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NM Attorney General puts spotlight on school safety

Roswell police and school officials are working to improve school security and safety, according to the sergeant who heads the RPD School Resource Officers team. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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As New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas has called on state education officials to take action to improve school security and safety, the New Mexico Public Education Department and a Roswell police officer in charge of school resource officers say that the Roswell Independent School District already has implemented some of the suggested safety measures and intends to do more in the future.

Balderas issued a letter June 1 to Public Education Secretary Designate Christopher Ruszkowski asking that the Education Department, which oversees public K12 schools and educational programs, take additional steps to make school buildings more secure and enhance school safety measures.

Balderas said that his office’s review of existing regulations, funding and safety precautions concluded that the state has a “patchwork of safety initiatives that do not meet the modern safety needs of our schools.”

Balderas has called for a statewide forum to develop a comprehensive plan for the state’s 89 public school districts and is suggesting that the state seek additional grant money to fund security upgrades. Any new money obtained would supplement federal funding, state capital outlays to specific schools and a $10 million grant fund initiative approved by the legislature in 2018.

According to Attorney General’s Office spokesman David Carl, both the forum and the grant funding are pending.

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“The Office of the Attorney General has not received a response from the Public Education Secretary, but we are moving forward with plans to hold a forum on school safety and invite all relevant stakeholders,” he said. “We are also identifying potential funding sources that will aid in furthering this critical initiative and hope to have an update for the public on our progress in the near future.”

The Attorney General also had several other recommendations for the PED, including ensuring that district’s policies and procedures are reviewed.

According to a spokesperson for the Public Education Department, the Roswell Independent School District had the site-specific plans for its 21 schools approved by the department in late 2017. Dexter Consolidated Schools and Hagerman Municipal Schools have plans that were previously approved and will be up for review again soon as they cycle through the three-year review period.

Lake Arthur Municipal Schools’ plan is scheduled for review this coming academic year.

The Public Education Department said it is involved in numerous efforts to improve school safety.

“We’ve visited over 100 schools in the past year, and the Public Education Department has been focusing on staff training, cross-sector communications, facility upgrades, social-emotional health and prevention, and has worked with each district to ensure that they are updating their required school safety plans,” said Ruszkowski in an email statement.

In April, the Public Schools Facilities Authority held a series of regional workshops on security issues. As part of that, it conducted a survey, with 721 schools and 74 districts responding.

The findings included that 77.9 percent of schools utilize security cameras; 64.5 lock exterior doors during school hours; 64.1 percent have a fence around their buildings; 34.95 percent have an air-locked vestibule; 29.77 percent have a school resource officer on campus; 28.88 percent have a secure, locked vestibule; and 28.03 percent have armed school resource officers.

The Attorney General’s letter also urged that several “tier 1” priorities be addressed in the next school year. These include adequate lighting around schools and parking lots; use of visitor badge systems; locks on classroom doors; and up-to-date emergency public announcement and 911 systems.

Sgt. Jerry Hart of the Roswell Police Department, the head of School Resource Officers, said he anticipates that his team will meet with Roswell school district officials before the start of the next academic year in August to continue efforts to boost security in all schools.

“A lot of the buildings that have either been remodeled or retrofitted in recent years, their systems are very good. They usually have some sort of locked doors or foyers that people can’t get in without someone from the school staff letting them in,” Hart said. “And I know that last year they upgraded and implemented cameras at a couple of campuses and that has been working well. That has really helped the school security staff and also law enforcement.”

Berrendo Middle School in Chaves County had a school shooting in 2014 that injured two people and involved one of its own students as the shooter, but Hart said he was unaware of any school within the city limits where an intruder made it into a school building.

As Balderas noted in his letter and Hart mentioned, the biggest obstacle to creating more secure facilities is obtaining the funding.

“They (the RISD) have plans in the works to make changes to the remainder of their schools,” Hart said about Roswell public schools, noting that those changes rely on securing more money for the efforts.

According to the Public Education Department, school districts will need to submit applications to the Public Schools Capital Outlay Council to receive funding from the $10 million grant initiative approved by the legislature this year. That money is meant to be allocated from 2018 to 2022.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.