VIOLENCE and Houston Schools
What are Houston-area schools doing to combat gun-related violence on campus?
by Suzanne Boase
The frantic call went out about 10:15 a.m. one day last April: student shot at Kleb Intermediate. Within seconds, Klein ISD administrators sounded a “Code Blue” to hold students in their classrooms as sheriff’s deputies swarmed the northwest Harris County campus. Terrified parents raced to pick up their children and take them out of harm’s way. Reporters and photographers from every media outlet in town hurried to the scene as well.
We learned the heartbreaking facts just a short time later. Thirteen-year-old Elizabeth Trevino, an eighth-grader, died at a local hospital after committing suicide at school, shooting herself in the head in an upstairs restroom. She was discovered by a teacher, who climbed over the top of a bathroom stall to try and save her, but it was too late. A handgun and suicide note were found next to her body.
Deputies and the news media began to investige to determine where Trevino had gotten the gun and how she had gotten it into the school. It was later determined that the weapon belonged to Trevino’s late father and had been locked away. Trevino somehow got the gun and hid it in her backpack. The tragedy prompted a review of security measures by Klein ISD, but as administrators from several local school districts including HISD point out, even the most stringent security measures aren’t a guarantee anymore against violence. It’s a sobering truth that leaves more and more parents afraid as they cart their children off to school each day.
Those fears certainly won’t be calmed by the comments of one local judge. Early this year, state District Judge Mike McSpadden, while sentencing an HISD student to five years in prison for killing a classmate, said if this district is a role model, “then God help the rest of the nation.” McSpadden was referring to then Secretary of Education nominee and former HISD Superintendent Rod Paige and the praise he had received during his confirmation hearings for leading one of the top urban school districts in the country.
McSpadden’s comments were made during a hearing for 16-year-old former Deady Middle School student Estanilao Balderas in the October 1999 stabbing death of Samuel Avila. Avila was stabbed in the head with a screwdriver while at school. The judge criticized HISD for failing to protect Avila and other students.
Despite such high profile crimes and criticism, there is some good news as students begin the new school year. According to local administrators, school violence is decreasing in the Houston area. HISD spokeswoman Carmen Gomez says violent crime fell in the 2000—01 school year from the year before.
Gomez attributes the drop to several policies and programs HISD has implemented during the past few years. One of the most important: a zero tolerance policy for weapons or violence. “A student with a weapon will be expelled, put in an alternative school,” says Gomez.
That tougher weapons policy was installed just two months after the chilling massacre at Columbine High School near Denver on April 20, 1999, a massacre that claimed 15 lives, including the two gunmen. The murders, the aftermath of which was played out in front of a horrified national television audience, forever changed the way school districts around the country handle security and respond to violence, including HISD. Paige, who was then the district superintendent, said at the time, “The safety of our children and our employees has always been the top priority. The tragedy in Littleton, Colo., should serve as a reminder that schools must do everything reasonable and possible to be places of safety and comfort for all who enter their doors.”
Gomez says every HISD school has an emergency preparedness plan with multiple scenarios, “all the way from weather to weapons, bombs, etc., there are several steps as far as each specific incident that we would follow.” The district also has its own police department with close to 200 officers and a special response or SWAT team trained to rescue students and staff in an emergency. Says Gomez, district officials actually had the idea for the response team before the Columbine massacre but quickly accelerated its implementation following the incident. “It showed how much we do need something like that,” she says.
The district also has created security councils composed of administrators, teachers, parents and students to review individual schools and recommend improvements. Other Houston-area school districts have moved quickly as well to improve safety and reassure anxious parents that everything possible is being done to protect their children.
But another unfortunate fallout from the Columbine tragedy is even harder to prevent — an increased number of threats directed at schools, especially around April 20, the tragedy’s anniversary. Districts now take those threats much more seriously. For example, the Columbia-Brazoria School District received an e-mail on its Web site last April threatening to bomb the school on the day of the Columbine anniversary. West Columbia police used dogs to search every campus on April 19, and extra officers remained on campus overnight and all day on April 20 as a precaution. “When schools get a bomb threat, you can’t assume it’s a prank,” says Columbia-Brazoria Superintendent Cole Pugh. “You have to take it as seriously as you possibly can.”
That’s what several parents at Humble ISD’s Creekwood Middle School did last April. Just before the anniversary of Columbine, someone posted an Internet hit list naming several students. It scared Cheryl Cummings and other parents so much they kept their children home from school. “I left my son home for protection,” says Cummings. “You just never know.” Humble ISD responded with additional security patrols by local law enforcement.
In fact, most Houston area districts routinely take extra precautions around the Columbine anniversary, from police patrols to student searches. They also recognize that our schools have forever changed. Gone are the days when weapons were rare and violence was limited to the occasional fistfight.