ANTHONY, NM — Amid community pressure to increase visible security staff at its schools, the Gadsden independent school district announced Thursday it will recruit parents to patrol schools.
Superintendent Travis Dempsey calls it the POPS program, or “parents on patrol for schools,” and said the district would cover the cost of background checks for volunteers participating in the program.
Volunteers would not be allowed to carry weapons on school grounds, but would serve as eyes and ears in schools, making sure doors were closed and bolted, and walking around campus to report suspicious activity or direct someone to help if needed.
Dempsey made the announcement at a community meeting in Anthony, where he participated in a panel discussion with Doña Ana County Sheriff Kim Stewart, Sgt. Arturo Guerrero of the Anthony Police Department, School Board President Laura Salazar Flores, and City Council member Gabriel Holguin by Anthony. The event was hosted by the Women’s Intercultural Center and the Save the Children Action Network.
Following the May mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, New Mexico’s fourth-largest school district is under pressure to deploy school resource officers at all 25 district locations, stretching from the township of San Miguel south of Las Cruces to Sunland Park, in the near El Paso, and extends to Chaparral to the east, spanning Doña Ana and Otero counties.
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Many of its schools are in unincorporated communities with no local law enforcement agencies, but the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Office says it regularly patrols those areas, and Sheriff Stewart said that deputies could respond within minutes to an emergency anywhere in the state on Thursday County can respond. She said there are also other federal agencies present in the region near the U.S.-Mexico border that could assist authorities in an emergency.
“We patrol some of your schools in the morning hours because of traffic, and sometimes I get complaints because we’re actually quoting some of you — sorry about that,” Stewart said, laughing.
The panel also answered questions from the community about the prevalence of e-cigarette and drug use and bullying. Dempsey said vaping is common and he is open to introducing drug sniffing dogs on school grounds as a deterrent.
Stewart said she included a request for 12 additional alternates in her annual budget request that would have allowed DASO school resource officers to be deployed to schools, but she said the request was denied. Stewart wryly noted that Borough Commissioner Diana Murillo, who is also Anthony’s mayor, was not present at the meeting and suggested that voters contact her or her representative on the Borough Board.
Dempsey told the Gadsden School Board last month that the district had money in its budget for three full-time $70,000-a-year school resource officers and suggested allocating two in Sunland Park and one in Anthony. The school board deferred approval for officials to consider funding other solutions.
A recent development that Dempsey announced during the panel, in the presence of Stewart, was that the sheriff had agreed to hire some officers from the Anthony Police Department and a letter of intent was in the works, but details of the plan, including funding, were not available.
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“Our goal is to establish an SRO position in every high school and then work to expand it,” Dempsey said.
Gadsden Schools opened their school year on August 1st. Dempsey said emergency drills were conducted during the first week to practice safe fire or gas leak evacuations or on-site protection procedures. He also told the more than 50 community members present that law enforcement officers are training on district school grounds for emergencies and that the district has upgraded its network of surveillance cameras and is making footage available to investigators.
Dempsey said district officials visited school sites during the opening days of classes to ensure classrooms and offices are locked and other safety procedures are followed.
Cell phone apps are also being used to deliver announcements to families, he said. Others allow staff to send out a notification that reaches emergency services, the school office, and the district all at once. Dempsey said another app called STOPit, which is being rolled out statewide, will allow students to anonymously report problems.
Recruiting students for school safety is critical, he said. “We might think we know what’s going on on social media, but … you’re seeing the iceberg of what the students know.”
Dempsey distributed a sheet of paper with a QR code for those who wish to volunteer with patrol schools. Scanning the code with a mobile phone opened an online volunteer application form to provide their contact information and the school location where they would like to volunteer.
Algernon D’Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, email@example.com or @AlgernonWrites on twitter.