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Will teachers carry guns?
Cotulla ISD begins talks
The new academic year is only weeks away, and recent events at Uvalde have prompted school officials and law enforcement agencies to put added emphasis on student safety.
In La Salle County, steps had already been taken to increase the number of officers patrolling Cotulla ISD’s campuses before a gunman entered the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde and killed 19 students and two teachers on May 24.
The district operates three campuses in Cotulla and one in Encinal, in addition to other facilities that previously served as elementary and middle schools, and school administrators have begun addressing concerns regarding security, supervision, patrol and vigilance.
Among topics discussed at a recent town hall meeting and expected at upcoming school board meetings will be whether Cotulla ISD will launch a program allowing teachers to carry guns. Talks will continue through the summer on the issue.
Meanwhile, Cotulla ISD has begun upgrading its safety measures on a broad front.
In collaboration with the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office, Cotulla ISD has engaged two full-time resource officers – active sheriff’s deputies – who will separately patrol the campuses.
The program has been operational for a number of years. The number of officers, however, will double in coming weeks, when two additional school resource officers are hired to patrol the campuses.
One of the current school resource officers is Deputy Victor Alvarado, who recently trained with and took possession of the department’s new drug-detecting dog, K9 Edo. The other is Deputy Richard Gonzales, a seasoned veteran of the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office.
The two new school resource officers will be paid as county deputies with a percentage of their salary subsidized by Cotulla ISD. An amended agreement between the sheriff’s office and the school district was agreed upon this month. Other deputies will also be trained as school resource officers to step in when needed.
Sheriff Anthony Zertuche and all of his top-ranked officers are themselves products of Cotulla ISD and attended classes in some of the campuses whose safety issues they have begun addressing with Cotulla ISD Superintendent Ruben Cervantes.
“The sheriff’s office and Cotulla ISD have a great working relationship and have outstanding communication with each other,” Sheriff Zertuche wrote in a prepared statement this week. “I believe this will help us succeed in providing what is needed for our students, faculty and anyone’s safety while on any campus.”
Sheriff Zertuche added that blueprints of all school facilities will be made available to deputies, and direct access to all surveillance camera footage will be given to the law enforcement agency.
“The school district has provided each of my deputies with a security access card,” Zertuche said, “so that they may enter any campus quickly.”
The sheriff’s office has strengthened its ties with other agencies in the area for joint training exercises, including the Encinal and Dilley police departments, county constables, the US Border Patrol, the Texas Department of Public Safety, and the Frio County Sheriff’s Office, Zertuche said.
“This multi-agency training is very important to my department,” the sheriff said, “as it simulates the assistance that my department would have in the event of a major incident in La Salle County. We must train on real-life incidents with those who will be there by our side the fastest. Time is of the essence.”
Zertuche added that he has purchased ballistic shields, breaching tools, breaching rams and additional ammunition as part of his agency’s heightened level of preparedness. Every officer’s vehicle, he said, will be supplied with the extra gear.
“I want the community to know that my department and I are doing everything necessary to prepare for the upcoming school year,” the sheriff said. “The security of each campus will depend on a team effort between law enforcement, district staff, students, and family.”
Earlier this year, Cotulla ISD voters approved a $65 million bond that is expected to cover an entirely new high school as well as other facilities and additions to the CISD bus fleet.
The school district expects to design its new high school with a focus on student safety that was not imagined when the present campus was designed in the 1970s.
Supt. Cervantes said this week that he believes the district’s board of trustees will pay close attention to critical safety issues first in selecting a design for the new high school.
“Thanks to the bond issue being passed, we have an opportunity to build a school that will have student safety as its overriding feature,” the superintendent said. “The elementary and middle schools have secure entry points, restricted access, and we have adapted our current high school to meet those expectations, but we will make our new high school campus as secure as we can make it.”
Cervantes said reviews are now underway into building alterations across Cotulla ISD that involve establishing reinforced “safe rooms” in which students can be sheltered in the event of an emergency. Reinforcements include steel paneling and concrete block, he said.
In a preliminary step to reduce accessibility and to help deter an intruder, Cotulla ISD has contracted with San Antonio-based A-1 Glass Coating for a study of windows and doors at all its campuses. Company representative Mike Wanke is expected to address the school board on July 18 with suggestions on installation of bullet-resistant glass and reflective film or tint at areas of most concern.
A town hall meeting hosted by the district on Tuesday last week included input from community members, several of whom asked what the district is doing to ensure children’s safety.
