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Schools opt to police themselves

Profile image for By Britney Tabor / Staff Writer
By Britney Tabor / Staff Writer

Uniformity, security cited as Argyle, Aubrey districts set up forces

The Argyle and Aubrey school districts are each looking to establish their own police departments.

In recent weeks, the two school boards have passed resolutions in favor of forming police departments.

Officials with the two districts said they have — or intend to build — schools outside of their city limits. Forming a police department will allow officers to have jurisdiction at facilities within district boundaries as well as at any properties outside the community boundaries owned, leased or controlled by the district.

Officials with both school districts cited a greater need for law enforcement presence on their campuses as a reason for establishing a police force.

“I feel that it’s the best long-term solution for the security plan of the district,” Argyle Superintendent Telena Wright said.

Since December, Argyle has looked at ways to better secure district facilities. The district has never had a school resource officer, officials said.

Costs to establish an Argyle ISD police department could range from $80,000 to $150,000, based on the salary and experience of the officer hired, the type of patrol vehicle needed and other supplies, Wright said.

No timeline has been set for when district officials would like to have the department up and running. Officials said they intend to take their time finding the right person to develop and lead the department.

On Thursday, the Argyle school board unanimously passed a resolution to create a police department.

Last month, the board unanimously voted to pilot “Not on My Watch,” a safety and security program in which a select number of district staff members will be trained to carry firearms on campus.

Board President Kevin Faciane has said the board approved the pilot program to evaluate whether it’s something the district wants to continue using in the future.

Either this month or in September, the board could consider amending district policies and developing new ones that would allow staff and officials to be armed on campus, Wright has said.

Board members in Aubrey passed a similar resolution on June 25.

In an interview last month, Aubrey school board President Ron Bullock said that establishing a district police department would allow the district to have “total control” of the department, thus making it more efficient.

Rather than splitting an officer’s time with another law enforcement agency, the district would have a department “100 percent dedicated to Aubrey ISD,” he said.

“We feel extremely good about this decision,” Bullock said.

The board believed that forming a district police department was a better option than establishing another agreement with a local law enforcement agency for a school resource officer, he said.

Aubrey ISD has been without a school resource officer for the last two years, interim Superintendent Debby Sanders said in an interview last month.

In a recent audit, parents and teachers expressed concerns about the district’s lack of a school resource officer, she said.

Once the department is established, the police chief would work out of the high school and oversee all the campuses in the district. This would benefit the district because some of its schools are outside Aubrey city limits, officials said.

When the district had a school resource officer through the Aubrey Police Department, officials said, the officer was bound to campuses within city limits.

Last month, Sanders said no hard numbers existed as to how much it would cost to establish a police department and that the responsibilities of the officers were still to be determined. If it appears the district cannot afford to create its own police force, other options will be considered, she said.

“We would love to have it in place by the time school starts, but I don’t think that’s realistic,” Sanders said last month. “At this point we would certainly like to have it in place by October.”

At press time, Bullock and Sanders could not be reached for further details.

Denton County Sheriff William Travis said he thinks it’s a great idea that schools are trying to form their own police departments. Officers have to go through not only state-licensed peace officer training, but school resource officer training as well, he added.

“I think it’s great they are wanting to prepare themselves and better protect the schools,” Travis said.

The sheriff indicated some concerns about having district personnel licensed to carry firearms on campuses, adding that it could lead to confusion during an incident.

According to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, about 180 active independent school district police departments exist. None are in Denton County. Three of those departments were created this year.

The school district must submit an application to the state commission to be recognized as a department and to receive a law enforcement agency identification number, according to commission officials. The district must receive an agency number to be recognized as a police department and to appoint police officers.

Before submitting an application, as with any entity applying to create a law enforcement agency or police department, the district must submit information regarding its police chief; the need for a department in the community; funding sources; physical resources available to officers; operation facilities; department policies; administrative structure; liability insurance; a school board resolution authorizing the creation of a police force; and records of meetings approving the resolution.

