In 96 minutes, lives can be changed forever. That’s how long the first school shooting lasted at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966. At the very least, learning was interrupted. At the very worst, lives were lost. Everyone was changed.
A few days after the May 18 shooting at Santa Fe High School that killed 10 people, Governor Greg Abbott convened a roundtable discussion that lasted three days. The goal was to move beyond the familiar debate that tends to follow what has become an all-too-familiar tragedy. Waco ISD’s superintendent, Dr. Marcus Nelson, was one of three superintendents invited to participate in the May 22 discussion.
Wacoan writer Megan Willome spoke with Nelson and two other educational professionals about how Central Texas is preparing for a tragedy it hopes will never happen. David Wrzesinski serves as safety coordinator for Robinson ISD, and Jenipher Janek is the crisis response team leader for Education Service Center Region 12.
“When we have active shooter training,we include the city of Waco SWAT team. We want to be clear that they’re part of a team of law enforcement officials that work together to mitigate any circumstances that may arise.”
Nelson, who was named Superintendent of the Year in 2014 by the Texas Association of School Boards, believes his experience as an administrator and a teacher during this era of school violence gives him a unique perspective.
“I was an assistant principal the day Columbine happened [April 20, 1999]. As an assistant principal at a large school, we had to take certain protocols into place regarding trench coats. I was a high school principal the day 9/11 happened,” he said. “I feel like I’ve had some firsthand experience that allows me to speak to the topic in a way that’s relevant.”
Despite the frequency of mass shootings during his career, Nelson has not become desensitized.
“Every time there’s been a school shooting in America, it has hurt me to my core. I’ve felt for the families that have lost students and teachers that have died. I always think, ‘That could have been us, God forbid,’” he said. “We’ve seen too many senseless tragedies. We refuse to be quiet about this.”
Having served in school districts across the state, including Austin ISD, Garland ISD, Judson ISD, Laredo ISD, McKinney ISD and Pflugerville ISD, Nelson calls Waco ISD “a microcosm of many schools in our state.” Because Waco is only a short drive from either large urban districts or small rural ones, it’s uniquely positioned to coordinate with different types of schools across the region. It’s not isolated, like districts in far west or east Texas.
“We find ourselves being in a unique location to know what’s happening to our partners to the south, to the north, and to the west. It’s not like we’re in El Paso and removed in the west, or like Marshall in the east,” he said. “I think people look at us as a reputable district that is full of innovation, and districts like Dallas and Garland are looking to see what other places are doing. One of the places on their list to look is Waco. Our community is known for taking safety very seriously.”
After the governor’s roundtable Nelson held a town hall on June 18 with two concurrent sessions — one at the City of Waco Multi-Purpose Community Center and the other at South Waco Elementary School — followed by his own roundtable on June 26 at the Waco ISD administration building. The roundtable included professionals in education, law enforcement, mental health and emergency services, as well
as government leaders.
“I think that the main thing we accomplished is we want to give the public reassurance that we’re having these conversations regularly. The meetings we had after the governor’s roundtable, those are not the first conversations we had about safety,” Nelson said. “In the event we had an unfortunate tragedy, at least we know that there will be no stone left unturned by our local partners, that we will do everything we can, whether it’s stopping a bad guy or providing mental health services to not only victims but really everyone who’s associated with a tragedy. Everyone will need some
kind of follow-up.”
Waco ISD works in all its 26 schools to ensure safety is a priority. At elementary schools, that means a focus on bullying.
“Bullying leads to a lot more serious crimes and activity. Kids that are bullied, if someone doesn’t do something about it, those kids become possible threats,” Nelson said.
The district has implemented a “Let’s Talk” page on its website as part of the Waco Alert system that allows anyone to submit questions on a variety of topics, as well as report suspicious activity, including bullying or harassment.
“People can report anonymously, where they don’t have to worry about retaliation, so we can investigate,” he said.
School safety also means following up on every report, whether it is criminal or not, and having conversations with all parties involved to deter situations that might escalate.
“We don’t want any student, male or female, to feel uncomfortable while they’re at school, whether that’s physically or sexually or verbally. We want everyone to be in an environment where they can feel comfortable and really able to concentrate on learning,” Nelson said.
One of the keys to protecting learning is engaging with parents.
“We want parents to understand that we can work on safety and security all day, every day, but the child’s best monitor — the activities they may be participating in that need intervention —really has to begin at home,” he said.
Nelson is proud of the 16-member police force that is part of Waco ISD. He says they don’t work in isolation.
“There’s a host of collaboration that’s led by our [school] district police department,” he said, citing partnerships with emergency management, the city and the county. “They know each other and train together. When we have active shooter training, we include the city of Waco SWAT team. We want to be clear that they’re part of a team of law enforcement officials that work together to mitigate any circumstances that may arise.”
