Midlothian students are in their second week of the new school term.
Commander Tim Hicks, who has been with the Midlothian Police Department for nearly eight years, is also settling into the semester with a new job — director of school safety and security. The post, announced in July, comes as the police department and the Midlothian Independent School District cement their partnership in the name of keeping schools safe and secure.
"My role right now these first couple of weeks coming on is just to go through and take a look at everything that's in place, see if it's up to date and current, up to national standards, if not, 'What do we need to do to get there?'" Hicks said. "A lot of the programs and procedures that they have in place are great, and there's not going to be any need to deviate from that, but there may be some issues or challenges I'll look at to say, 'We can do better here.'"
The Midlothian ISD is touting "cutting edge" security systems that it says are not new, but have been in the works for the past three years, and are continually being "fine-tuned."
"Safety and security is not recent for us, it has been a multi-year planning and implementation effort," Asst. Superintendent Karen Fitzgerald said. "So, we've always been on the forefront of safety and security."
Implementing the very latest technology has been a part of Superintendent Lane Ledbetter's strategic plan since joining the school district about four years ago, Fitzgerald said. Undoubtedly, it is a strategy that isn't cheap.
"For the past three years, MISD has spent $2.7 million out of its Maintenance and Operations budget to enhance our safety and security measures," Fitzgerald added. "These costs include SROs [School Resource Officers] and mental health counseling support, software monitoring services, bus badging system that tracks when students get on and off the bus, et cetera."
The badging system — rolled out in 2017 — is called Smart Tag. It uses radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology and cloud-connect tablet computers that allow parents and schools to get real-time information via email. Schools, for example, can send emails to parents if a bus has been delayed.
"Out of our Bond 2016 budget, we allocated more than $4 million," the assistant superintendent continued. "Our bond program allowed the district to improve and secure entrances, including our buzz-in system at the front door, keyless entry, security cameras, improved warning systems for weather and lockdowns, et cetera. So, we've been very aggressive in providing better systems that include the latest technology since 2016. These are things that we have implemented well before Santa Fe, well before El Paso. We've been on the cutting edge of upgrading safety and security…"
The Midlothian ISD is praising the addition of more SRO manpower, bringing the total number to about six. As commander of the SRO program, the district is relying on Hicks' experience as an active shooter instructor and Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team recruiter and trainer.
Teachers, students, parents and everyday citizens can also play a role in keeping our schools and communities safe, the commander pointed out.
"We have a civilian class where we teach citizens what to do if they are caught up and involved in an active shooter incident, what they can do to survive and help other folks around them survive," Hicks added. "We have to work with the community… 'You gotta be our extra set of eyes and ears.' That's exactly what those teachers and administrators have to do."
The school district and police department understand that safety and security are not just about protection from acts of crime and violence. Being fully prepared for weather-related threats and being able to support students and faculty struggling with personal issues are also paramount to the success of their partnership.
"We've done a lot with the wellbeing of children," Fitzgerald assured. "We've added counselors to provide therapy for our students who might need it… We have looked at how we use our counselors at our campuses, and given them better training, more training."
"We look at fire safety. We look at severe weather," Hicks added. "We have plans in place if a tornado rolls through town, unfortunately. What if we have a school bus accident with all these kids on it? Do these school bus drivers know what to do immediately to get the kids off the bus, where to go, how to start that process of turning that into an emergency situation and try to make it as safe as possible? So, we gotta look at all that."
The responsibility of teachers cannot be underestimated because they often have firsthand knowledge of the issues their students face, the safety and security director acknowledged.
"The teachers play a huge role," Hicks explained. "They have to be that set of eyes and ears in the classroom to really help us identify what kids may have issues, who needs extra help, where can we come in as an SRO and mentor those kids, and help get them on the right path. So, the SROs certainly aren't there just for security."
One of the driving forces behind the commitment of the police department is the fact that the officers are parents themselves, Asst. Police Chief Scott Brown said.
"When I send my kids somewhere I always worry, and I always will," Brown said. "We're parents too. Every one of us has children that have attended schools in Midlothian or still attending. A strong percent of our department has kids that attend, so we want our schools to be as safe for every kid as they are for our kids."
The school district and police department have agreed to share the financial responsibility of the SRO and security program.
Patrick Clarke | @PatrickClarke1