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Group eyes school safety

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer

Briefing: Recent training exercises, lockdowns help to improve security

The city’s first responders have found that recent training exercises and campus lockdowns — mock and actual — have helped the Denton school district examine and improve security at its campuses.

Denton Police Chief Lee Howell and Bill Knight, the school district’s environmental safety manager, briefed members of the school board and the City Council, as well as many senior administrators of both entities, at a joint meeting over lunch at City Hall on Monday.

The work has come in response to the mass shooting Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which killed 20 schoolchildren and six adults.

Knight told city leaders the training exercises anticipated likely real-life situations, such as one exercise they worked on Monday morning at Ryan High School.

In that situation, emergency planners rolled out a scenario that had a former student returning to campus to confront a former girlfriend. When the ex-student is told by the teacher to leave the classroom, the teacher sees a pistol in his belt.

“They [participants in the exercise] have to answer questions like ‘who’s going to call 911?’ and ‘who’s going to do the lock-down?’” Knight said.

Emergency planners add unexpected elements to the exercise to challenge the campus leadership in ways that mimic a real emergency, he said.

“That way they get that feeling of not being in control,” Knight said.

Some exercises are planned for the lunch hour, at the end of a class period, or during passing period, rather than at a time when the students are all in their seats — for that same purpose, to let the adults get that feeling of not being in control, Knight said.

Such tabletop exercises and mock lockdowns are planned throughout the district, he said, adding that it would take some time to get all the training finished.

The mock lockdown and recent lockdowns at Denton High School and Lee Elementary School (both in response to a potential threat that did not realize) brought valuable lessons, Howell told the group.

“We assess for what we can learn from these issues, and we will be addressing some communication issues,” Howell said.

For example, the department has begun to take advantage of added features in Tip411 that allows it to send texts to groups, he said.

“It could help us in an initial response, to have an outgoing notification to a campus or school administrative group,” Howell said.

For example, if one campus were on lockdown, Tip411 could be used to send a text to the campus leadership of a nearby school, he said.

Tip411, while anonymous, can be made address-specific, which could help elicit more information from students and teachers on campus who might not otherwise share, for fear of retribution.

Howell said the department is working on that feature, too, and once it’s available, the department will make sure teachers and students know about it.

While six police officers are already assigned to various Denton campuses as school resource officers, the recent increase of patrol officers also on the campuses has brought fresh eyes to small problems that are easy to overlook, Knight added.

And even though patrol officers are familiar with more public parts of the schools, they are learning that they need to become more familiar with the layout of the entire school buildings.

In addition, Howell said a recent trial to outfit the Ryan High School resource officer with a tablet computer has helped the officer stay mobile and still be able to pull up the school cameras and other online resources.

“This is a good tool that we’d like to expand on,” Howell said.

City Council member Dalton Gregory, a former school principal, said that he still remembered an intruder assessment the district did years ago and some of the emergency exercises conducted on campus.

As a result, security is very different from what it was 15 years ago, he said.

“It’s a very sobering experience — and very good,” Gregory said. “It’s good to be prepared.”

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881. Her e-mail address is .