Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series on school safety.
With the number of school shootings across the country continuing to rise, area school districts are looking for ways to increase safety for students and personnel. Sherman Independent School District opted to allow certain staff to be armed, while at Whitewright, Howe and Bells, district personnel are looking to build their own police forces.
Grayson County Commissioners recently approved an interlocal agreement that will allow Grayson County dispatchers to work with the Whitewright Independent School District police department. At that meeting, Commissioner Jeff Whitmire asked when school districts started building their own police departments rather than hiring officers from the police departments or sheriff’s office near them.
Grayson County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Sarah Bigham told commissioners that as the nation has continued to see violence in schools increase, the federal and state government has made it easier for the districts to assemble their own police forces.
Whitmire asked why they would want to do that and Sheriff Tom Watt said it probably has to do with control. He said if the officers work for other departments, then they are just contract employees with the districts and are ultimately answerable to the police chief rather than the superintendent. Watt said a district having its own police department means the officers answer to the district.
Bells Independent School District Superintendent Joe Moore cited increased enrollment as the way his district will pay for newly hired Safety Coordinator Otis Henry, the former chief of the Sherman Police Department. Moore said the district is currently in the process of applying with TCOLE to open its own department and Henry will transition to police chief of that department once the three-month process is completed. Henry was forced out of his job as chief of police in Sherman in December of 2017 and sued the city claiming age discrimination was at the root of his removal from the chief’s position. The city countered by saying that there were deficiencies in Henry’s leadership. The two sides settled the federal case in April with the city issuing a statement that said, “Former Chief Henry honorably served the citizens for more than 32 years and the City applauds his service.”
Moore said the Bells ISD school board looked at all of the options available for security and had used contract personnel for 16 years. He said the problem there was that it wasn’t always easy to get someone and then keep them. Moore said the hope is the police chief can become part of the school community and form relationships with the students and personnel.
“The board really spent a lot of time,” Moore said, of considering the different options, an effort he applauded.
He acknowledged that budgets for local districts are tight but said safety is a priority. Moore said Henry came highly recommended. Moore said Henry is the only hire the district has made for the planned department at this time. However, Moore said he anticipates there might be more hires once the district gets the police department approved and Henry has time to evaluate the need.
Howe Independent School District Superintendent Kevin Wilson said his district is just in the beginning stages of getting its police department together.
“We originally had partnered with the city of Howe to provide one to two SROs (school resource officers) this spring, but after two months it became evident that with so many school districts looking for SROs, the applicant pool was not sufficient to fulfill our needs,” Wilson said
He said Howe ISD personnel visited with other districts that had formed their own departments, including Anna and Whitewright, and decided to go in that direction.
“The primary benefit to having our own PD and staff will be that our officers will be full-time employees and will have an opportunity to develop a positive rapport with our staff and students,” Wilson said via email. “They will also be more visible and have a larger role in revising and implementing our emergency operations procedures.”
Whitewright Independent School District Superintendent Steve Arthur said his district’s two-person department will be inspected by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement in August and he expects it to be up and running after that. Chief Judy Sims addressed Grayson County commissioners Tuesday and said they will, of course, be happy to provide back up to Grayson County should the need ever arise.
Arthur said Sims and officer Michael Stephens have a combined 36 years of law enforcement experience and “will be responsible for maintaining a safe and secure environment on all three of our campuses and at all of our night time activities hosted at Whitewright ISD.”
Arthur said the initial startup costs for the program should be around $65,000 for all fees, equipment, cars and salaries for the two officers and that money is going to come from the general fund without requiring cuts to any other programs.
“Our board of trustees has established this as a top priority and will fund it appropriately in order to ensure the safety of Whitewright ISD students and staff,” he said.
Wilson said Howe ISD is still in the process of evaluating its plan, but staff anticipate it to cost between $125,000 to $150,000 for the first year due to fees and equipment costs.
“Fortunately, our increase in enrollment will allow us to add this expense without sacrificing in other areas,” Wilson said.
Herald Democrat Managing Editor William C. Wadsack contributed to this report.