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Safer School Days

McAllen ISD Fine-Tunes Security Policies Across Campuses

It’s a scenario that no one wants to imagine: an active shooter in a school. But leaders in McAllen ISD are examining district safety and security policies to better prepare in case of emergencies.

On Feb. 20, McAllen ISD Superintendent Jose A. Gonzalez hosted a town hall meeting for parents, teachers, students, and community members in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting. The turnout for the meeting spoke volumes.

“We had over 200 people present at the town hall meeting and we had another 8,000 that viewed it online,” Gonzalez said. “It provided us with some very important direction that we needed in gathering information from our community. Because of that, we’ve been able to improve our safety and security plan.”

Some improvements include standardizing emergency responses among the district’s 33 campuses, as well as increasing the frequency of lockdown, lockout, reverse evacuation, and medical emergency drills. Now, emergency drills will be paired with schools’ monthly fire drills.

Marco Suarez Quote

“I was totally, totally impressed with our community, how everyone came together to share ideas,” school board trustee Marco Suarez said on the town hall meeting. “Our objective was for the community to know that we have procedures in place, but it doesn’t always mean that those procedures cannot be fine-tuned. With the response that we got from students, from community members, to even educators that were there, it really allowed us to look at what we had in place and make some adjustments.”

One such adjustment is adding more security lobbies to campuses. Though all of the elementary schools in McAllen ISD have the feature — which requires visitors to the schools to check in prior to gaining access to the rest of the campus — secondary schools are adding them. Schools without security lobbies have a police presence — one per middle school and four per high school — with refurbished security huts to control traffic in and out of campus.

“We’re also doing a better job of controlling entry points on our campuses,” Gonzalez said. “We’re not anywhere where we need to be with regard to being 100 percent one entry point at our secondary schools, but we’ve gotten much better.” McAllen ISD also utilizes RapidIdentity, which scans visitors’ licenses to check for problematic prior convictions.

School personnel are engaging in more scenario-based training, Gonzalez added. That means performing CPR on a mannequin meant to be a student who isn’t breathing, or using practice devices to become more familiar with the defibrillation machines kept in schools.

The district also employs the latest technology to respond to and monitor activity on its campuses.

“We have a drone that our officers can deploy in the event of an emergency and we also use our drones for prevention, too,” Gonzalez said. “We can deploy it at functions, we can deploy it during lunchtime, we can deploy it before and after school, so we’re able to have an eye in the sky, see where traffic is flowing, see where there are any hotspots, where kids are gathering where they shouldn’t and be able to address those things.”

Another bonus that stemmed directly from the town hall meeting was a local surgeon stepping up to offer training for district staff members.

“We were blessed to have the opportunity to have Dr. Luis Reyes,” Gonzalez said. “He came to the town hall meeting and offered his services to us. He leads a program called Stop the Bleed. It revolves around first aid, specifically — injuries where there’s bleeding involved.” These skills will apply to more than just active shooter situations — personnel can respond to anything from sports injuries to shop class accidents.

Future security plans aim at prevention, Gonzalez said. A new districtwide campaign encourages students and parents to speak up when they notice something wrong, whether it’s on campus or on social media. An upcoming community engagement opportunity will address mental health and offer resources on the help available.

“This is an issue that’s not going to take the board of trustees or the superintendent,” Suarez said. “This is a community effort, and I think that McAllen really set the precedent to other communities of how we use town hall meetings. Having these discussions, we can’t be scared to ask the important questions.”

For Suarez, ensuring school safety at McAllen ISD is more than just his job — it’s personal.

“I have two kids in the district, and I drop them off every morning knowing that I am confident that our administration is going to take care of my kids,” Suarez said. “Get involved. Know your school. Know your campuses.”