ELLIS COUNTY

School district and law enforcement officials have exhausted discussions that surround potential safety measures related to school shootings or safety. Authorities have targeted three critical areas of concern and, following a joint meeting March 27, are ready to develop action plans to address the points.

In a meeting lead by Ellis County District Attorney Patrick Wilson and State Representative John Wray, officials with Waxahachie, Midlothian, Italy, Avalon, Ennis, Maypearl, Milford, Palmer, Ferris, and Red Oak ISDs, as well as police officers from Red Oak, Waxahachie and Midlothian were present to tackle the agenda.

The group agreed diligent communication between school districts and police departments is necessary, a juvenile justice alternative education program is essential in Ellis County, and an evaluation and ranking system for mental health should be used between police and schools.

"I think that the fact that schools have this entanglement with federal laws makes it difficult to effect meaningful change at the local level. There's a great desire but a great realization on how hard the problem is to solve," Wilson explained.

“Mr. Joffre [Italy ISD superintendent] and I, we had conversations about what other tools may a district need to try and protect the kids from something like this happening in their school,” Wilson iterated to the audience at the Red Oak ISD Administration Building.

Wilson said there are two basic approaches, a proactive approach which focuses on preventing school shootings from happening and a reactive approach, which is what do officials do when this does happen.

Wilson wanted to hear feedback from district officials about the proactive approach and wanted to hear from police personnel about the reactive approach.

Prior to the meeting, audience members answered a survey, which found the top challenge on campus when dealing with security is threat assessment.

Several district and police personnel agreed that the system is flawed because the county does not have proper resources in place to treat mental health or place harmful students in a Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program (JJAEP).

Dr. Al Hemmle, Midlothian ISD Student Services Administrator, said as a district there should be more it can do to help a student. He mentioned that same day he tried to get a student help, but all surrounding mental health facilities and hospitals could not admit the student because they were at capacity.

If the schools are going to help students with mental health issues, then there need to be local resources, he added.

“That’s a really frustrating thing when we know we have some students walking our halls that need help,” Hemmle explained. “Either their parents don’t want to admit they need help or the district is handcuffed in what they can do with the student that really needs that help.”

Red Oak Police Chief Garland Wolf mentioned the need for a quantitative psychological evaluation tool to rate students on the level of risk and then have that ranking communicated between their office and schools.

He elaborated on how his department analyzed cases similar to the discussion but said it’s not necessarily communicated with the school district, “and vice versa it’s not communicated to us when we are dealing with the same people at different times.”

Wray concluded by stating it is necessary for more considerable information to be shared between schools and police, and possibly even health administrators.

“We need to create a mechanism for that dialogue to take place that doesn’t violate those conditions [HIPPA and FERPA], so we know what we are all dealing with,’ Wolf said. “We have repeat offenders that we deal with continually, and the mental health issue for us is enormous.”

Lee Auvenshine, WISD deputy superintendent of human resources and legal services, explained how schools share information with Child Protective Services or family courts. He said under FERPA there are “emergency situations that we can share information in an emergency.” Auvenshine explained how each district has different guidelines to distinguish what an “emergency” is.

Wilson had Auvenshine clarify that sharing this information is permissive, not mandatory.

Several local school districts also desire a JJAEP, and Wilson urged district leaders to contact the Ellis County Commissioners' Court.

“I am in support of having a JJAEP, but I think the elephant in the room is that JJAEP isn’t going to stop this sort of thing from happening again,” Italy ISD Superintendent Lee Joffre said. “Our situation most specifically is that we had a kid that was supposed to be there on campus, hadn’t done anything not to be there.”

Joffre asked how a JJAEP in Ellis County would make schools safer.

“Because we are the county next to Dallas County, and we don’t have a JJAEP,” Wray replied. “We have some students move into our county so they can be in the regular school population… and from that, we may be attracting some dangerous kids into our school districts.”

Personnel in both Wilson and Wray’s office documented feedback from officials, and the duo plans to write legislation to counter these issues.

The meeting stemmed from Wilson’s office handling the case of the 16-year-old Italy shooter. Wilson explained the gap in the Texas Penal code suggests the shooter could only be charged with a second-degree felony at most. Together they are drafting legislation for the uniform punishment for anyone who commits an act of violence with a firearm on a primary or secondary campus.

Wray will offer this bill along with others discussed on March 27 during the 86th Texas Legislature.

Related article: Rep. John Wray, Ellis County DA Patrick Wilson drafting legislation to address school safety

Ashley Ford | @aford_news | 469-517-1450