Once an application is received, the review generally takes 30 to 90 days, according to commission officials.

Eric Coleman, who will be joining the criminal justice department at the University of North Texas this fall, said school districts that want to form police departments should have a clear vision of what they want, how they want to use officers on campuses and be prepared to commit “for the long haul.”

Coleman’s doctoral work has been in campus and safety security research, and he is returning to UNT to further develop expertise in campus safety and security administration.

He was a criminal justice professor at UNT Dallas from 2008 to 2010 before going to Texas A&M University at San Antonio, where he served as the associate vice president for campus safety and security and was the university’s police chief until earlier this year. He also served as police chief of the Haskell consolidated school district from 1997 to 2000.

Coleman said he applauds school districts that want to establish their own police departments for student safety.

There’s criticism in Texas that school district police departments are being used to enforce discipline, and there has to be a balance, Coleman said.

“One of the things that [districts] need to be cautious of is that [they] do not use the school district police department as a first resort for behavioral issues,” he said.

A school district must also consider funding and whether it can afford to maintain and support its police department effectively in the event of funding cuts, he said.

Some school districts have contracted with local law enforcement agencies for liability reasons, Coleman said, but there’s no more liability for a school district than there is for a municipality or county. Ways of mitigating liability, he said, are “good training, sound policy and having good people that exercise sound judgment.”

Coleman said he recommends that districts seek advice from local law enforcement leaders in establishing a department and hiring people for their force. That allows districts to get off to a good start with the right person in place.

The Prosper school district established its police force last school year.

Mike Goddard, the district’s assistant superintendent, said it took about 1 1/2 to 2 years to get the department up and running, and when it was established, it had one officer: the chief. The district intends to hire four more officers for the new school year, he said.

Portions of Prosper ISD are within Denton and Collin counties and the jurisdictions of Celina, Denton, Frisco, McKinney and Prosper.

Goddard said it became “challenging and daunting” because every municipality’s law enforcement agency has different protocols. The district established its police force in an effort to create “common uniformity” and expectations.

The district has not eliminated help from surrounding municipalities, Goodard said, but now partners with them.

It’s hard to put a price on the value of increased safety and security on Prosper campuses since creating the police department, he said.

“We’ve had such great success,” Goddard said, adding that in the last six months, 10 to 15 school districts have contacted his district about its police department.

Since establishing the department, he said, the district has seen a 75 percent decline in the number of students attending an alternative school.

Goddard said Prosper does not have an alternative school and must send students to Plano. The district has saved about $85,000 it would have spent sending students to an alternative school, he said.

In its startup year, the district spent less than $100,000 to establish its police department, Goddard said. For the 2013-14 year, he said, the district intends to allocate about $300,000 of the district’s proposed $52.3 million budget to funding the department.

Kelly Davidson, Prosper ISD police chief, said the department’s purpose is to educate students, prevent them from getting into trouble and encourage them to make the right choices.

“It’s a difference in law enforcement philosophy,” he said. “We’re not really a conventional police department on the enforcement side — although we can be if we have to be.”

Every Texas school district is unique with different needs, Goddard said. For some districts, establishing a police department is appropriate, but for others it may not be, he added.

Aubrey ISD officials said the Prosper model served as an influence in their decision to create a police department.

Officials with Denton, Lake Dallas, Little Elm, Northwest, Pilot Point and Sanger schools said their districts have agreements with local law enforcement agencies to provide school resource officers, generally at secondary campuses.

In some cases, officials said, the officers are dispatched to elementary and other campuses when needed. Officials in Krum have said they’re looking into potential arrangements to hire a school resource officer.

Officials in Northwest, Denton and Sanger said establishing a district police force has not been considered.

Staff writer Megan Gray contributed to this report.

BRITNEY TABOR can be reached at 940-566-6876 and via Twitter at @BritneyTabor.