In a previous interview with the Wacoan, Nelson said that when he was an undergraduate he switched from pursuing youth ministry to public education. He went on to earn two master’s degrees and a doctorate so he could become a superintendent and change lives.
“I come from Abilene Christian [University], where every graduate is encouraged to identify their profession and how it aligns with their calling,” he said. “God has put me right where I need to be [in Waco ISD] and is guiding us through this transformation, where we’re accountable for every student and make sure we provide the quality educational experience that every kid deserves. It’s my battle cry. It’s a movement.”
To ensure the movement gets what it needs, Nelson says school districts need adequate funding from the state legislature.
“I have every confidence that the governor and elected officials value safety as much as those of us in the school districts value it. If we all agree it’s a priority, then it should manifest itself in budget allocations. If our counselors need more training, we agree. If we need more counselors, we agree. That takes funding. This state has a school finance formula that does not adequately fund public education,” he said.
Although Nelson acknowledges the state has many valuable priorities, “all these things are critical, but so is the education of 5 million children in the state of Texas,” he said.
The bottom line, Nelson says, is that if we care about education, then school safety has to be part of the discussion.
“We can’t have a conversation about learning if kids don’t feel like they’re in a safe environment,” he said. “The entire community of Waco should be focused on what we need for kids who need education the most. We’ve tried to send that message through the hallways and neighborhoods in our city, and we won’t rest until every kid is safe, every school is prepared and we’re achieving the educational outcomes we desire.”
“Kids are more savvy than we think”
One of the 32 people from the Waco area who attended Dr. Nelson’s school safety roundtable was David Wrzesinski, director of special programs at Robinson ISD. He’s also the district’s school safety coordinator.
Wrzesinski says the roundtable was a good chance for people to talk to and listen to each other.
“You’re seeing more and more of that, where schools are reaching out. Everybody knows what they know within their districts,” he said.
But at the roundtable, that knowledge was shared.
“It was good to see and meet all the people in the area and figure out whose roles are what and to collaborate,” he said.
In his position, Wrzesinski attends trainings with the Texas School Safety Center, housed at Texas State University. It was formed after the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, in which 13 people died. The center’s mandate is to disseminate safety information and provide training and technical assistance for Texas’ K-12 schools and junior colleges.
“They’re the hub in the state, a resource for all schools,” he said. “Of course, it’s intensified since we’ve had two pretty big shootings in Texas, especially one in a school.”
On November 5, 2017, a shooting at First Baptist Church Sutherland Springs left 26 people dead.
With that shooting and the recent one at Santa Fe High School, Wrzesinski says Nelson emphasized the need for the community to pull together.
“Dr. Nelson made a good point that if an incident happens, we’re all gonna be in it together. We’ll all swap resources and help each other out,” he said.
Wrzesinski has served as Robinson’s safety coordinator for about six years. It’s one of his many duties, including overseeing special education and programs for students with disabilities. He says larger districts may have a personnel position dedicated solely to school safety, whereas smaller districts like Robinson often have someone like him who coordinates several programs. He believes it is important to have a person in every school district whose job is to think about safety.
“In larger districts the police coordinate a lot of that, but they see it from a different perspective than an administrator,” he said. “[Safety] definitely has started to dominate
more of my time.”
Earlier this year Wrzesinski made Robinson ISD the first school district in Texas to use the emergency planning software called CommandScope.
“It’s preplanning software. If we had a situation where we had an emergency, they would have access to all of our building plans, our contact information and eventually all of our cameras. And that can be shared with police, fire and administrators,” he explained. “Right now it’s just with Robinson [police and fire], but it could be shared with the McLennan County sheriff, DPS [Department of Public Safety].”
With CommandScope, emergency responders can look at all relevant information on their laptops or in their vehicles while at the scene. Wrzesinski says this is preferable to the way information was usually collected in the past — in a binder.
“In the past, even when I went to our fire department, they had binders that may have some contact info, but it’s usually all outdated. There might be one binder and one firetruck might have it,” he said. “With this, I can update instantaneously. Or if we have a hazardous material on a campus, I can put that in and update it immediately.”
CommandScope is produced by a company called RealView out of Chicago. Wrzesinski estimates the cost to the district is about $1 per student.
“I ran into these guys at a conference. They were marketing it to fire departments, high-rise buildings in Chicago,” he said. “I thought, ‘Hey, there’s a way to adapt this to schools.’ So now they’re marketing it pretty heavily to schools and universities.”
Wrzesinski has conducted trainings with Robinson’s fire and police departments and says the software is easy to operate.
“I can teach someone in five minutes — that’s a huge benefit. We want it to be usable,” he said.
But Wrzesinski says the most important way to keep schools safe is for parents to talk with their kids.
