Safer schools: Off-duty police officers are an important component of enhanced security on school campuses in the Diocese of Fort Worth
The schools in the Diocese of Fort Worth are boosting their security in a big way this fall by adding off-duty police officers on campuses.
“After the Uvalde tragedy, everyone started to re-evaluate their approach and what measures could be done to protect our children,” said Mike Short, director of security for the diocese.
At Robb Elementary School, 19 children and two teachers lost their lives on May 24, 2022, after an 18-year-old gunman entered the school and barricaded himself in a fourth-grade classroom.
When Short, Superintendent Brinton Smith, and other diocesan administrators looked at what would improve safety the most, the answer was clear.
Smith said, “The best form of security is for students to have a police officer on campus if anything happens. As much as we appreciate technical security, like cameras and door [access controls], you can’t do any better than having a police officer on campus.”
The new School Resource Officers, or SROs, are contracted with First Responder Protective Services and sourced from the police departments near the school, Short said. Specific officers are assigned to each school, so students, families, and staff see familiar faces and the officers get to know the campus community they serve.
“The SRO program is designed to build trust in police officers, act as a deterrent, and provide rapid response if anything happens. They’re on-site to ensure the safety of students and staff,” Short said.
SROs began showing up on diocesan school campuses in late August, and families and staff members have been very supportive of the new initiative, Short said.
Joe Trausch, senior business development manager for First Responder Protective Services, said the off-duty officers are eager to provide school security “because they believe it’s important.”
The feedback he’s received from school officials and the officers has been overwhelmingly positive, he said.
“Our officers have really enjoyed it because the schools have really appreciated them and supported them,” Trausch said. “It takes a lot of people to put a project like this in place, and we’re very glad and excited to help the Fort Worth Diocese put this together.”
Short said officers also are helping educate school community members about mental health concerns and what to watch for on social media to better protect campuses.
In addition, they train school faculty and staff on standard response protocols, he said. They focus on five different responses: a lockdown, which means there’s an intruder or immediate hazard requiring the locking of classroom doors; securing the building from an outside hazard; evacuating in case of fire; sheltering for a tornado; and holding in classrooms for a less serious issue, like a hallway spill that requires cleaning.
Funded by the faithful
While SROs have been a fixture in public high schools for many years and are now often seen on campuses for lower grades, they are funded by tax dollars. Private schools must come up with their own funding.
Diocesan security and school administrators estimated the new SRO program, along with improving building security at several older schools, would cost $2 million this year.
Enter the Advancement Foundation, a separate nonprofit from the diocese, which can raise funds for specific needs within the Diocese of Fort Worth.
Renée Underwood, chief development officer of the Advancement Foundation, said that all funds collected are used for the purpose the donor requests.
“When we were first approached about schools’ security, we learned they would need about $2 million for the first year,” Underwood said. “That’s a significant grant needed. Everything we’re able to do is through the stewardship of good and faithful Catholics.”
School officials sent emails and letters home to families and parishioners and posted on diocesan social media about the security upgrades. The Advancement Foundation is receiving donations for school security almost daily, Underwood said.
Donors can contribute through the Catholic School Security page on AdvancementFoundation.org or mail in a donation. All gifts are tax deductible.
In addition to the SROs, Smith said that diocesan security and school personnel are working on building modifications to make schools safer, like secure vestibules where a visitor must be identified on camera and audio before a door is unlocked and visitors are admitted first to an office area.
They also want schools to have an adequate number of cameras and access controls.
Short said they expect that older diocesan campuses will need modifications to improve security.
“We’re working with the Advancement Foundation for the special security fund, not just funds for SROs.”
Short said the diocese is also working to expand the Guardian Ministry program, which provides screened and trained volunteers for church security, to include school events, especially Nolan Catholic High School games.
“We’re hoping to expand that to other schools,” he said. “It’s more eyes and ears and help to assist officers.”