Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Gadsden ISD funds some school resource officers; 52 volunteers to patrol

SUNLAND PARK ‒ The Gadsden Independent School District board approved a budget adjustment Thursday night moving $200,000 from operational fund expenditures to contract services to cover the cost of school resource officers.

Meanwhile, Superintendent Travis Dempsey said 52 people had already volunteered for the district’s new POPS (for “Parents on Patrol for Schools,”) program announced a week ago, recruiting family members of students to patrol school grounds, checking doors to make sure they are locked and reporting any concerns to the schools’ offices as appropriate. The volunteers would not be permitted to carry weapons.

New Mexico’s fourth-largest school district operates 24 schools and a pre-kindergarten center in an area encompassing Doña Ana County south of Las Cruces to El Paso, and east to Chaparral and reaching into Otero County. Many of its schools, elementary schools in particular, are in unincorporated communities that do not have local police agencies but are covered by the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Office.

DASO, however, does not provide school resource officers, and Dempsey has scrambled for another solution as his school board and district families have called for prominent law enforcement at schools following a spate of armed attacks at schools in the United States, including a massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas in May.

Gadsden Independent School District Superintendent Travis Dempsey is seen during a school board meeting at the district's administrative building in Sunland Park, NM on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022.

The last service agreement between Gadsden ISD and the sheriff’s department to provide SROs expired in 2019. Dempsey had requested Stewart continue the program, which the district paid for, but Sheriff Stewart opted not to renew it.

“She stated that she was unable to approve my request due to limitations on available staff,” Dempsey told the Las Cruces Sun-News.

The district recently entered into an agreement with the Sunland Park Police Department to stage at least one SRO with plans for a second covering a school located in a city-annexed portion of Santa Teresa. Last month, the school board postponed approvals for part of Dempsey’s plan, directing him to reach out to the sheriff and other agencies and explore avenues toward more officers. A separate agreement with the Anthony Police Department is in the works for a third SRO, but has yet to come before Anthony’s board of trustees.

Dempsey said the district’s plan is to directly fund what SROs it can under contract with Sunland Park and Anthony police, prioritizing high schools and expanding into middle and elementary schools if more SROs can be funded. While Stewart stated last week that her agency still doesn’t have available staff to provide the service, she has met with Dempsey to discuss cross-commissioning local police to serve in the county outside city jurisdiction.

At the entrance to the Gadsden Independent School District's administrative offices in Sunland Park, NM, seen on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022.

Dempsey told the school board that the $200,000, on top of money already budgeted for contract services, would cover more than what was needed to pay for three officers, but he said a buffer was needed because expenses can vary across different agencies. He and school board members discussed hopes that state lawmakers might appropriate funds to help local districts bring more officers into schools.

Expanding the uniformed security presence across the district was “a little bit of a puzzle that we’re going to gradually put together in time,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”

The district operates a safety and security plan that has been approved by the state Public Education Department, Dempsey told the board, and state police, DASO and local police conducted occasional emergency training at school sites.

When GISD board president Laura Salazar Flores asked whether agencies were training at all or most school sites across the district, to assure agencies are familiar with sites across the entire district, the superintendent said the agencies select locations where they wish to train.

Gadsden Independent School District board member Armando Cano speaks about school security during a school board meeting in Sunland Park, NM on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022.

The school district is paying for background checks for parent volunteers, and Dempsey said the initial plan would be to train them for two-hour stints walking school grounds making sure entrances are locked, being alert for signs of suspicious activity and reporting incidents without getting involved themselves.

Dempsey said those volunteers and staff would also be trained to pay attention for early signs of distress or social isolation that could point to bullying or abuse suffered by students.

Board member Armando Cano remarked that a similar program had been proposed in the past and struggled for volunteers. “Hopefully now, with the way things have been and things have changed, I’m hoping that every parent out there can start joining into this POPS program.”

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Algernon D’Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, [email protected] or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.

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