Texas school districts grapple with armed officer mandate as officer shortages persist
One superintendent said they will not rush planning or "take unnecessary risks because these folks are responsible for protecting our children and our campuses"
By Silas Allen
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
FORT WORTH, Tex. — This week marks the deadline for Texas school districts to have armed law enforcement officers at each of their campuses. But with cities across the state struggling to recruit enough officers to staff their own departments, schools in the Fort Worth area are scrambling to come up with alternative plans that keep their campuses secure.
House Bill 3, which Texas lawmakers passed earlier this year, requires that school districts have at least one armed officer at each campus during regular school hours. Complicating matters further is the fact that the bill only provides enough state funding to cover a fraction of the cost of those officers, leaving school districts and cities to come up with the rest.
The bill includes a deadline of Sept. 1 for school districts to either comply with the law, or come up with another plan to provide security at each of their campuses. School officials in Fort Worth say they’re working toward that goal, but it could take time to get there.
“We want to get the right people on our campuses, and if we can do that and be compliant with the law and get there by September 1, that’s ideal,” said Mark Foust, superintendent of the Northwest Independent School District. “But we’re not going to rush something, to take unnecessary risks, because these folks are responsible for protecting our children and our campuses.”
Armed officer bill passed in response to Uvalde school shooting
The bill, which was passed in response to last year’s massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, states that on-campus officers could be members of the district’s own police department, school resource officers or off-duty law enforcement officers hired as private security.
Cities across Texas are struggling with a shortage of law enforcement officers. Fort Worth is no exception: The city currently has about 140 unfilled police officer positions. Many of the city’s current police officers are reaching retirement age. During a city council budget workshop earlier this month, Dianna Giordano, the city’s director of human resources, told council members that about 22% of the department’s current officers will be eligible to retire by 2026.
School districts that can’t comply with the new law, either because they can’t afford to or because they can’t find enough qualified personnel, can request a waiver. Those districts’ school boards are required to come up with an alternative plan, such as hiring trained school marshals or designating a current faculty or staff member who has gone through school safety training to carry a handgun at school. The bill doesn’t outline penalties for districts that fail to comply.
The bill raises the per-student state funding that districts get for campus security, and gives each district an extra $15,000 per campus. But that money offsets only a small part of the cost of hiring security personnel, meaning some districts have to spend millions of dollars to comply with the law.
Fort Worth ISD will miss deadline, citing officer shortage
Officials in the Fort Worth Independent School District have said they don’t expect to be able to have an armed officer on every campus before the end of the school year. The district’s school board approved a waiver application last week, giving officials time to come up with an alternative plan to provide security at each campus.
The district has 89 campuses that are without a school resource officer. All but six of those schools are in the Fort Worth city limits. Two are in Benbrook, one is in Westworth Village, one is in Haltom City and two are in Forest Hill.
Currently, Fort Worth ISD partners with the Fort Worth and the Benbrook police departments to place school resource officers at its middle school and high school campuses. Under an agreement with those two cities, the district pays for half the cost of the officers, and the police departments pick up the other half.
During a Fort Worth ISD school board meeting Tuesday, Deputy Superintendent Karen Molinar said the district will need to hire 77 additional officers, at a total cost of about $8.3 million. The district only expects to receive about $2.7 million in additional state funding to pay for those officers, she said.
Although the cost to the district is substantial, Molinar said the main hurdle keeping the district from complying with the new law is a lack of available officers. The district is trying a few strategies to make the best use of the officers it already has, she said, including reassigning a few from high schools that had two officers to elementary schools and assigning one officer to cover two or more schools that are within two miles of each other. The district will also request more school resource officers from the Fort Worth and Benbrook police departments over the next few years, and try to hire off-duty officers to provide campus security, she said.
During a press conference on the first day of school in Fort Worth ISD, Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker said the city has to work with school leaders to place school resource officers on campuses who are a good fit for the role. The job of a school resource officer is unlike that of other police officers, she said, because they not only serve as law enforcement, they also act as mentors and informal counselors for some students. Finding enough officers who can do that job successfully can be a challenge, she said.
