Underwood says security is district's No. 1 concern

Autumn Owens aowens@empiretribune.com
Crowded hallways at Stephenville High School is one safety issue that will be eliminated if the SISD bond passes in May.

With the ongoing conversations on student safety in America, Stephenville ISD is now considering campus carry programs for administrators and teachers.

The E-T sat down with SISD Superintendent Matt Underwood and Director of Maintenance Keith Starnes to discuss the programs and current safety procedures at the district.

“Obviously the national conversation has affected probably all public schools in re-looking at how we handle school safety,” Underwood said.

The two programs being considered are the Guardian Plan — a concealed carry with a lock box requirement — and the Marshal Plan — police-style training that allows educators to act as armed security officers.

“Lingleville has had a guardian program for some time now. I think they had an ex-military teacher and now he’s been involved in getting trained so he can train others,” Underwood said. “Local policy can kind of direct a guardian program, it’s not as strictly regulated. From what I understand it circles around a locked gun situation.”

The Marshal Plan requires 80 hours of training with one trainer per six participants and Underwood says, “It’s not as easy as it sounds.”

The Guardian Plan would allow administrators and teachers the ability to conceal a handgun on their person, but would require them to keep it in a lock box when students are in their office or classroom.

“If it’s someone that doesn’t really have kids in their office that much, they can have it on their body,” Starnes said. “But if you are someone that has students in your office for a certain period of time, it’s suppose to be in a lock box at that point. Now, if they get out of their office and walk around the halls, they can legally wear it at that time.”

Underwood said 10 years ago he was not in favor of either because he didn’t want to introduce a weapon in the environment and local law enforcement was on the same page at that time.

“Now you fast forward and since we unfortunately have data now, the way to stop an incident is the faster you can get force on the situation,” he said. “So our local law enforcement has changed their recommendation and said that it might be in the best interest of the school to consider one of these programs.”

There will still be a lot of discussion and feedback to be had before a decision is made.

As far as safety drills, Underwood said SISD participates in those frequently especially after a school shooting.

The district employs one school resource officer stationed at Henderson Junior High, Joe Sherrod, but plans to hire more are not a priority at this time.

“We were having a conversation about whether more officers were needed anymore and instead having a school marshal type situation that would be more economically feasible,” Underwood said. “This sparked the conversation about the plans.”

SISD’s $60.81 million bond proposal addresses some security measures by creating a front entry vestibule at the high school, enclosing open-air sidewalks between buildings and reducing hallway congestion.

The district complies with the Texas School Safety Center’s Safety and Security Audit every three years, which includes checklists on access points; location of facilities, administration and outdoor areas; visitor procedures; and more.

“Any time we get a new employee I take them around and they walk through a campus to see if they get caught,” Starnes said. “I let them in the back and see if they can get to the front before someone catches them. Nobody knows them, so it’s a stranger and it’s interesting to see. They nearly always get caught.”

Local police have a presence around schools in the mornings and afternoons.

“We’ve also visited with the police department about using our buildings as on-site training in the summer and during spring break so they can become more familiar with the buildings,” Underwood said. “I think we have great support from our local PD.”

With information coming out about disturbing posts on social media by Parkland, Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz, Underwood says that SISD parents and students are great about reporting any suspicious information online and in school.

“We had two students who recently received a Core Value award and it was really an amazing story. They had seen what we found out later was a BB gun on campus. They were amazingly calm and didn’t alert anyone until class was over because they didn’t want to scare other students,” Underwood said. “At the end of the period they told the teacher and she brought it to the office. But a lot of our issues are not during school, they’re after school and our kids and our parents are good at notifying us. Our goal when we get those tips is to get to that house long before that kid leaves for school and we’ve been successful with that. That is the great thing about having a tight-knit community.

“School security is our number one job.”