JACKSONVILLE, Texas (KETK) – It’s a parent’s worst nightmare– their children’s lives in danger at a place they should feel safe.
“When you have those things happen, it affects all of us, and we all feel that pain and feel like we have to do something else,” said Chief of Police for Jacksonville ISD Police Department and Emergency Manager Bill Avera.
Nothing has gotten schools to act quicker quite like that unimaginable day in Uvalde.
“I was devastated by Uvalde because if you look at that school district, it looks a whole lot like Jacksonville– size, students, number of campuses,” said Avera.
School districts like Jacksonville, Lovelady and Longview immediately got to work on improving security. They said the missteps in Uvalde had them evaluate their own safety measures and emergency plans.
“The state has provided us with some funding. The governor put some extra money towards school safety last summer that we were able to dip into. We’re working with the legislature”, added Avera.
More school districts are investing in safety devices.
“All of our classes have telephones in them, we’re in the process of installing silent panic alarm technology that will be able for anybody in the building to push a button, notify first responders, police that we have an issue,” explained Avera.
Jacksonville ISD students and staff also have the peace of mind that an officer is always around since the district established its own police department back in 2001. Avera, who also heads the Texas School Safety Center, says it’s something more Texas schools are considering.
“Almost 340 to be exact school districts in Texas, which is out of 1,200 is a fairly large percentage that have chosen to do this, mostly out of need,” Avera said.
The district’s department is made up of seven people, each assigned to different campuses.
“They’re there until the students leave in the afternoon. You know, some days are really busy, some days aren’t so busy,” explained Avera.
A school district new to having their own police department is Lovelady ISD, who serves about 500 students.
The creation of their force was a direct response to Uvalde, with the district starting the process just one month after the shooting.
“Being so far from local law enforcement, there brings having our own person here certainly a lot more security and safety feel to our district and our community,” said Lovelady ISD Superintendent Wendy Tullos.
Right now, their department is just comprised of Chief of Police Michael Merchant.
“The students make it worthwhile to interact with them and to provide a positive role model for the students towards law enforcement. They don’t always see that, so other than keeping them safe and secure, that’s one of my main functions,” Merchant said.
Merchant has more than 29 years of experience in law enforcement, calling his new job “satisfying on a different level.” His role consists of constantly monitoring high traffic areas on campus.
“The state is adding things all the time. One of the main functions of my job when there’s no kids in the cafeteria and that is doing security checks on all the doors. Those are mandatory now. Making sure they’re all locked and secure,” explained Merchant.
On top of keeping all students and staff safe, he’s also protecting his own children who attend the school. It’s a job he takes seriously.
“Obviously, you worry about your children, and you worry about their safety at all times. I’m sure all parents have that feeling. From a law enforcement perspective, as a police officer for almost 30 years, it’s, you know more of the outcome of what could happen,” Merchant said.
Protection isn’t a one size fits all strategy, it depends on how big a city or school district is, and the resources it already has access to.
“We can’t depend on what would work right in Dallas or Houston or Austin or San Antonio to be the same as what would work in the 100 and some odd schools here in region seven in East Texas,” Avera said, referencing East Texas’s place in the Region 7 Education Service Center.
Longview ISD, one of the largest school districts in East Texas, doesn’t employ their own officers. Instead, they partner with Longview law enforcement to keep their more than 8,000 students safe.
The program has been going on for nearly 20 years.
“We are extremely pleased with that and we also hire off-duty officers to come into all our campuses at certain times of the day,” said Longview ISD Superintendent James Wilcox.
Wilcox says LISD discusses creating their own police department on a weekly basis, but face one major setback: a nationwide law enforcement shortage.
“To have two licensed police officers on all of our 14 campuses everyday, they’re just not available. But, it’s something we continue to study,” Wilcox said.
Every district, both big and small, is working against the challenges to keep school safety as a top priority.
“We want to prevent and mitigate our hazards, not respond and have to rebuild,” added Avera.
They are making sure every East Texas child is educated, nurtured and protected from harm.