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EL PASO, Texas (KFOX14) — With a new school year almost underway, El Paso area school districts said they have been working throughout the summer to make sure students would come back to safer campuses.
In 2018, Texas Governor Greg Abbott implemented the School and Firearms Safety Action Plan, which required in part, for schools to harden security on campuses.
KFOX14 Investigates checked in with every district in the El Paso area to see what upgrades had been made over the past four years.
“During the summer is the time that we’re able to actually break away from the campuses and conduct summer trainings,” said Manuel Chavira, the police chief for the El Paso Independent School District. “Collaborative trainings with other local law-enforcement agencies, so we can address things like active threats.“
Chavira said these preparations struck a chord for many educators who ended the previous school year with news of a deadly shooting in Uvalde that killed 19 elementary school students and two teachers.
“It’s the understanding that it could happen at any time, any place,” said Chavira.
The EPISD police chief said many of the safety protocols that have been implemented across EPISD cannot be disclosed for safety reasons, but include limiting who can go inside.
“All of our visitors are channeled to our front entry door to check in through the system. They get a visitor’s pass and we run them through a sex offender’s registry,” Chavira added.
In a similar manner, the Canutillo Independent School District has also focused on securing doors.
Gustavo Reveles, a spokesman for the district, explained keyless entry is expected to be in effect at all Canutillo ISD schools by the start of the school year.
“We’ve already made thousands of dollars of improvements to our facilities, the chief one being keyless entry into our campuses. No longer can anyone just really come into the school to go into the office. We control who comes in and out,” said Reveles.
Canutillo ISD has also invested in a 24/7 surveillance system, which allows the Canutillo ISD police department to monitor schools inside and out.
Additionally, Reveles said every school is guarded by a peace officer or guard.
Not far up the road in Anthony, Texas, the Anthony Independent School District has installed a system called “Isonas.”
Anthony ISD Superintendent Oscar Troncoso explained the “Isonas” system was installed in 2019 at a cost of $100,000.
This technology requires an access card to enter school buildings and automatically locks the doors to all campuses after the last bell rings.
“Most recently, what we did this summer, we invested some money in a device called the ‘door jam,'” said Troncoso. “A lot of school buildings, they have locks outside the door. So, when there’s a lockdown, [teachers or substitutes] have to literally open the door, go outside, and lock the door.”
In 2020, the district also installed bullet-resistant windows at Anthony elementary school.
“I spent 25 years in the military,” Troncoso told KFOX14. “I always felt that it’s a nice design having those windows in the front, but with kids transitioning, I always felt it was like a vulnerability having the windows.”
On the opposite side of the county, the Fabens Independent School District spent the summer months installing keyless entry, as well as a system that screens visitors called “Raptor.“
“There’s a number of things that we’ve actually been able to do last year,” said Sofia Maciel, spokeswoman for Fabens ISD. “The ‘Front Row’ systems were purchased and there are cameras in every classroom due to go live at the beginning of the school year.”
The “Front Row” system gives the district a bird’s eye view into each classroom so that a possible intruder can be found.
The cameras also serve as a speaker, projecting what a teacher speaks into a microphone worn around the neck.
This technology was made so that students who sit in the back of the classroom are able to hear their teacher and engage in the lesson.
The Clint Independent School District began using ‘Front Row’ cameras last year.
“Unfortunately, after every tragedy, it’s time for us to assess what we do and we’ve looked at not only our entrances, our doors, when they’re open when they’re closed. Unfortunately, none of our schools, they were not built with the problems and security issues that we currently face,” explained Clint ISD Superintendent Juan Martinez.
Martinez said many of Clint ISD’s buildings are 20-to-30 years old.
Nonetheless, the district has been able to secure grants to help make sure campuses are updated and secure.
In addition to keyless entry, Clint ISD has an El Paso County Sheriff’s deputy at every school.
“They’re all armed. We actually have high caliber weapons in the building for the El Paso County Sheriff’s officers,” said Martinez. “Those are in a restricted location that we can’t disclose, but we are fully prepared.”
For smaller districts like Clint ISD, funding for these types of upgrades has become challenging.
“I appreciate the government’s initiatives, but most of the requirements, at least in what we need, is additional funding,” Martinez told KFOX14 Investigates.
He said they need funding for new buildings and additional barriers.
According to Martinez, having deputies at the schools could cost taxpayers close to $ 1 million.
Although a grant is helping pay the cost now, he worried that might not be sustainable once the funding ends.
The superintendent for the Tornillo Independent School District shared the same concerns.
“That is something that we as superintendents have been very voiceful in the region, not only locally, but also at the state level,” said TISD Superintendent Rosy Vega-Barrio.
She explained, “under the safety allotment that we receive every year to secure or set aside some money to secure our district, we only received $10,000, which is nothing to even be able to hire a school resource officer.”
Another concern is how quickly emergency crews can get to Tornillo ISD campuses, in case of an emergency.
“Our concern is that we’re the district that is about 30 minutes, 35 minutes from the City of El Paso, or the farthest as far as the region is concerned. Therefore, every time we have an emergency, whether in the community or within the school district, it does take about 15 to 20 minutes for any type of emergency unit to arrive,” said Vega-Barrio.
Through donations and grants, Vega-Barrio said they’ve been able to add double doors for school entry, as well as cameras.
Background checks are also conducted on visitors and exit doors are locked at all times.
“There’s so much more that needs to be done. It is never enough when it comes down to safety. However, I do believe we have to collectively use our voices and our right to vote to be able to go out there and make our voices heard,” said Vega-Barrio.
The San Elizario Independent School District did not grant KFOX14 Investigates an interview but, provided the statement below.
“San Elizario ISD has a one-point secure perimeter entry with a security guard at each campus entry. We have had this in place for several years.”
“Any future design plans for schools will definitely be looked at as safety measures are always at the forefront of what we do.”
“Governor Abbott’s plan to address safety in Texas schools needs to include the appropriate funding to address infrastructure modifications.”
KFOX14 Investigates made multiple attempts, through calls and emails, to reach the Ysleta and Socorro Independent School Districts, but neither provided us with an interview on this topic.
Some districts, such as Anthony and Fabens ISD, are also using apps for students, parents, and faculty to anonymously report suspicious activity.
These phone applications can also be used to report cases of bullying.
Other districts have provided a phone number students and teachers can text, in case of an emergency.
Schools recommend parents ask about these resources at their children’s schools as the year starts.
KFOX14 Investigates asked El Paso Congresswoman Veronica Escobar and Congressman Tony Gonzales if there were resources available for the districts that say they have limited funding to upgrade security.
KFOX14 did not receive a response from Rep. Gonzales.
Rep. Escobar explained funding is on the way as part of the “Bipartisan Safer Communities Act” President Joe Biden signed into law on June 25.
Part of this new legislation will provide $ 300 million in funding for school-based mental health services, as well as improvements to school safety.
“I am going to be doing exactly what I did during the pandemic and connecting with superintendents, connecting with mental health providers, so that we are ready,” said Rep. Escobar.
She said, “if that funding gets to us ,we want to make sure that it gets to our school districts, mental health organizations, and mental health authority.”
The increased funding for schools comes from the “STOP School Violence Act” and is meant to be used to institute safety measures in and around schools, support school violence prevention efforts, and provide training to school personnel and students.
It is still unclear when school districts will have access to those funds.