LAS CRUCES – How does the public school system protect children in school?
Parents are asking this question more and more as the number of school shootings has increased this century and threats to school children via social media have increased this year.
Given the tense country, the pressure on the school security teams is falling.
Here’s how the Las Cruces Public Schools security team adapts to the changing landscape of school security.
Increased security in schools
The LCPS security team employs around 73 people, a sharp increase over previous years, according to Todd Gregory, director of public safety for the LCPS.
About four years ago, LCPS approved funding to hire a campus security officer for each elementary school. About two years ago, the district was increased to two full-time security guards at each middle school who previously had full-time and part-time security. These additions amounted to around 30 new campus guards.
“Who would have thought of safety in an elementary school in the past?” said Richard Parra, a security guard at the Jornada Elementary. “Due to the changes in society, we unfortunately have to have elementary security just to guarantee the safety of students and employees.”
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In addition to a campus security officer, there are two in each elementary school, two in each middle school and four or five in each high school; further security measures are in place at the LCPS.
About 10 school resources officers – Las Cruces police officers stationed in the district – also oversee the district and move between schools if necessary.
Threats in 2021
The district had to react several times this semester to threats from the social media site TikTok. Three of them did the local news:
- October 25: The city increases police presence at Centennial High School in response to a series of videos threatening an active shooting situation at the school. The same video was reposted and shared across the country, changing the name of the school.
- December 7: The district brings up a split video that contains a section of text containing alleged shootings and bombings in an unspecified school location and titled “Confession”. Law enforcement said these were old threats circulated with new designated schools. At least four LCPS schools are affected: Las Cruces High, Sierra Middle, Camino Real Middle, and Organ Mountain High.
- Dec 17: School districts across the country – including LCPS – are issuing warnings and increasing security in response to vague, anonymous gunfire and bomb threats that officials say are not believed to be credible.
In any event, school and law enforcement officials found the social media threats unreliable, but nonetheless, when they saw the threats, some parents kept their children away from school.
The district wrote a letter to parents on December 16, the evening before the latest threat, saying, “Although we do not believe the threat is credible, we are closely monitoring the situation and taking it seriously.”
Additionally, the district stated, “This situation is a good example of why it is important to avoid posting online that address threats to school safety. Even if the threats aren’t believable, they can cause a great deal of stress and anxiety for our students, families, and employees. We ask our families to monitor their children’s social media activities and talk to them about proper online behavior. “
Even so, Gregory encourages parents, students, and community members to report to the district any potential threats they see.
“People are just a little more vigilant and more careful on social media,” said Gregory. “But that’s what we want. We want people to give us this information. Because that’s the only way we can react. Somebody has to give us the information and let us know. “
For every threat brought to the district’s attention, security officials consult with law enforcement officials to verify its validity, according to Gregory.
“We’re helping each other to get to the bottom of this,” said Gregory. “So much of it (social media threats) can be shared quickly, and it can be misunderstood that it is a local thing when it actually comes from another city or state.”
Gregory said that while threats to the district may have increased slightly this year, the security team has been monitoring these types of threats over the past several years.
He noted that it was difficult to tell if the influx of threats was unusual compared to previous years. However, when school shootings break out in other parts of the country, threats often increase, according to Gregory.
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The tragic shooting at a school in which four students were killed in Michigan sparked numerous threats of copying in other schools in early December.
Active shooter exercises
In 2019, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed law requiring schools to conduct active target practice within the first four weeks of the school year.
Ricardo Salayandia worked for the New Mexico Corrections Department before becoming a security officer at the Highland Elementary in 2018.
He said active shooting training is necessary to prepare children as early as elementary school age. Salayandia, who has three school-age grandchildren at LCPS, said more training would be beneficial for the students.
“When I went to school I never heard of it, now we’re more worried,” said Salayandia of the school shootings.
The training itself has changed in recent years. A new system called ALICE is designed to train staff and students.
The abbreviation stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate.
Gregory explained that this was a transition from “hoping for the best” in a standard lockdown to a “proactive” approach.
“(They are taught) how to barricade themselves and take countermeasures to prevent further injuries on campus,” said Gregory. “It’s been a big change in the last few years, it’s really this mentality of running, hiding, fighting.
“It’s no longer just a school district problem, it’s a community problem and we really emphasize to our staff and students that this is really life skills training.”
Over the years schools have increasingly used strategies to monitor student behavioral health and teach social-emotional learning in classrooms. Security teams have also been trained on these aspects.
“There has been a big boost to verbal de-escalation skills,” said Gregory. “We’re really working on listening and verbally engaging students who may have a behavioral problem on campus.”
Parra said parenting involvement is also a key element in keeping schools safe.
Further security measures
Surveillance cameras are set up around schools and fences are set up at many schools. With the $ 80 million school loan passed in November, the district provided funds to install fences at several schools, including Cesar Chavez Elementary, Doña Ana Elementary, Hermosa Heights Elementary, Hillrise Elementary, Sunrise Elementary, University Hills Elementary and Valley View Elementary.
Highland Elementary also has construction work carried out in the front office. Salayandia said he wasn’t sure what the construction entailed, but he knew it should be more secure.
He described the original front office as “too open” and difficult to secure.
In 2019, Jornada Elementary redesigned the school entrance area to restrict access to the classrooms.
“(It) makes it a little easier so that we have more control over who is in and out of our building,” Parra said of the redesign. “This makes the children safer.”
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In the end, all of these arrangements are about funding: security guards salaries, construction projects, camera installation.
Gregory said LCPS has been fortunate enough to fund many projects over the past few years, but encourages the community to support the district by voting on bonds to keep providing updates on school safety.
Miranda Cyr, a member of the Report for America Corps, can be reached at [email protected] or @mirandabcyr on Twitter. Show your support for the Report for America program at https://bit.ly/LCSNRFA.