ALTON — Teachers and staff at Jensen Elementary looked around the cafeteria Friday morning wondering how to secure the doors and gain at least 120 seconds that could save lives.
A viable answer came to a cafeteria worker, who looked for a large trash bag to wrap around the two large metal handles of the double doors leading to a main hall in the school. The double-knotted reinforcement may not have been impenetrable, but it could keep a shooter out of the room long enough to allow police to act.
“You need to grant us the time to come and do our job,” Ricardo Garcia, senior deputy with the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office, said as he led the 90-minute-long presentation. “So first things first… Look at our doors. There’s somebody out there with a gun. Keep them away from you. How do we secure those doors?”
Throughout the week Sharyland school district campuses underwent an active shooter awareness program conducted by the sheriff’s office as part of back-to-school preparation.
Rather than providing a specific step-by-step plan, the training was meant to create a change of mindset so that the entire school is aware of its surroundings and options in case of an active shooter situation — from incorporating deterrents such as strong signals that all visitors are monitored, to having a plan of action on how to secure students if trapped inside or outside the campus, and knowing how to act as first respondents if needed.
“We need to make sure that our plan seamlessly matches that of law enforcement’s response,” Garcia said. “I’m here to tell you something: Times have changed. This active shooter thing … we have it beat, and we have it beat because we are beginning to communicate with each other better.”
The presentation that Garcia led throughout at all Sharyland schools started at the top with the school board members, he said, as there is no way he would commit to a district in which leaders are not involved and aware of the process. And this is the same presentation he’s taken to other neighboring districts such as Mission, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo and Progreso.
“The administrators have been very open and very receptive, and when they see the little things that they can do to make a big difference, they are absolutely doing them,” Garcia said. “When we start from the top we discover that the process is a little easier.”
The presentation started with a history of traumatic events that have ended the lives of many students throughout the country. Garcia pointed out that a big change throughout the years has been the revelation that shooters have been learning from their predecessors and evolving their techniques.
So this is why the same has to be done to combat them, he said. Every single teacher was given homework, becoming better aware of their surroundings, developing a plan of action and calling him back to assess said plan.
As hard as it might be to think these teachers and staff must act as the initial response in case of a shooter, Garcia said this is the inconvenient reality America now faces.
“We have to get up and we got to start walking around, and we need to come up with those answers because you guys are having this hugely false sense of confidence right now that you think you know what you are going to do, and I am telling you, you are granting them the success that they want,” he said. “I need you to physically get up and challenge each other to going hands-on and find these (answers).”
The message really hit a nerve for Jensen Principal Niranda Flores, who immediately after the presentation asked Garcia when he could come back to assess their progress. It’s definitely scary to come to the realization that there is work to do to reach a level of safety that matches these kinds of dangers, Flores said.
“It’s very eye-opening for us to be able to think like that, to be able to see those scenarios and get your brain not just actually thinking about it for having us figure it out,” Flores said. “There’s always room for improvement, and we’ve taken the first step, which is to be aware… The second step is the action. I’m definitely going to take more action because it is a huge responsibility for us to try and make it as safe as possible.”
The training through the county sheriff’s office, Garcia said, and those interested in an assessment of their school district, company or building may call (956) 381-7979.