Rocketship charter schools hire off-duty FWPD officers
SaJade Miller, the Texas superintendent for the charter network Rocketship Public Schools, said the network plans to hire off-duty Fort Worth police officers to act as school resource officers. The network operates two campuses in Fort Worth: Rocketship Dennis Dunkins Elementary School, located on Berry Street in Stop Six, and Rocketship Explore Elementary School, located off Interstate 820 in eastern Fort Worth.
Miller said school leaders looked at other options, including recruiting school marshals and hiring private security guards. But the network ultimately decided that off-duty police officers provided several advantages that other options couldn’t match.
Police officers, even when they’re serving off duty, are plugged into the rest of the department, he said. If an emergency happens, a police officer can radio for backup and get a response more quickly than if a private security guard had to dial 911, he said. Police officers also get regular briefings about criminal activity across the city. That can give officers and school officials important insight into trends in the neighborhoods around campuses, Miller said — if police learn about a series of break-ins at businesses nearby, campus leaders could decide to tighten security for a few days. But a private security guard most likely wouldn’t have that information, he said.
Because the network is hiring off-duty police and not full-time school resource officers, they can’t ensure that students will see the same officer at school every day, Miller said. The network plans to place rotating groups of five or six officers at each school, he said, so students might see each officer one or two days each week, he said.
That approach means that school leaders and the officers themselves will need to be more intentional about building relationships with students, he said. Officers can’t simply show up to school, he said. School leaders will need to introduce them to students and make sure they understand that the officers are there to help, he said.
Miller, whose mother served for 15 years as a school resource officer in Fort Worth ISD, acknowledged that many of his students have difficult histories with the police. But having officers in schools on a day-to-day basis can give students a clearer picture of the role police play in the community, he said. Much of that will also depend on the approach those officers take, he said, but he’s been encouraged by Chief Neil Noakes’ commitment to community policing. If officers take the job as an opportunity to build relationships with students, they can help change kids’ perspectives about what the police are about, he said.
“It’s about relationship and mutual respect between law enforcement officials in the community,” he said.
Northwest ISD to hire private security guards at 22 schools
In Northwest ISD, board members approved a plan last week to file for a waiver and contract with five security firms to place security guards at each of the district’s 22 elementary schools. Foust, the district’s superintendent, told board members the district couldn’t afford to hire police officers for each of those campuses. The cost of hiring a school resource officer in Northwest ISD ranges from $80,000-100,000 per year, depending on the jurisdiction. The district covers all or part of 14 cities and towns in three counties.
The district already had school resource officers in place at middle schools and high schools, a district spokesman said. District officials expect to have security guards in place in time to meet the Sept. 1 deadline.
Contracting with a security firm is different from hiring school resource officers, Foust said. Resource officers often work in the same school for years, developing long-standing relationships with students there. While the district would prefer that its security guards do the same, contracting with outside security firms means the district gives up a certain amount of control over staffing decisions, including which guards are posted at which schools, he said.
District officials will work with security firms to make sure they get the best possible guards posted at elementary schools, Foust said. But he acknowledged that the new requirement puts school districts in uncharted territory. Finding the best solution could take time, he said.
During last week’s meeting, Tim McClure, the district’s assistant superintendent for facilities, said the role of those guards will be different from that of the school resource officers at middle and high schools. Security guards will be responsible for monitoring entrances, patrolling a perimeter around the school buildings and making sure that doors into the building are properly secured — another requirement state lawmakers passed after the Uvalde shooting.
But those guards aren’t police officers, McClure said, so they can’t enforce the law or respond to an emergency situation. If an emergency arises that calls for a police response, school administrators will still need to call their nearest school resource officer or dial 911, he said.
Before voting to approve the contracts, board President Steve Sprowls said he was annoyed that lawmakers left local school districts to pick up most of the cost for the new requirement.
“You would think that if it was important enough to pass this kind of legislation, they would fund it, as well,” he said.
“I couldn’t disagree with that statement,” McClure replied.