EAST HARRIS COUNTY Sheriff Adrian Garcia called an all-county meeting last Thursday night, Jan. 24 to tell the public what his department is doing to provide enhanced school safety, to allow school districts to explain their safety procedures, and to hear comments and answer questions from parents and the public.
The meeting was held in the new Grant Fine Arts Center of San Jacinto Community College North. It was attended by several hundred interested parties, parents and the public.
In his opening welcome remarks, Sheriff Garcia said that this forum had originally been planned after the Newtown, Connecticut shooting at the elementary school, but that it was even more relevant because of the shooting at Lone Star College only two days before. He said the forum would attempt to answer the question for everyone, what are we doing to keep our children safe? What more can we do?
Sgt. Jimmy Cook, HCSO, showed the audience a training video used in many school and office jurisdictions, preparing people for a correct response when there is an active shooter. The message of the video was, take three steps: Run or Hide or Fight, depending upon the circumstances.
Dr. Steve Head, president of Lone Star College, updated the audience on the events of the shooting on his campus on Tuesday, and the subsequent arrests of two perpetrators.
Sheriff Garcia praised the response of his officers and other law enforcement. He said that within a few minutes, 150 of his deputies responded, and another 50 officers from other jurisdictions also arrived.
Next, several officers in charge of divisions of the Sheriffs office spoke on their responsibilities. Capt. Cordova heads the SWAT team or High Risk Unit, with deputies on call 24 hours. Christina Garza heads the information division, and spoke about methods of reaching the public and the media, with social media, webpage, and the website hcso.hctx.net, as well as traditional email for press releases. Sgt. Franks and the Sheriff urged the public to use the website: www.iwatchharriscounty.com for tips that report criminal activity. Sheriff Garcia said this has been very effective, with over 2 dozen behind bars from these tips. Lt. Robert Henry spoke about the development of the Mental Health unit, a necessary corollary to arrest and incarceration.
The public wanted to know what they could do to help school safety. A representative of the Houston Ministers Against Crime said they walk the halls of schools in Channelview, with a calming effect. Dr. Head agreed that a similar situation occurs in their campus at Victory Center. Pastor Gilmore said we need to bring God back into school.
Constable Ken Jones explained how his department contracts with 6 school districts to provide officers in the schools as needed, in 33 schools. These officers get special training every year, paid for by the districts, for gangs, first responders, and updating on basic policing.
Chief Clements of Galena Park ISD said they have used campus based officers since 1996, and they make a positive relationship with students. Drills are conducted on a regular basis. Some of the problems officers deal with are drugs, assaults, and counterfeiting.
Houston ISDs Sidney Zullinger said that Safe School are a marketing necessity, that parents want to send their children to a safe environment. He has 200 officers, and 261 schools. Every high school has a certified police officer.
Zullinger and most of the panelists spoke on the issue of guns for school personnel. The concensus was that armed police officers are okay in the schools, but not armed teachers. Dr. Head said that in a chaotic scene after a shooting, you cannot be sure who is a good guy after gunfire, if everyone has a gun.
When asked by an audience member whether more deputies are needed, Constable Jones related his experiences in Highlands, where they concentrate officers in high crime areas, and partner with the Sheriff on Task Forces for special situations. He noted that the County budget would allow him to hire 3 new officers this year, paid for by the three precincts his district covers. These comments were in general, not necessarily related to schools, he said.
Sheriff Garcia said that most schools are conducting Safety audits in cooperation with the Harris County Department of Education. He said that Harris County had authorized his office to hire more officers this year.
In closing, Garcia urged citizens to participate in the CPA or Citizens Police Academy to learn more about his department and crime fighting. He said that School Safety should be looked at as a County-wide strategy, not individual districts.