Mineral Wells Index, Mineral Wells, TX

January 30, 2013

Tackling the school safety debate


Mineral Wells Index

— By CHRIS AGEE

As State Senator Craig Estes, R-Witchita Falls, held a joint hearing on school safety earlier this week, law enforcement and school administrators discussed the same issue on a local level.

Estes, who represents Texas' 30th Senate District, including Palo Pinto County, held the hearing of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs and Homeland Security, and the Senate Committee on Education.

According to a press release from his office, last month's deadly school shooting in Newtown, CT, prompted lawmakers in Austin to discuss ways to improve school safety.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst directed Estes to compile recommendations to achieve that goal, the release reads.

Alongside initiatives on the state and federal level, the issue of school safety has been under review among numerous agencies within Palo Pinto County.

Mineral Wells Police Chief Dean Sullivan said he met with Mineral Wells Independent School District Supt. Dr. Gail Haterius the day of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December.

Since then, he said, there have been several followup meetings and an upcoming forum among school and MWPD personnel is planned to delve deeper into possible preventative measures.

Sullivan said the best way to prevent an active shooter situation in area schools is to be proactive.

He said his department is "reviewing our own operational protocol for response to events such as these that have unfolded around the country."

According to Sullivan, the MWISD already has contingency plans in place to deal with emergencies and he hopes to expand on those provisions.

Throughout any discussions of future safety measures, Sullivan said it is imperative that law enforcement and school officials are operating in one accord.

"We need to make sure our plans and their plans are cohesive," he said, in order to deal with "basically the unthinkable."

After witnessing the aftermath of the 1999 Wedgewood Baptist Church shooting as a Fort Worth police officer, Sullivan said he has an idea of the panic following such situations.

He said preparation for an active shooter is imperative and can come through education and simulation drills.

"In Mineral Wells, we will conduct practice active shooter scenarios," he said, explaining students will not be involved in any of the increased drills.

There are no absolute answers in dealing with individuals intent on committing such a heinous crime, Sullivan said, adding preparation among everyone involved is the best option.

"Schools are as prepared as they can be at this juncture," he said, "minus some funding."

He added his agency is committed to assisting local school leaders in providing a safe environment for students.

At last week's State of the Community address, both Haterius and Palo Pinto County Sheriff Ira Mercer remarked on the importance of addressing the issue.

Haterius included the furthering the conversation about school safety as one of four goals she set for the future of the MWISD.

"We've got to provide a safe environment for our children," she said.

Mercer said he has met with Haterius and other county superintendents to discuss options and has already implemented certain measures designed to increase safety on campuses.

His agency has "limited resources," he said, "but we can try to be prepared with the resources we have."

He said deputies will soon be able to identify points of entry and important areas of facilities from their in-car computers.

While MWISD has a dedicated school resource officer, Mercer said county schools do not, though county agencies have discussed rotating law enforcement officers between the county's school districts.

"We've gotten some really good feedback from rural schools," he said.

Beginning this week, he said deputies will walk through county schools at least once per shift.

"We can't make this a perfect scenario at this point," he said, noting he will discuss school safety funding as a member of a legislative committee.

Estes expressed a common sentiment among those working to deal with the daunting task of protecting schools.

"The number one job of government is to protect its people, and it is critical that students, teachers and staff feel safe in Texas schools," he said.

"Though it is impossible to legislate against evil, we will work together to identify and address gaps in public school resources that measurably affect the safety and well-being of Texas students and teachers."