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TUSD to hire 6 more armed security officers after 3-2 board vote

Tucson's largest district has only armed school security force in Arizona

The Tucson Unified School District will hire six more armed officers as they plan to train campus monitors and school administrations to respond to violent emergencies such as a school shooting. The decision came three weeks after the massacre at an elementary school in Ulvalde, Texas, which several TUSD board members mentioned.

The TUSD Governing Board voted 3-2 at their meeting on Tuesday to hire five school safety officers and a field lieutenant to help supervise the district’s security team. TUSD is the only district in Arizona with its own armed security force.

The hirings will increase the district’s security staff to 42 people. The district already employs 21 armed security personnel, prior to the planned additions. The additional salaries and benefits will cost the district about $400,000 annually.

The two opposing votes came from Boardmembers Ravi Shah and Leila Counts, who were both skeptical adding armed officers would make campuses safer.

“This topic is close to heart. How do we keep kids, my kids, our kids safe,” Shah said. “But the more I look at the evidence, (this proposal) doesn’t pan out…I’m not sure I’m ready to support these positions and a $400,000 spend on a per year basis.”

The five armed school safety officers, or SSOs as they’re known, are tasked with responding to disturbances on campus plus training and supervising campus monitors, who are the district’s unarmed security personnel.

Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo told the board that they’re not “just putting another security officer at the door to watch everybody,” and that the SSOs are there to be leaders.

“We want this person active. We want this person leading professional development,” he said. “We want someone walking around the campus and showing the administration, ‘why is that door open? Look at those gates. You could do this or that.’”

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TUSD Director of School Safety Joseph Hallums asked the board to approve the hiring of the six armed officers and two dispatchers to expand the coverage of the district’s security team.

Hallums hopes to have at least one armed security supervisor at each high school and its nearby elementary and middle schools, he said, though he told Grijalva “no one wishes that they didn’t have to be armed more than me.”

The addition of armed personnel came three weeks after the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, which wasn’t lost on school board members at the Tuesday meeting. Trujillo told the board that campuses needed the added security.

“This is an investment in training and professional development and having someone inside the school that can teach emergency response behaviors,” Trujillo said. “This is not getting involved in whether or not good guys with guns are going to be able to address some of the horrific violence that we’ve seen across the country, particularly in schools.”

School shootings, including at Uvalde, happened at campuses where there was armed security, Governing Board President Adelita Grijalva said at the meeting. Although she would later vote in favor of the hiring, Grijalva mentioned that "in Uvalde, there were 40 people on the lawn that were fully armed.”

The school district police chief who responded to the shooting in Uvlade, which led to 21 deaths at Robb Elementary School, told responding officers to wait outside as the gunman fired at students.

“In a lot of the situations that we’ve seen nationally, there were people that were armed that were there, and the incident still occurred,” Grijalva said. “I want to see what we’re going to do to keep people off of our campuses without creating a jail environment.”

Campuses are beginning to look like the Pima County Jail with all the fencing going up to protect them, Grijalva said. What makes better sense, she said, is hands-on security training instead of fencing or more guards.

“I don’t want to have more people with weapons on our campuses,” Grijalva said to Hallums. “If these people are coming onto our campuses to provide support and PD, I’m at a loss as to why they have a gun.”

Hallums responded by saying “you can’t plan for a significant incident to occur, and when those incidents do occur, seconds matter.” Officers have “to be able to respond accordingly and very quickly,” he told Grijalva.

Grijalva said she voted yes in hopes of getting “a real detailed plan on what it is that these additional people are going to allow the department to do.”

Public safety resources for TUSD have been seeing a “historic decrease,” Hallums said to the board. The district no longer has traditional School Resource Officers, who are full-time police officers that can make arrests on campuses and patrol schools.

The training school safety officers have “proven effective not in stopping a school shooting,” Trujillo said, “but maybe surviving one, maybe mitigating the damage, maybe focusing in on those behaviors that we know are problematic around the district like leaving doors open.”

Trujillo also took questions from the media and parents on Wednesday, where he said that open doors at schools around the campus are a serious problem, saying “our schools should not be easy to walk into.”

'A champion of safety'

The SSOs were brought on primarily to train campus monitors, Hallums told the board, but they haven’t been able to as more calls for police services on campus have been made in recent years. “It’s something we’re trying to correct,” he said.

TUSD will now have seven dispatchers with the two approved on Tuesday. The dispatchers respond to calls on campuses, monitor surveillance and send available SSOs to respond. SSOs serve a region in the district instead of a single campus.

Two dispatchers have to be working at any given time, Hallums said, because the district monitors their own fire systems. The district has been having to bring in officers off the street to help cover for dispatchers who call-in sick or take time off, he said, as they’re short-staffed.

District dispatchers also respond to “student unrest” or protests on campuses, which Hallums said can leave their security team short-handed.

SSOs also act as liaisons between TUSD security and the Tucson Police Department. Their hiring will improve relations between the district and TPD, Hallums told the board.

Increased call volume in recent years and the district’s small security staff “has really put us in a position where we can’t provide that resource we really want to for schools,” Hallums told the board. “We really want to focus in on the training in the individual schools and be a partner for that administration.”

The goal is to eventually have one SSO on each TUSD high school campus and head security for the K-8 schools that send kids to the high school, Hallums said.

“This individual would become a champion of safety within that school and oversee the feeder schools,” he said. “This would embed them not only in the schools but in the overall community.”

TUSD lists 15 campuses that teach high school. The district has 89 schools and programs with more than 47,000 students, about 11,000 of which are attending summer school this year. The district also has a staff of more than 8,000.

The district board created the armed field lieutenant position to supervise SSOs and dispatchers.

TUSD also employs eight armed uniformed officers who work off-hours, when class is out in the evenings and during the weekend. They patrol campuses but also respond to facility issues like “broken plumbing,” Hallums said.

Trujillo told parents on Wednesday that COVID had created security measures for the district that made it harder for people to walk into the school. TUSD campus “were the safest we’ve been in a long time” during COVID, he said but security has “relaxed” in recent months.

“We’ve got a tremendous amount of work to do to make our schools harder targets, and we are vulnerable,” Trujillo said. “What I’m going to ask parents is to give us an opportunity to meet with our campuses, do the assessments we need to do.”

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Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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