“The school shootings, we can’t hide under a rug anymore. We have to own the fact that these things are happening across the country and in our backyard,” he said. “I’ll be sending information home, but when that comes home, talk about that with your children: ‘What would you do if it happened at school or at the mall or at church? How would you react?’ It’s important to be mentally prepared to know what to do.”
He acknowledges sometimes parents don’t know what to say and fear saying the wrong thing.
“Parents with younger kids, they get concerned it will make their kids more scared,” Wrzesinski said. “Kids are more savvy than we think. They’re listening to the TV and to discussions at the dinner table. Of course, you’re gonna have a different discussion with a 17-year-old than a 6-year-old.”
Jenipher Janek, a licensed professional counselor and counseling specialist, also participated in Nelson’s roundtable. She sees the greater Waco community coming together around the issue of school safety, even though the topic is difficult.
“The conversations have been so hard because it’s so hard to realize the reality of what we’re dealing with right now. We’re putting that behind us,” she said. “My biggest takeaway is that willingness to partner, to share resources, even if it’s just a form that someone has created and [someone else] can use and tweak to their needs. People want to work together for our schools. That is the first step in any progress we’re going to make in minimizing school violence.”
Like Wrzesinski, Janek has participated in trainings from the Texas School Safety Center. The trainings not only address school violence but also protocol for handling hazardous materials and cyberbullying and creating emergency operations plans, which all schools are required to have. On July 27, Region 12 held a High Threat Risk Training for school personnel. It’s the second training they’ve offered to local officials to make sure they are informed about Gov. Abbott’s School and Firearm Safety Action Plan. Another threat management seminar will be held at no cost August 6 at Baylor University’s Cashion Academic Building, in partnership with Region 12.
Janek has been part of Region 12’s crisis response team for six years, first as a member and now as its leader.
“I help with coordinating resources for instances that can stop school operations, anything that can get in the way of learning,” she said. “We’re training educators and staff and students that if they see something that’s concerning that they take action and intervene.”
The biggest disaster impacting learning that she has faced was the explosion at the West Fertilizer Company April 17, 2013. Fifteen people died, and West Middle School was severely damaged, resulting in a reshuffling of students.
“That was a whole different level of how to help the school and students and staff find some degree of normalcy,” Janek said. “Thankfully, school was not in session. Don’t think we didn’t wonder what would have happened if it had been 2 o’clock in the afternoon.”
The primary reason schools contact her office is to find help following student or educator loss — whether that loss happens on campus or away from campus.
“Every time a student or educator passes away, there’s a school that’s affected by that. When I give presentations, I always say, ‘Human loss is the biggest threat to school operations and school safety,’” she said.
Over the last six years in Region 12 — which serves over 161,000 students across 12 counties and 77 school districts, plus charter, private and parochial schools — Janek says there have been 70 human losses, mostly of students. Some of those have been medical, some accidental, some vehicular. There was one homicide.
“The majority have been suicides,” Janek said. “It’s the No. 1 reason why we are called to schools, and it accounts for half of the fatalities.”
Although the public is attuned to issues of bullying and recognizes that a student may act out because of a grievance, Janek says there is less awareness of the role suicidal ideation plays in school violence.
“CampusSafetyMagazine.com says about 95 percent of those who engaged in an attack were known to the school, and 98 percent had experienced some major loss, and 78 percent had some suicidal thoughts or behavior,” Janek said, adding that those statistics are consistent across resources from the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, Secret Service and other federal agencies. “We call it ‘leakage’ — what can we see that needs intervention prior to a student possibly harming themselves or carrying out a plan to harm others?”
She says mental health professionals are well aware of the link between suicidal ideation and homicidal ideation. The bridge can be all too short between taking one life and taking many.
“I’m an LPC [licensed professional counselor]. I’m looking at it from that perspective,” Janek said. “Mass casualty at a campus — there’s a perception that that’s the beginning. To a mental health professional, that act in and of itself is the end of a culmination of things that got that individual to that point.”
Looking at school safety with that long lens, Janek says it’s critical that students and administrators report suspicious or concerning behavior. But sometimes that doesn’t happen.
“Students, if they don’t receive training or awareness of a reporting mechanism — perhaps on a website or a stack of forms next to a box. If they don’t know how to use it or don’t trust what’s going to happen after they fill that report out, will they do it?” she said. “The other side is potential procedural breakdown. A report went to school personnel, but did it get passed on to law enforcement? Were they able to proceed with intervention?”
Returning to that fatal spring day in West, Janek says that when there are mass casualties, even a resilient community like West can struggle long after the buildings are repaired.
“There are still folks, some are only now being willing to talk about what happened. At the five-year anniversary I learned things about my family from that night that I didn’t know,” she said. “No one is unaffected. No one is unaffected.”