After Texas’ deadliest school shooting happened in his district’s own backyard, Southwest Independent School District Superintendent Lloyd Verstuyft knows it is incumbent upon him and his staff to ensure every facility in the district on the outskirts of San Antonio is as secure as possible.
That involves upgrading security technology, assessing each of Southwest ISD’s 18 campuses, fixing any physical safety defects and providing emergency operations training to all staff members.
But all of that comes at a cost.
While the Uvalde school shooting hasn’t necessarily taught San Antonio school districts anything new about school safety, district officials say it has heightened their sense of urgency to solidify their security plans and highlighted the need for far more funding to secure campuses.
Since the May 24 shooting, which killed 19 children and two teachers, Gov. Greg Abbott has directed state agencies to ensure schools are more secure and charged state Education Commissioner Mike Morath with outlining several actions school districts must complete before the start of the 2022-23 school year. Those actions include conducting safety audits of all school facilities, inspecting every exterior door, convening each district’s safety and security committee to review plans for emergencies like school shootings and training all staff, including substitutes, on safety procedures for their campus and district.
Additionally, Abbott directed Morath to do more to ensure that schools are held to “heightened safety standards” and instructed Morath to determine the costs for school districts to comply with the strengthened safety standards the commissioner adopts, with a deadline of Sept. 1.
The state has poured some funds into supporting extra safety measures. Texas’ top state officials allocated $105.5 million to support extra safety measures, including $17.1 million for school districts to purchase silent panic alert technology and $50 million for bullet-resistant shields, such as those officers used to confront the Uvalde school shooter.
Brian Woods, superintendent of Northside ISD, San Antonio’s largest school district, said he doesn’t think spending $50 million on ballistic shields is the best use of that money. The $105.5 million comes from the state’s primary funding source for school districts, the Foundation School Program, at a time when districts are struggling to maintain healthy budgets after two years of unexpected pandemic-related costs.
“I think that there are a lot more effective ways to spend that kind of money,” he said.
Even after accounting for the funding the state provides under Senate Bill 11 — a law passed after the Santa Fe High School shooting in 2018, when a 17-year-old junior killed eight classmates and two teachers and injured 13 others — Woods said that money just doesn’t go far enough to adequately secure schools. NISD receives about $1 million a year from SB 11 funds.
“We spend well over $90 million a year on security projects, $1 million of which comes from the state,” he said.
The law provided an annual allotment per student to fund school safety, such as training and new equipment. Under the law, school districts must adopt an emergency operations plan that addresses multiple threats and submit this in a safety and security audit to the Texas School Safety Center for review.
A spokesperson for the research center said no one on staff would be available for comment until at least the end of the month.
The law gave the education commissioner responsibility for setting building standards to “provide a secure and safe environment,” and another piece of legislation distributed $100 million in grants for schools to harden campuses, many of which are more than 40 years old.
From that one-time state grant, NISD received about $1.7 million, SAISD received about $1 million and Southwest ISD got about $223,000, according to a Texas Education Agency report detailing grant amounts. Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District received roughly $69,000.
“If your goal is to put access control in an older building or to create a secure vestibule in an older building, that money just doesn’t go very far,” Woods said.
The average age of school buildings in the U.S. was 44 years old in 2012, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Robb Elementary School, the site of the shooting in Uvalde, was built in the 1960s.
NISD voters approved an almost $1 billion bond package in November that will mostly fund upgrades to older campuses, $18.1 million of which will go toward safety and security upgrades. More than half of NISD schools are more than 20 years old, according to the district. Helotes Elementary School is 83 years old, while Marshall High School is 72 years old.
“A lot of buildings built prior to 1970 all over the state of Texas were designed to capture airflow because they didn’t have air conditioning. They’re apart from each other. They have breezeways that connect them. There’s a classroom on either side, lots of large windows because that was the need in order to survive going to school in Texas in May or September,” Woods said. “Those buildings are the hardest to secure.”
San Antonio ISD plans to spend more than $4 million on safety enhancements this school year. The district recently upgraded its dispatch system to one that can coordinate communication across multiple agencies with the push of a button, said Capt. Armando Olguin Jr., director of compliance, policy and training for the SAISD police.
“It eliminates seconds because seconds in large scale incidents count,” he said. “We work in the seventh largest city in the nation as an ISD. Our response time along with [the San Antonio Police Department’s] and Bexar County’s is going to be very fast. The lag sometimes in large scale situations is communication.”
The system — called Symphony — integrates all first responders’ radios to a specific channel in the event of a large scale emergency, allowing all to communicate simultaneously. The system also allows dispatchers to monitor surveillance cameras at every SAISD facility as well as CPS Energy power outages.
Olguin acknowledged the costs of staying up to date with the latest security technology that will ensure SAISD is “a safe and conducive learning environment for our students and for our staff members.” He said more funding is needed for security features like doorbell cameras where campus visitors have to check in before they can enter, surveillance cameras and hallway monitors.
“The revolving cost and continuous changing in technology is something that’s always going to be at the forefront when we’re looking at safety and security,” he said.
But every campus has different security needs, depending on its age, location and size, Olguin said.
“If we had more allotted funds, we can definitely put more resources to use,” he said.
For Verstuyft, upgrading older buildings to be more secure happens every time Southwest ISD modifies or remodels a facility, and like many other districts, Southwest has several older buildings.
“One area we really need to lean into is integrating more technology into our safety processes,” he said. “We’re trying to identify technology that would trigger a notice to the campus administrative team if there is a door that’s not making the appropriate contact to be completely secured from the inside.”
That’s just one example of technology he’d like to see implemented. Other examples include installing security vestibules as the main point of entry at every campus, which would be equipped with bulletproof glass, and providing a communication system that reaches every classroom.
“We do need additional funding if we’re going to shore up some of our buildings throughout Texas and the nation,” Verstuyft said.
The 2019 school safety bill distributes about $100 million per biennium to the Texas Education Agency, the Texas Tribune reported. The agency then allocates the dollars to school districts to fund equipment, programs and training to enhance school safety and security. That amounts to less than $10 per student based on average daily attendance.
Chief William McManus of the San Antonio Police Department worries about funding sources for maintaining and updating schools to be as safe as possible. He said the base level of security at each campus needs to start at the perimeter, which likely includes fences, but schools also need interior security protocols in place.
“And the immediate problem is where does that money come from?” he said.
McManus recently met with area superintendents and district police chiefs to discuss security features and assure them SAPD would take command of any active shooter situation in San Antonio.
“I wanted to make that clear to them, so it would hopefully give them some level of confidence, that if there were an active shooter, we would not see the same scene as we saw in Uvalde with a lack of leadership and confusion at the scene as to who was in charge and what to do,” he said.