‘It’s everybody’s responsibility.’ Why security experts, educators say safer schools means going beyond the classroom

Following the devastating murders at Robb Elementary in Uvalde in May, the debate over school safety has reignited talks on everything from bulletproof shields to more funding for mental health services.

“It’s everybody’s responsibility,” said Mike Matranga, the founder of M6 Global, which specializes in security for K-12 campuses. “It doesn’t matter if it’s at school or if it’s in your community. You need to learn the signs and symptoms of pre-attack behavior.”

Matranga has protected presidents as a secret service agent and our children as the former head of security for Texas City ISD. He said the district’s security plan is touted as the best in Texas and in the top five in the United States.

When Matranga took over security for Texas City ISD, he ensured every employee received training in how to spot potentially troubling behaviors and established law enforcement emergency response protocols. While a staunch proponent of officers on campus and a strict adherence to security protocols by all staff members, he said the physical protection of a campus is only half the battle.

“Having one threat assessment team for a district is not enough. Having a campus threat assessment team on every campus is not enough,” Matranga said. “We have to go deeper than that. We have to have a community resource or a resource within the district that’s going to help treat the cause (of violence).”

Spotting the red flags early

The Texas House committee investigating the response to the Uvalde massacre found that there had been red flags surrounding the shooter years in advance. The shooter had been involuntarily withdrawn from high school after racking up more than 100 absences.

Teachers, students and family members also described home life problems, bullying and later claims of animal cruelty.

“Many times, after every one of these shootings, it’s always said, ‘Well, yeah, I knew that kid had some issues,’” Matranga said. “And there’s no one that reported that behavior, just like in Uvalde.”

The committee’s report notes there are no excuses for the violence committed on school campuses, but Matranga and other organizations believe there is a more holistic option while still improving physical security.

“I’ve said this time and time again, we build $100 million stadiums for high schools, yet we can’t find $100,000 or $200,000 annually to support a social, emotional learning or emotional intelligence program for our staff, our students and our parents,” Matranga said.

An organization called Communities in Schools, or CIS, works to accomplish that goal by bringing an entire community of support into a school to help at-risk children. The program has touched the lives of many students at Holub Middle School in Alief ISD.

“Communities in Schools, the largest dropout prevention program in the nation, is about providing integrated services to empower students to stay in school and achieve in life,” said Sylvia Teague, Communities in Schools Director of Field Operations.

CIS works to remove whatever obstacles life has put in the path of a child to ensure they stay in school and stay on a path to success.

“We can almost provide anything, and I always say from a pencil to rent, that’s late months, anything that we can do to remove the barriers that are stopping a child from being successful,” said Eric A. Johnson, CIS program director.

WATCH “SOLUTIONARIES: SAFER SCHOOLS”

Setting kids up for success

“Students have a lot of needs for different things, primarily, here is food, clothing, backpacks, school supplies,” said Porter Renfro IV, the CIS student support manager at Holub. “So they know that my room is like a one-stop shop if they actually left something at home, or if they just don’t have it.”

Johnson and Renfro operate out of a room filled with backpacks, clothes, books and whatever else a child may need to have a successful school day.

In the Houston area, CIS has programs running on 169 campuses in six school districts, charter schools and community college campuses. During the 2020-2021 school year, the Houston area CIS made 2,237 home visits and handled 4,010 crisis situations.

Yolanda Walker said CIS was instrumental in making sure her son, Keith, had the support he needed to stay in school, graduate and get into college.

“We had lost the house and we were homeless,” Walker said. “Communities in Schools helped us to get into a hotel so that we can be able to get things organized. They even had it so that the kids will still go to the school, and they had transportation to come and pick them up.”

Lequeshia Kelly said CIS gave her son the tools he needed to start his own catering business after graduating high school. Eating with Chef DJ has steadily grown its client list, and Duawine Joseph said he has brought his younger brother and nephew on board as employees.

“I take pride in my work. [I take] my time and make sure that all my customers are satisfied, and they love it,” Joseph said.

‘The word has gotten out’

Communities in Schools launched in the 1970s in New York and it continues to grow across the country, including in the Houston area where at least three other school districts are considering the program.

Although more Houston-area districts are catching on to the benefits of helping students and their families, the program itself is not free to establish in classrooms.

The cost to bring in the program can vary, but it can run a district approximately $100,000 to bring in support staff, student specialists, mental health and wellness experts, and anyone else that may be needed, according to Teague.

“It’s not a cookie cutter, you know. Every campus is different,” Teague said.

Teague said districts find different ways to fund the program, including the help of private corporations, who may enter a 60/40 funding split.

In order to get into the program, students are often referred by school counselors or other educators. But there may be situations when a child has a temporary need, like getting help with school uniforms or a backpack. CIS also helps in those walk-in cases that may not require long-term intervention.

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