Waco Independent School District is making strides in balancing school safety and accessibility for students and their families with a new security system that will be in all district buildings by summer.
Every school in Waco ISD now has one visitor entrance with an intercom and camera system in place to screen people before they can enter the building, Assistant Superintendent of Operations Israel Carrera said. A receptionist monitors the system and ensures all visitors show a form of government- or district-issued identification before buzzing them in.
Once their ID gets them in the first door, visitors must proceed to the office, or “safety vestibules” as education officials refer to the rooms situated at the front of each school building, to have their photographs taken. The receptionist then prints a yellow sticker or pass with the photograph and name of the visitor on it, which signals to staff and students that this person is permitted in the building.
A spate of school shootings last year, including the May 18 massacre at Santa Fe High School that left 10 dead, prompted the district to start installing the security system in schools over the summer to protect students, Carrera said. Violence in schools has put safety in the forefront of educators’ minds, he said.
Waco ISD will add vestibules to four more district buildings before this summer. The additional security costs about $31,000 per campus.
Before the effort that started over the summer, visitor check-in procedures varied from school to school, generally depending on the age of the building.
Several school districts have implemented similar security protocols, including Midway ISD. Every school in Midway has vestibules in front that a staff member must unlock to let in visitors and a security system that tracks who goes through the doors, district spokeswoman Traci Marlin said.
Safety is not the only concern for Waco ISD officials. The school district accepts any identification issued by any government, not just Texas or the U.S., so parents may stay involved in their children’s education, Waco ISD spokesman Kyle DeBeer said.
“We want families to be partners in their students’ education, and we want to remove any obstacles we can to partnering for their child’s success,” DeBeer said. “We absolutely believe that we can secure our campuses and maintain accessibility for families. We don’t think we have to choose between the two.”
When Waco ISD started phasing in the new security system, parents of undocumented children expressed concerns about their lack of U.S. identification, Carreras said. They wanted to be able to remain involved in their children’s education but also understood the need for security for students and staff, he said. The district had a solution, with help from American Gateways, a nonprofit immigration legal service.
“We were able to work alongside Waco ISD to encourage them to make sure there was some method for undocumented parents to retain access to campuses,” said Anali Looper, attorney and director of the American Gateways Waco office.
The nonprofit agency helped Carreras contact the Mexican Consulate in Austin to work out a safe, effective process for accepting Mexican forms of identification, including Mexican passports or matricula consular, Looper said. Mexican IDs have security features built in to ensure authenticity and allow the district to still run background checks, without forcing parents to obtain another ID.
“What I’ve heard from parents is that it’s been working well,” Looper said. “For people who are undocumented, it can raise fears if they’re asked for ID, but I think Waco ISD has been effective in communicating that this is for safety and not immigration purposes.”
If parents or guardians do not have any government-issued ID, they can still gain access to Waco ISD buildings through a separate process, DeBeer said. The district will conduct a background check on parents who lack a government-issued ID, take their photograph and give them a pass if they clear the background check. There is no cost.
Looper said she is happy the district is “taking safety seriously while also recognizing that parental involvement is of the utmost importance.”
“If they can’t pass a background check because they don’t have a government-issued ID, then that’s a tragedy,” she said.
Waco ISD also shares a database of visitors allowed in schools and flags anyone who is not permitted, DeBeer said.
“One of the things that we’ve been able to do in standardizing is to make it easier for parents, volunteers and other community members because the process is the same everywhere,” he said.
Midway ISD also has a similar system in place for visitors, Marlin said. The district accepts any form of identification it can use to run a background check, but if visitors do not have an ID, they will be escorted to their destinations if staff is available to take them, she said.