McALLEN — Less than a week after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, parents and staff convened here to discuss their concerns and ideas for making local schools safer.
McAllen school district Superintendent Jose A. Gonzalez held a town hall meeting Tuesday night, a move prompted by both the Florida shooting and threats McAllen students posted to social media late last week.
Sending a letter to the McAllen ISD community wasn’t enough, he said; he also needed “to bring the community in.”
Parents emphasized the need for greater campus security, particularly at the elementary school level.
While there are armed police officers at middle and high schools, McAllen ISD elementary schools do not have assigned officers. Rather, Gonzalez told the nearly 150 people in attendance, city police patrol the schools on a daily basis, something multiple parents said wasn’t enough.
One father said he would feel safer dropping off his elementary school student if there “was an armed officer at the entrance.”
Gonzalez emphasized that one of the “systems in place” — a phrase he used repeatedly throughout the night — was to have lobbies in elementary schools to prevent outsiders from entering the building without authorization. Front desks in all campuses are equipped with a system which scans a visitor’s driver’s license and flags down sex offenders or someone wanted for a felony, he added. Yet some parents questioned whether lobbies were enough to stop someone from entering, leading multiple parents to call for the front doors to be locked.
During a brief presentation at the outset of the town hall, Gonzalez noted that McAllen schools practice 10 drills annually, including those for fire, lockdown, intruder and evacuation.
Emilio Beltran, a junior at James “Nikki” Rowe High School and the only student who asked a question, shared his concern that students weren’t actually practicing these drills. Beltran told The Monitor that he could only remember participating in one lockdown drill in his three years at Rowe.
District spokesman Mark May told The Monitor that this school year alone, Rowe has had six fire drills and one reverse evacuation drill. A reverse evacuation drill is one in which students are brought inside and all the building’s doors are locked, simulating the actions taken if there was a threat from the outside.
All district campuses have two lockdown drills per semester, May said, noting that Rowe was scheduled to have a lockdown drill last week, but it was postponed in light of the Parkland shooting.
“All postponed drills will be reset to take place soon,” he said.
Deborah Rubio, a librarian at Dr. Rodney D. Cathey Middle School, suggested that the district make videos to show students what’s expected of them in a crisis situation, such as a school shooting, an idea Gonzalez said he loved.
Dr. Luis Reyes, a local surgeon, volunteered to train staff on how to improve survival for victims of gunshot wounds by stopping the bleeding, something Gonzalez was also receptive to.
Other parent suggestions included instituting random backpack checks and including students in cellphone alerts that are sent to parents and staff.
Parents also questioned the district’s handling of two students who posted threatening messages on social media, asking why one wasn’t taken into custody.
Gonzalez said incidents like these are handled on a “case-by-case basis,” and emphasized that district “staff members are working hard to address these things.” He also mentioned the systems in place to help students suffering from mental health issues, having suicidal thoughts and experiencing bullying.
The topic of gun control was also raised by a few in attendance, including former U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, who lamented the lack of progress made since the Columbine school shooting in 1999, in which two students killed 13 people.
Gonzalez encouraged parents and staff to submit questions and concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.
He said he will meet with the district’s emergency response team Wednesday to discuss the concerns and suggestions raised at the town hall.
The superintendent also plans to share the district’s responses to questions raised during the town hall, and through the email address, at a later date with parents and staff.