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As the new school year begins, Big Bend districts revisit safety measures with Uvalde in mind

Carlos Morales
Marfa Public Radio
The Marfa High School campus in Marfa, Texas.

Schools across the region launched reviews of their own safety protocols after the May 24 elementary school massacre in Uvalde that left 19 students and two teachers dead.

By West Texas standards, the small towns of the Big Bend region aren’t that far away from Uvalde.

While Uvalde might be a five hour’s drive from towns like Marfa and Alpine, the communities have familial, cultural and even geographic ties that can make the long, rural stretch of two-lane highway separating them feel just down the road.

Irma Garcia and Eva Mireles, the two teachers killed in the horrendous mass shooting at Robb Elementary School that also left 19 children dead, were alumni of Alpine’s Sul Ross State University, which has a satellite campus in Uvalde.

“The Lobo Family grieves with the Uvalde community,” the university wrote in a Facebook post after the shooting. “We are united, now and always.”

Given the rural communities’ ties across this vast stretch of West Texas, it’s perhaps no surprise that the Uvalde massacre — the deadliest shooting ever at a Texas public school — hit close to home in the Big Bend.

Oscar Aguero, superintendent of the Marfa Independent School District, said in an interview that the tragedy took an emotional toll on his district’s elementary school principal in particular.

In the weeks after the shooting, after the multiple funerals and memorials, the principal called Aguero to say she would be taking a day off.

“She had to go to Uvalde,” Aguero said. “She goes, ‘Oscar, I can’t go to work today, I have to drive there and see.’”

New school safety efforts in the Big Bend

As they’ve continued to emotionally process the May massacre, Aguero and other district officials in the Big Bend have also spent the summer revisiting their school safety plans, procedures and policies.

Some of that was mandatory: after the Uvalde shooting, the Texas Education Agency required districts across the state to check locks on doors and launch other safety audits before the new school year. But local school officials have also spent the past few weeks considering what new safety measures their campuses might need.

Marfa ISD has ordered 37 new security cameras, Aguero said, and the district is moving toward hiring its first full-time district police officer. Alpine’s school board voted to spend thousands of dollars on new cameras at a recent meeting where board members talked of wanting the cameras to have wider lenses, so police and others monitoring the camera feeds could more easily spot a potential threat heading toward a school building.

Considering how easily the shooter in Uvalde walked into Robb Elementary with a high-powered rifle in hand, school leaders in the Big Bend are also taking a closer look at the actual buildings that make up their campuses.

“We’ve knocked some walls down (and) put in a window so that our secretary can look outside to see who’s at the door before just letting someone in,” Aguero said, noting there has already been a camera feed of the entrance but not a clear line of sight. “Now we can physically see if there’s more than one person or others.”

Sarah Vasquez for Marfa Public Radio
Alpine schools are patrolled by the Brewster County Sheriff’s Office and the Alpine Police Department, but school officials are considering allowing teachers or staff to carry firearms.

In Alpine, the local school board voted last week to approve an updated “multi-hazard emergency operations plan,” the result of a TEA directive to districts earlier this summer to review such plans before the new school year.

Michelle Rinehart, the Alpine Independent School District superintendent who was tapped for the job just before the Uvalde shooting in May, said she couldn’t disclose the exact details of the new plan for security reasons. But she expressed confidence in the district’s protocols after what she described as a variety of internal safety reviews conducted in the months since the shooting.

“In light of all of those reviews, we have so many effective safety measures in place,” she said. “So it’s not that Uvalde exposed gaps or weaknesses in our school district, it gave everyone pause to go back and do a thorough review.”

Alpine schools are currently patrolled by deputies from the Brewster County Sheriff’s Office and officers from the Alpine Police Department, but school officials are considering allowing teachers or staff to carry firearms.

The district’s school board plans to gather feedback from parents and staffers on the idea in the coming months, Rinehart said, though this isn’t the first time officials have considered allowing more guns on campus.

In 2016, a 14-year-old student died by suicide in a bathroom at Alpine High School after shooting and wounding another student and then turning the gun on herself. After that shooting, Rinehart said, the school board considered adding armed personnel through the state’s school marshall program or a less restrictive “guardian” plan, but ultimately decided to stick with allowing only law enforcement officers to be armed.

“At this time, there’s again people in the community who are interested in us having a conversation about either the marshall or guardian program,” Rinehart said. “That’s not a decision we’re prepared to make right now, but it’s a conversation we’re starting to engage in.”

Fort Davis schools already participate in all the programs allowing staffers to carry guns on campus.

“Everybody knows in Fort Davis that we have armed staff, I’ve got signs everywhere,” said Graydon Hicks, superintendent of the Fort Davis Independent School District.

Hicks said district officials in Fort Davis have been looking into a number of security infrastructure upgrades in the wake of the Uvalde shooting.

“We’ve had discussions at our board meetings regarding some additional checks or inspections or other efforts to improve our safety, harden our campuses,” he said.

Still, Hicks said, finding the money to further harden schools remains a challenge for rural districts like his.

“Student safety, staff safety, is absolutely number one,” he said. “With that in mind, I have a half-million dollar deficit budgeted, and I quite frankly don’t have enough money to do some things that I think would help a little bit.”

Rinehart, the school superintendent in Alpine, echoed that concern, saying state leaders should give districts more leeway in how they use state funding earmarked for safety and security. 

Texas leaders in late June said they would distribute more than $100 million to districts across the state for safety upgrades, with about half of the money going to protective equipment for school police officers. Rinehart described the funding as too prescriptive.

“Empower schools to determine locally what those funds are for instead of constraining them to state-level requirements,” she said, adding that there “are processes in place in each district through these safety and security committees to say, actually, here are our needs.”

Carlos Morales
Marfa Public Radio
In Marfa, students return to campus for the start of the new school year.

Across the Big Bend, school officials interviewed for this story said they’ve also spent the summer regrouping with the myriad law enforcement agencies in the region to try and ensure that the kind of disastrous police response to the Uvalde shooting - described as a “systemic” failure by a Texas House report - never happens here.

Like in Uvalde, the small towns of the Big Bend border area have a high concentration of law enforcement ranging from local police departments to state and federal agencies. Those agencies have participated in new active shooter training at schools across the region in recent weeks.

Just days after the Uvalde shooting, even before a complete picture of the failed police response emerged, Presidio’s school district police department sought to reassure parents and staff.

“The first officer that arrives will go in and try to stop the threat,” the department wrote in a Facebook post. “There is NO waiting.”

School and police officials in the Big Bend have expressed confidence that in the horrific event that a shooter were to storm a school here, the police response would be different. Still, they’ve acknowledged that the failures in Uvalde showed the need for more extensive training and coordination among police and school leaders.

“We’re bringing in more different departments into this school, so they can walk the school, see the school,” said Aguero, the Marfa ISD superintendent. “We’re blessed to have all these different departments, but when something like [Uvalde] happens, how do they communicate with each other?”

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.