“The glass is the biggest issue,” Supt. Cervantes said this week. “That’s something we can work on right now. We are also looking at fencing the Frank Newman Middle School. It’s the only campus that isn’t fenced.”
In December last year, the school district opened its new $24 million Ramirez/Burks Elementary School, a campus built on acreage north of the downtown area and now entirely fenced. The superintendent said this week that alterations may yet be made to the school in the aftermath of incidents such as the Uvalde shooting. He added, however, that he believes the campus takes advantage of many safety features already in place, including restricted access.
La Salle Lt. Homar Olivarez, who graduated from the high school campus that may soon be replaced by new construction, said last week that both the sheriff’s office and Cotulla ISD have identified so-called weak points in the district’s older facilities that he believes are to be addressed immediately.
The sheriff’s office conducted up-to-date training for all its deputies on active-shooter scenarios this summer and has examined each of the campuses in order to make recommendations to district administrators on enhancing security measures.
Restricted-access policies, single entry point, ID checks and appointments-only visitation at the schools have long been the norm for Cotulla ISD, but this year’s mass shooting at Uvalde has brought increased demand in the community for additional focus on the children’s safety.
“We want to work together with the sheriff’s office and with the police in Encinal with a common goal,” the superintendent said Tuesday. “This has to be a close collaboration. The active-shooter training courses by the sheriff’s office this summer have been a part of that.”
Video surveillance of the district’s facilities has also been raised by the community as a concern in Cotulla, but “we have plenty of cameras,” Supt. Cervantes said.
“Parents want to know that we are monitoring those cameras,” he added. “We have to make sure someone is actually watching.”
At his previous post, Cervantes was superintendent in Dell City, a small West Texas school district whose board of trustees voted to engage in the Guardian School program, through which teachers and administrators are permitted to carry firearms on campus.
Dell City ISD in Hudspeth County lists its enrollment at just over 70 students between Kindergarten and 12th grade.
Today, Cervantes believes “this is a conversation we are going to have,” in considering a Guardian School program for Cotulla, adding that he believes some teachers at Cotulla ISD have already expressed an interest in carrying firearms on campus. In order to qualify, staff members will be required to undergo psychiatric evaluation, take tests, and annual 40-hour training. In some cases, he said, teachers at Dell City were denied permission to carry firearms on campus because they failed to meet the rigid program entry requirements.
Cervantes has not indicated publicly whether he favors a Guardian School program for Cotulla ISD.
In an August 2019 letter to Dell City ISD parents, Supt. Cervantes wrote that the district enacted its Guardian program because “Schools across the country are being forced to prepare for the unthinkable.”
Cervantes said district trustees at Dell City had discussed the Guardian program over an extended period of time before allowing selected staff members to carry concealed handguns.
“Schools, as ‘gun-free zones,’ have too often been seen as ‘free fire zones’ by troubled individuals,” Cervantes wrote in 2019. “Would-be shooters knew that they would have no one firing back while they pursued their goal of killing innocent and helpless students and staff.”
Cervantes said armed teachers at Dell City would not be identified and school facilities would be furnished with signs indicating that staff “may be armed and will use whatever force is necessary to protect our students.”
“Our campus will not be a ‘free fire zone’ where bad actors can play out horrible video games in real life without being challenged,” Cervantes wrote in his letter to Dell City parents when he announced the Guardian program.
The La Salle County sheriff said this week that he continues to hope that traditional elements of observance will prevail in helping prevent a crisis.
“I ask that everyone remain vigilant and aware of their surroundings and report anything that may be unusual or possibly dangerous immediately to the sheriff’s office,” Zertuche wrote in his prepared statement. “We will continue our presence at each campus, assisting with traffic control during drop-off and pick-up times, and any other time of the day.
“A school resource officer will constantly be at each of the school campuses while school is in session,” the sheriff said.
“The Texas governor has laid out what he expects of us as a district in the coming year,” the superintendent said in Cotulla this week. “We have to have a school safety committee, we have to have a safety audit during the year, and we have to adopt an emergency operating plan.”
Cervantes said other measures that will quickly become standard procedure at all school facilities include secure doors, ensuring all gates and access points are closed, staff training in how to prevent intruders gaining access to buildings, and possible installation of door alarms. Higher fences and other such preventative measures, he said, will serve as barriers to help slow down or deter intruders.
“The governor demands that we continue making improvements to our safety measures,” the superintendent said. “That’s what the public expects of us, too.”