Austin ISD discusses school safety, security following Akins High School incidents

Education

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Just a week after students return to class from winter break, the Austin Independent School District is reviewing its safety and security protocols.

At the School Safety and Security Committee meeting on Tuesday, district officials went over how they assess threats on campuses and reviewed two incidents at Akins Early College High School from last fall.

A representative from AISD police said charges were filed against a student following a December 2021 incident when the school went on lockdown. Just two months earlier, a fight between two students at the school led to one of them being stabbed.

“There are always red flags, and that’s what this protocol is designed to start recognizing those red flags,” said Oscar Adams, associate director of discipline standards and accountability.

After 10 people were killed in a school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas in 2018, the Texas legislature required districts to create a threat assessment protocol at all of their campuses. In response, AISD created its own process and created its Safe and Supportive School Program.

Adams told the committee the program was their way of identifying and getting resources to students or individuals who might be at risk of hurting themselves or others.

“It’s not a way for teams or campuses to profile students. It’s not a checklist where we look for warning signs,” he said.

Every AISD campus has a threat assessment team made up of people with expertise in counseling, behavior management, mental health and substance use, classroom instruction, special education, school administration, school safety and security, emergency management, and law enforcement. They track two main threats: possible situations and questionable content.

Objectives of the Safe and Supportive School Program as laid out in the School Safety and Security Committee’s Tuesday meeting.

The committee spent much of their January meeting focused on how the district tracks questionable content searches on district devices. Superintendent Dr. Stephanie Elizalde joined Adams in explaining the technology they use, called Gaggle safety alerts.

Elizalde said it was important to connect with students who have tough questions or who are searching for certain keywords, to try and connect them with resources instead. However, she said it’s often a balance.

“Are you now big brother, and how much of this are you violating someone’s privacy?” she said.

The superintendent also said it was important to keep data from the program to ensure African American or Hispanic students weren’t being unfairly flagged or targeted.

That sentiment was echoed by AISD Police Chief Ashley Gonzalez, as he presented the district’s goals of eliminating arrests or use-of-force incidents involving students by the end of the 2024-2025 school year. Instead, they hope to offer resources and alternatives to students, whenever possible.

He presented the number of arrests and use-of-force incidents involving African American and Hispanic students from the past three school years, as well as their goal to decrease those statistics over time — until they reach zero.

“Our African American students were way overrepresented,” he said. “We are critically looking within ourselves and the police department, the training that we do, how we respond to calls, how we respond to situations — and it is being done very differently,” said Chief Gonzalez.

Emily Sawyer, a member of the committee, a volunteer with Austin Justice Coalition and a mother to five students, said she applauded the district for this shift and their “lofty goals.”

“The word eliminate is really powerful,” she said. “If we are investing in the things that our students and our education system needs, then our police officers won’t be in positions to have to deal with stuff that’s not for them to be dealing with.”

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