LAS CRUCES – Las Cruces police and two special agents of the FBI sought to assure families Wednesday night that their children were safe at public schools, even as community members raised questions about security protocols and the assignment of officers throughout the district.
The Las Cruces Public Schools hosted a forum in the city council chambers at city hall that was also live-streamed. Most of the 70-minute meeting was devoted to questions and comments from the gallery following presentations by law enforcement.
Seated in the audience was Gadsden Independent Schools Superintendent Travis Dempsey, who faced skepticism from his school board and members of his community last week over the allocation of school resource officers in that district.
The shadow of the May 24 mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas was implicit as LCPD Lt. Joy Vitala assured families that errors in the law enforcement response there would not be repeated in Las Cruces.
“Our first and foremost priority, number one, is going to be to stop the threat,” Vitala emphasized. She later added that LCPD officers, including school resource officers, were trained to confront an attacker even if the response falls to a lone officer, without requiring a supervisor’s approval.
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Reviewing LCPD’s active threat response plans for incidents at schools, Vitala explained that after ending the threat, officers would next attend to any wounded persons before focusing on investigation and reunification of family members.
Under an agreement between LCPS and the city police department, school resource officers are assigned to every middle and secondary school, totaling 15 sites. Those officers also have access to the district’s 25 elementary schools throughout the day.
Some in attendance asked about security measures and jurisdiction on school buses, which are operated by private contractor Student Transportation Services-New Mexico.
“They’re required to follow certain protocols as part of their contract with Las Cruces Public Schools,” district spokesperson Kelly Jameson said, “but as a separate contractor, we don’t have authority over their protocols or their systems in place. . .. Once a student gets on the bus, that situation is in the hands of STS.”
Training priorities and what families can do
In addition to 24 hours of active threat response training required of all commissioned law enforcement officers, with scheduled refreshers, Wittala said school resource officers undergo additional training in active attack events specific to school settings.
School district staff, meanwhile, were trained to prioritize evacuating from an area when possible, or else to secure and barricade in classrooms or other areas.
Witala, along with LCPD Chief Miguel Dominguez, emphasized the importance of tips from community members regarding worrisome or suspicious behavior, as well as maintaining current contact information at schools where their children are enrolled, so that telephone and app-based notifications would reach them.
And however challenging, Vitala said, community members were urged to avoid going to a school during an active situation, instead waiting for the location of a designated reunification point.
“The reason we ask this is because roads need to be cleared for emergency services,” she explained.
Who to call first
FBI special agents Rick Perkins and Ryan Jackson also emphasized the value of tips in heading off potential threats, permitting agents to analyze the information received and refer to local police and/or investigate criminal charges.
“It’s a good system,” Perkins said, “and it’s only effective if it’s used.”
Perkins said the order of priority was to call 911 in an emergency or if the caller had knowledge of an imminent threat. Otherwise, Perkins invited the public to contact local police on a non-emergency line and submit tips (anonymously if they wish) by phone at 800-CALL-FBI or online at http://tips.FBI.gov.
Public questions protocols and resources
The presentations did not mollify some community members attending in person, who reported gaps in security protocols during the first week at Las Cruces Public Schools, which returned to full in-class instruction July 21. The district is operating on a balanced calendar for the school year with an early start and longer fall and spring breaks.
Parents reported instances of doors being propped open during afterschool activities, learning that a school resource officer was not on campus during student dropoffs and an incident in which a family purportedly entered school grounds through an unlocked gate and confronted students in an angry dispute.
LCPS Superintendent Ralph Ramos expressed concern over the reported efforts to bypass the district’s policy of channeling all arrivals at a school through a single entrance for identification checks and to approve visitors. He said families were always welcome to contact the district’s central office with concerns or submit suggestions via email to [email protected]
More than one commenter called for a higher security presence at elementary schools and criticized the district’s policy for bidding school resource officers from carrying firearms.
The policy followed a 2019 incident in which an SRO assigned to Picacho Middle School fired his weapon in his office, discharging a bullet that penetrated two walls into a school hallway. Although no one was struck by the round, a parent claimed in court that her child was partially deafened by the gunshot. The officer was dismissed by the LCPD and is currently suing the City of Las Cruces over his termination.
Ramos also highlighted preventative efforts within the district through restorative justice practices and emotional support services aiming to reach students in the earliest stages of crisis, while maximizing security measures guarding against intruders.
To assign an SRO for every school, Ramos said he had already recommended a state appropriation to lawmakers during an interim legislative committee hearing. Funding for more security officers was also a priority Dempsey promised to pursue during Gadsden ISD’s board meeting last week.
Las Cruces and Gadsden, along with Hatch Valley Public Schools, comprise the three public school districts in Doña Ana County. LCPS and GISD are the second- and fourth-largest districts in the state, respectively.
As to weapons in schools, Ramos encouraged attendance at school board meetings and messages to school board members, who would set the policy. One member of the board, Teresa Tenorio, was in attendance at the meeting but did not speak.
Ramos promised the district would continue to refine, practice and improve security measures and repeatedly called on community members to suggest improvements and pass along tips and concerns.
“Everyone’s got to really come on board,” he said near the meeting’s end. “If you see something, say something; and I will guarantee you that adults, we want to do something and that’s what we’re here for.”
Algernon D’Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, [email protected] or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.