Testing the safety of our schools

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AUSTIN (KXAN) – The Austin Independent School District is experiencing one of the busiest semesters officials can recall when it comes to campus safety concerns.

In August, a 4-year-old girl wandered off an elementary school campus and into traffic.

In mid-October, a high school student brought a gun on campus and ended his own life in a crowded courtyard.

Ten days later, another high school went on lockdown after a student swears they saw someone with a gun.

The events drove KXAN to start investigating the process AISD and other Texas districts must go through to keep teachers and students safe.

The Texas Education Code requires districts to perform a safety audit of every campus every three years. Most districts do their own and use a 62-page safety audit checklist provided by the Texas School Safety Center.

A couple of examples of questions include: Is the staff required to wear photo badges at all times? Do all windows have a way to be covered in the event of a lockdown? Are there working security cameras inside and outside the school?

Specific problems exposed by the audit are confidential and protected by law, but districts are required to turn in a summary of the report to the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University.

AISD Emergency Management Coordinator John Gaete is in charge of safety audits on every campus.

“As a parent myself, one of the first things I ask myself when I’m doing a safety and security audit, ‘is this school safe for my child?’” Gaete said.

Kathy Martinez-Prather, research manager at the TSSC, collects a summary of the data statewide and posts a generic snapshot of the results online for the public and lawmakers.

There are no specifics about each school or district, and the center cannot make them fix any problems exposed in the audit.

“We don’t want them to see us as a regulatory agency,” she said, “we want them to see us as someone who is there to help them.”

The bottom line, there are no requirements for schools to make any security changes or tell the public what those changes might be.

KXAN also learned the law does not require the state’s 212 charter schools to submit anything to the Texas School Safety Center.

In December 2012, right after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, Attorney General Greg Abbott called out 38 school districts who failed to turn in a summary of their reports to the Texas School Safety Center. At the time, there were another 40 incomplete reports.

All but three districts are now in good standing. Currently, Premont ISD, Borden County and Sierra Blanca ISD have yet to turn in anything for the 2008-2011 school years.

A spokesperson with the Attorney General’s office tells KXAN they do not have statutory authority to take action against schools not following the law. They went on to say it is up to parents to question their districts and keep them on the right track.

AISD believes the process is working well the way it is, and problems are addressed immediately.

“I would say that when we debrief that day,” Gaete said, “[administrators] do a very good job correcting that issue right away.”

Only school police and campus principals are privy to full reports in Austin ISD. The school board only sees a summary of the audit.

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