Prather explained that TxSSC is tasked in Chapter 37 of the Texas Education Code and in the Governor’s Homeland Security Strategic Plan to serve as a clearing house for the dissemination of safety and security information, including research, training, and technical assistance for K-12 schools and community colleges throughout Texas. 

“Every day, schools face hazards that have the potential to impede the learning process. However, with proper planning and regular training and drilling in emergency procedures, schools can effectively respond in a way that increases positive outcomes,” Martinez-Prather says. “We don’t want to ever become complacent in our work. Santa Fe reminded us that this center’s mission must remain a priority for the state of Texas and its students.”

Through robust online resources and inperson courses, TxSSC addresses all aspects of school safety and security relating to K-12 schools and junior colleges. The center strives not only to prevent school violence but also to prepare school personnel to respond to any emergency, assist schools in conducting safety and security audits, and provide resources on topics such as internet safety, reducing the impact of tobacco, and bullying prevention. The center also provides specialized training to school-based law enforcement officers.

Preventing tragedies

This year, TxSSC offered several workshops focused on behavioral threat assessment, which is recognized as a best practice for preventing school violence. “Threat assessment in schools is a process to identify a student who poses a threat — whether to harm himself, herself, or others. This involves a multidisciplinary team of school personnel working to gather information and determine necessary interventions and long-term management strategies for a student. It’s critical that schools are regularly receiving training so that they are implementing the threat assessment process with fidelity,” Martinez-Prather says.

A threat assessment team should include individuals such as the principal or assistant principal, a law enforcement officer, and a school counselor or external mental health professional, she says. “The TxSSC has developed a tool kit and is offering several one-day workshops to present the step-by-step process for addressing potentially dangerous behavior in school or that could impact a school.” The workshop teaches participants how to respond to threatening and disturbing behavior, gather additional information, make an assessment, and take preventive steps if necessary. Auditing safety

The Texas Education Code requires school districts to perform a safety and security audit every three years. TxSSC has developed a safety and security audit tool kit, which provides a model process and resources to help districts assess safety and security issues on each campus. The center creates a statewide report every three years using the results of these self-assessments, Martinez-Prather says. Their work has not gone unnoticed. In February, the TxSSC was awarded a Texas Partner for Change award by the Texas Council on Family Violence.

“Because Texas is such a huge state, we have a range of school districts located in communities from small rural towns to major urban cities; therefore, safety and security standards must be scalable to the existing resources within every school district. A part of the audit is assessing resources and capabilities before an incident occurs,” Martinez-Prather says.

The goal of the safety and security audits is for schools to identify strengths and weaknesses in their operations and take corrective actions. The audit process should be an ongoing assessment for schools and not seen as a one-time event every three years.

Managing emergencies

The education code also requires each school district to have a multihazard emergency operation plan in place. “A multihazard emergency operations plan involves identifying the threats, hazards, and vulnerabilities that impact a school district and developing a plan to prevent/

mitigate, prepare, respond, and recover from an incident. Plans should be developed with local first responders and other external partners,” she says.

Once the plan is created, schools are responsible for training staff and students and conducting drills to ensure that all members of the school community and first responders are prepared to respond effectively to potential emergencies. 

Performing research

Martinez-Prather says it is rare to find a state’s safety center based at a university. “It’s important that the training and resources we provide are informed by best practice. We currently have a four-year research grant, funded through the National Institute of Justice, to study policing in schools. This research will help inform how to best incorporate law enforcement officers

into the educational setting that leads to positive outcomes for students and overall safety and security for the campus.

“School policing is a very specialized field. We provide training to school-based law enforcement officers that focuses on all the issues they deal with in an educational setting — most importantly how to build relationships with students,” she adds.

“The center is a resource for all schools and community colleges throughout the state,” Martinez-Prather says. “It’s important that schools continue to make school safety a priority and a part of the educational agenda. We know that students who feel safe in school thrive academically and socially. Although school shootings are rare, they are high impact. We must continue to implement best practices to prevent these types of incidents from happening; our students deserve this.”