Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Internally staffed AISD PD tackles vaping and home visits

School district police chief presents yearly safety report

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AZLE — The Azle Independent School District board of trustees has received yearly threat assessments in the past, but this year is the first time it has been presented by a “fully functioning” district police department. During a June 17 meeting, the board heard the annual safety report from AISD Police Chief Darren Brockway.

In the 23-24 school year AISD’s police department conducted

  • 181 calls for service
  • 99 incident and offense reports
  • 18 arrests and referrals
  • Four adult arrest warrants served
  • 75 Azle Municipal Court referrals (vaping)
  • 18 Azle Municipal Court referrals (other)
  • 52 home visits
  • 209 LightSpeed Alerts
  • 122 threat assessments conducted
  • Seven incidents determined to be an imminent danger
  • 21 threats of harm toward others
  • 101 threats of harm toward self
  • 42 assessments for students receiving special education services
  • 18 assessments for students receiving 504 accommodations

“This coming school year will the first with 100% AISD Police Officers,” Brockway said. “I’m kind of excited because this is the first time we’ve ever been through this. This is our first year we’re actually a fully functioning police department which comes with headaches and heartaches, but I was very pleased with the overall numbers.”

The AISD Police Department was created in 2006. For many years it consisted of two employees: Derald Coomer and Nancy Sonnevelt. The pair split time teaching the Career and Technical Education criminal justice and truancy enforcement courses. In this period, the district primarily relied on school resource officers from the Azle Police Department. The transition of phasing out Azle Police Department SRO’s began last school year and was completed at the end of the most recent school year. The department also has a new dedicated headquarters at 483 Sandy Beach Road, next to the Forte Junior High stadium and across from Hoover Elementary.

The new headquarters has been used as a training ground for officers along with other agencies. Brockway described the buildings as adequate and improving. The district is currently in the process of adding equipment for a processing area.

“The building actually ended up being perfect,” Brockway said.

While the district employed two school resource officers from the Azle Police Department this year, it will fill these positions with new hires at the start of school in the fall. Chief Brockway announced that Michael Luther and Shane Cantora from the North Richland Hills Police Department will be joining AISD as its newest officers. With longtime officer Steve Stutsman retiring, the district plans to start the 2024-2025 school year with 14 officers. The chief said because of Stutsman’s unique background and certifications, he has had a difficult time filling his career and technical education teaching position but expects to find someone for the job for the next school year.

Along with a chief of police, the district now employs a secretary, two officers assigned to Azle High School, one officer assigned to each elementary school, one officer assigned to Hornet Academy and two officers assigned to both junior high schools in the district.

In addition to statistics from the school year Brockway also presented context on several key areas of concern.  In one area of note, the police force began cracking down on vaping this year by referring perpetrators to the Azle Municipal Court.

“This was kind of an experiment, just being honest with you,” Brockway said. “It’s no secret vaping is a big problem in secondary campuses, not just in our district but all over the state. There was a new mandate that just came out that said if you got caught with a nicotine vape you had to do five days (in a Disciplinary Alternative Education Program) or 30 days in DAEP placement for THC vapes. We were talking at the beginning of the year, and I asked my group and said I want it to bite just a little bit more. I want especially these THCs out of the schools.”

Brockway explained that due to a 2016 law, officers cannot give vaping citations for students on campus, but by working out a deal with Municipal Court Administrator Felicia King, Brockway said the district has found the solution he’s looking for. When officers find a THC vape on a student they will instead file a municipal court referral for possession of drug paraphernalia. The student must then enroll in the Success With Every Azle Teen initiative. Through SWEAT, juveniles pay for their offenses by doing a set number of community service hours and involvement in court mandated behavioral modification courses. Upon successful completion of the program, the case is dismissed and will not appear on their record.

“It’s just a little something extra on top of the school punishment that we can give them to show that we don’t want this in our schools,” Brockway said. “I can tell you out of the 75 we do not have a repeat offender.”

Vaping is not the only area where the district police have been working outside of school walls. According to this year’s numbers, which Brockway said required some estimation for its first month due to a management system error, officers with the school have made 52 home visits since the fall of 2023. While being conservative on the scope of these visits, Brockway said they were often done as a welfare check for students whose teachers have not seen or heard from them in some time.

“There are cases where it’s basically truancy but there are other cases where they had a car that broke down and we were able to get them the resources to get them to school,” Brockway said.

Officers may also visit homes after receiving a Lightspeed Alert from a district-owned device. Lightspeed Systems picks up typed keywords like “suicide,” “kill” and “gun” sent from district devices, like student-used iPads, and ranks the potential threat as either high, low or in need of immediate response.

“The typical thing we get, someone will be joking on Google Chat to another student,” Brockway said. “’This homework stinks, I want to KMS (kill myself).’ But this is a reference to suicidal ideation, so that is a phone call to the parent.”

Brockway said out of the 209 Lightspeed Alerts it has received this year, only four required that he visit a student’s home immediately in fear for their life. Even in those four cases, Brockway reported the students in question turned out to not be in immediate danger.

“It turned out not being that but we’re not going to take that risk and there’s no time to try and get someone to do a welfare check from another agency,” Brockway said.

One of Brockway’s biggest concerns from this year’s numbers is the young age of students in some of the most serious cases the department has addressed.

“This year I have been very alarmed at the number of children under 10 years old that are going through crises,” Brockway said. “Some of those seven (incidents of imminent danger) are kids under 10. I don’t know the reason for it. Nobody does. I don’t know if this is going to be the norm, but we need to figure something out. For me to get involved really to even do anything they have to be at least 10 years old. We’re all just going ‘I’ve never seen this before but it’s happening.’”

Among other successes this year, the AISD Police Department joined the North Tarrant County Crisis Intervention Team and the Parker County Regional SWAT Team. After a four-year hiatus, Shattered Dreams, a simulation of the traumatic results of a distracted driving incident using students as actors, returned to Azle High School.

“To me it was just an excellent job despite technical difficulties,” Brockway said. “I had students come up to me after and tell me how they were impacted.”

Along with Shattered Dreams, the district also promoted safe driving with “Nickel from Nicole” in which students tape a nickel and card on their dashboard as a reminder of Plano teen Nicole LeGrow who died after a distracted driving incident in 2010.  Students also pledged to drive safe and sober during prom season in record numbers.

“I’m very proud of the number of students we had sign this,” Brockway said. I’ve never seen that before.”

The district hopes to tackle issues with a multi-pronged approach providing free mental health resources for students, mandated mental health checkups for students who are assessed as a threat to themselves or others, along with ramping up civilian and officer training for school shootings. During the recent school year, the district conducted active shooter trainings at Hilltop Elementary and Silver Creek Elementary.

“In a school environment our rounds going downrange have a lot more consequence to them — we need to be very careful where we’re putting those,” Brockway said. “I am proud to report the lowest scoring of any of our qualifications since we started has been a 90. Anything below that is a failure just because of the environment that we’re in.”

As of his presentation, Brockway reports all AISD officers have been School-Based Law Enforcement certified. He hopes to soon create a phone service manned around the clock to address potential emergencies and threats.