The Town of Payson and the Payson Unified School District are working together to improve security on the four school campuses in the wake of the tragic shooting at a Texas elementary school that killed 19 children and two teachers.
Payson Police Chief Ron Tischer and PUSD Superintendent Linda Gibson have had one meeting already to review ways to improve school security — as well as improving emergency communications between the schools and police.
Tischer briefed the council on the results of the ongoing conversation at the last council meeting.
“Every year we work with the school system to enhance safety,” said Tischer. “I’ve never seen a closer working relationship with a school district in my career.”
The police department currently has two school resource officers posted on-campus in the district, one at the high school and one shared between Rim Country Middle School and Julia Randall Elementary School. The just-adopted state budget includes some $50 million in improving school security statewide, mostly funding for more school resource officers. A just-approved federal package of bills also includes money to provide mental health resources in schools to help identify threats.
Tischer said the town will likely seek funding to add a third school resource officer. Those officers work on campus during the school day, sometimes teaching classes. They remain free to answer emergency calls off-campus.
Research into mass shooting incidents involving schools has shown that even in schools with armed police officers on campus, the school resource officer has rarely played a role in stopping the shooters. The program has caused controversy in some districts when the presence of an officer on campus increases arrest rates for students — especially minority students.
Tischer noted that he’s also talking to Gibson and school officials about ways to secure gates and doors — as well as providing “hardening” for a single entry point onto each campus for the public. The shooter in Texas gained access to the classrooms through doors that had been shut, but had failed to lock.
Unfortunately, hardening of school campuses to provide more secure entry points as well as things like camera systems to identify and track intruders on campus can cost a substantial amount of money, with most of the state’s schools struggling just to fix roof leaks and keep air conditioners running due to chronic underfunding of capital needs by the state. The School Facilities Board controls most of the capital improvement money in the state and its formulas categorize most school security measures as optional — and therefore, ineligible for state funding. That means school districts seeking the kinds of improvements recommended by police and security consultants have to rely on money from locally approved bond issues.
Payson Mayor Tom Morrissey said improving security at the community’s schools must remain a top priority.
“I’m sure no one ever dreamed what happened in Texas would happen. (Payson Town Manager Troy Smith) was a police officer at Columbine — so the expertise is out there.”
Two 19-year-old friends in 1999 ushered in a terrible new era of school shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, killing 12 students and one teacher. The killers committed suicide in the library, where they slaughtered most of their victims. They planned the attack for a year and unsuccessfully tried to also set off bombs. Their motives remain unclear, although they had a history of juvenile crimes, disturbing online behavior and an obsession with violence even in class assignments. Just like in Uvalde, Texas, police were slow to enter the building. The tragedy set off a national effort to improve school security, place armed officers on campus and train for mass shooting incidents. However, the school district in Texas had an armed, six-man police force and the shooting drew more than 100 officers. But officers waited an hour before finally entering the classroom and killing the shooter.
Tischer said all his conversations with Gibson were “extremely productive,” and noted that school officials had immediately consulted with the two school resource officers and a department school liaison officer about security. The district and the police have cooperated when it comes to training and planning for disaster scenarios. The department is also working on making sure officers responding to incidents on campus have keys to all the buildings and improving coordination of emergency communications. All three of those officers have had training on school security issues, including active shooter situations.
“Those three officers are going to work with the school — do an analysis of every building in the district — what we need to do and what we need to work on,” said Tischer. “We’re also incorporating our equipment into their equipment so we’re all on the same page — which I’ve never seen that happen before. We don’t have to wait for a key. We don’t have to break a door down because it’s a cooperative effort.”
He noted that the department also plans to expand its police volunteer effort, to provide trained volunteers who can augment school security. That would include patrolling the campus and making sure gates and exterior doors are locked and secure.
Morrissey said that he has talked to the active veterans organizations in Payson and 37 volunteers with military or law enforcement experience have already signed up.
Tischer warned that many of the key security measures — like hardened entrances, on-campus cameras, remote locking abilities and communications can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars — and key equipment takes months to deliver.
He said the key to effective action starts with convincing people it’s needed — and worth funding.
“We all concluded the hardest part of this whole plan is to change the perception of the community. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘this is Payson — it can’t happen here.’ We have to work hard to change the perception of everyone here. It could happen here any day.”
Gibson said the school resource officers have already made a difference. “It’s really about those officers building relationships with our students, our faculty, our staff.”
Council member Barbara Underwood, who also serves on the school board, said “I’d just like to direct the town staff to assist the school district in security — we (the council) don’t necessarily need to be involved but the leadership needs to get together. I did do the active shooter training scenario one year — it’s very real. It gets your heart pumping. My daughter did it in kindergarten — and it was very enlightening to them.”
Councilor Chris Higgins, who is now running for mayor, thanked the district and the police for “having such a high level of professionalism.”
He said he was impressed by Tischer’s comments about the communications between schools and police. “You said you haven’t seen this in any other communities — the willingness of the schools to give the department access. That will really help in working together to provide the safest environment for our children.”
Councilor Jim Ferris wondered whether the district had considered arming teachers.
Gibson had previously said most of the faculty was strongly opposed to the idea of arming teachers — partly because of the big increase in the number of guns it would bring onto campus.
Tischer noted, “that’s one of the things that’s been brought up. That’s a pretty tough decision, especially when we have officers embedded in the schools. It was brought up at the last school district I worked at. Really, it comes down to some of those districts don’t have the quick police response we would have here. Every district is unique. Personally, I would not recommend it. Teachers have a lot on their plate the way it is — and we have a hard enough time having officers who are proficient (with firearms).”
The number of school shootings has risen steadily since Columbine, despite the increase in security measures and officers placed on campus. Wikipedia’s listing of school shootings includes 68 incidents since 2000 — about three per year.