School officials learn strategies for safety

Maintenance crews were busy at Hendrickson High School Wednesday morning preparing the campus for the new school year. Inside the Performing Arts Center, school resource officers from across central Texas were also looking ahead, by taking part in a conference on school safety.

"It’s unfortunate the reason why we are here today and the necessity that we be here today, but the fact that we are here shows the commitment we have to our community and some of our most vulnerable in our community, our children,” said APD Chief Brian Manley.  

School shootings in Florida and the attack at Santa Fe High School earlier this year have prompted authorities to rethink tactics. 

"What we've found in the last few years is that law enforcement has done a really good job in training as far as the response goes but what we'd like to shift to is the prevention side,” said Lt. Matthew Greer.

Greer is the director of the Austin Regional Intelligence Center, which is also called the APD Fusion Center. It’s a special intelligence gather operation that was created to prevent terror attacks before they happen. 

"We certainly recognize, although our focus is primarily terrorism, that some of these school shootings are actually a form of terrorism,” said Greer.         

In the Austin mail bombing case, the fusion center was instrumental in identifying and tracking down the suspect. Those at the conference heard how searching social media and monitoring cellphone activity can identify threatening behavior. But that kind monitoring, Chief Manley admits, can raise concerns about constitutional rights.

"We have to walk that fine line and we have to make sure everything we can do to keep or community and to keep our schools safe, and we also have to value another American right, that is a right to privacy, so we have very strong privacy policies."

You can't go it alone, that's the message from the conference and another that's going to be held later this fall. It's also why the Chairman of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee was at the conference to talk about what the federal government is doing to help.

"As we enter the next school year, I know a lot of parents and teachers have a lot of anxiety going into this school year,” said Rep. Michael McCaul ( R ) Texas.

To address security gaps, McCaul noted federal grants are helping make improvements on campuses. But addressing the mental health factor, according to McCaul, is also an important part of any strategy.

"We've also got to keep the guns out of bad actors hands, and we've got to identify these mental health cases, and make sure they don’t get weapons in their hands,” said McCaul.

Along with the teamwork encouraged during the conference, its believed safety programs will hinge on teachers and students being vigilant and speaking up. To help make reporting easier. DPS launched a new smart phone app called I-watch Texas. The app is available for apple and android platforms. Officials say it’s important to remember the app is not a replacement from calling 911 when a crisis is already underway.