School districts across Texas are struggling to find enough security personnel to place on every campus, as now required by state law. But leaders in one North Texas district say they’ve found a model that works.
In the wake of last year’s massacre in Uvalde, Burleson Independent School District hired retired police officers to serve as school safety officers at its 10 elementary campuses. A year into that program, district officials say those officers have become a key part of the district’s security strategy, as well as important figures in their campus communities.
School safety officers exist somewhere between school resource officers and private security guards. They aren’t active police officers, so they don’t do police work the way a resource officer would.
But unlike private security guards, they carry police radios, so they don’t have to call 911 in an emergency. That means they can get a quicker response if there’s an active shooter on campus or other urgent situations like a parent needing medical attention in the parking lot.
Uvalde shooting left Burleson looking for security options
Like many districts, Burleson ISD has had school resource officers on its middle and high school campuses for years. But the district didn’t have anyone providing security at its elementary schools.
After a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde in May 2022, district leaders began looking for security options at elementary schools. The district consulted with Burleson Police Chief Billy Cordell and others before deciding to hire retired law enforcement officers. That option allowed the district to place highly trained officers at each campus rather than private security guards, said Steve Logan, the district’s chief operations officer.
In August 2022, the district hired Curt Brannan, a 30-year veteran of the Fort Worth Police Department, to serve as the district’s lead school safety officer. Brannan had worked as a homicide detective and was involved in several high profile investigations, including shootings at Wedgewood Baptist Church in 1999 and the Glass Key Cafe in 1990, and a shooting at the Tarrant County Courthouse in 1992.
Brannan’s first job was working with the district to hire the rest of the team. The district hired its second officer, retired Fort Worth police officer Richard Morris, that September. The following month, the school board voted to hire eight more school safety officers, all of them retired from North Texas police departments, allowing the district to place an officer at each of its elementary schools.
In an email, Logan said the program has exceeded expectations. The district had an “unbelievable” number of qualified applicants, he said, and the 10 school safety officers the district hired have done a good job of integrating themselves into their schools.
“Our SSOs quickly developed strong working relationships with the campus staff, students, and families at each campus,” he said. “The community has been so supportive, welcoming and thankful to have the SSOs protecting our staff and students.
With an enrollment of about 12,000 students, Burleson ISD is a fraction of the size of larger neighbors like the Fort Worth and Arlington school districts, so it has fewer buildings it needs to secure. Still, Logan said, the school safety officer model is one that any district could consider if struggling to find security personnel to meet state requirements.
Texas lawmakers required armed officers, but didn’t cover cost
This year, Texas lawmakers passed House Bill 3, which requires school districts to place at least one armed officer at every campus during regular school hours. Those officers could be members of a district’s own police department, school resource officers or off-duty officers working as private security.
The law, which was passed in response to the Uvalde shooting, included a deadline of Sept. 1 for districts to have officers in place. But it only provided enough extra funding to cover a fraction of the expense of hiring new officers, leaving districts to pick up the rest.
For many school districts, that cost is substantial. In Fort Worth ISD, officials will have to hire 77 additional officers to comply with the law, at a total cost of about $8.3 million. The district expects to receive only about $2.7 million in additional state funding to pay for those officers
To complicate matters, many cities across the country, including Fort Worth, are dealing with a critical shortage of police officers. Fort Worth has about 140 vacant officer positions, and that shortage could get worse over the next few years as many of the city’s current officers retire. During a Fort Worth City Council budget workshop last month, Dianna Giordano, the director of human resources, said that about 22% of the department’s current officers will be eligible to retire by 2026.
School districts that can’t comply with the law, either because they can’t afford to do so or they can’t find enough qualified personnel, were allowed to request a waiver, giving their school boards time to come up with another plan, such as hiring trained school marshals or designating faculty or staff who have gone through school safety training to carry handguns.
Several North Texas districts have requested exemptions to the requirement. In Fort Worth ISD, officials don’t expect to be able to meet the one-officer-per-school threshold before the end of the school year. Officials say they plan to find ways to make better use of the officers they already have, including assigning one officer to cover two nearby campuses and reassigning a few from high schools that had two officers to elementary schools that had none.
In Northwest ISD, the school board approved a plan to contract with five private security firms to place guards at campuses that didn’t have a school resource officer. In Dallas ISD, officials plan to increase police patrols around elementary schools and try to recruit more officers for the district’s police force.
High fives, hugs as school safety officers greet students
Brannan, the lead school safety officer in Burleson, said he started the job by talking with teachers about what he does and doesn’t do as a school safety officer.
He’s no longer an active police officer, so he doesn’t do law enforcement. His entire role is keeping schools secure — “making sure that we keep the wolf away from the door, so to speak,” he said.
Officers typically arrive at school before students show up for the day, Brannan said. They generally start with a walk around the campus to make sure everything is secure, he said. They check exterior doors and gates and look for anything suspicious, like someone sitting in the parking lot for no obvious reason, he said.
As students start to arrive, officers are in front of the school, greeting kids and parents, he said. Throughout the day, officers keep an eye on anyone who drives through the parking lot, gets in or out of a vehicle or comes to the front door of the school, he said.
Because all the officers have spent decades in law enforcement, they know how to recognize a potential threat, he said. While a parent walking into a school with a student isn’t cause for concern, an adult walking in alone with a backpack might prompt a few questions, he said.
Officers also walk through buildings throughout the day, making sure doors are secured, he said. They make regular patrols outside of buildings, checking for any doors that are standing open, he said.
The work Brannan and the other safety officers do in Burleson ISD is a big change from what he did as a detective, he said. Homicide detectives work with families of victims, identify suspects and, ideally, make arrests. School safety officers focus on building relationships with students, parents and teachers, he said, which takes time.
It seemed like an especially slow process last year, in part because officers did their best to stay out of teachers’ way, he said. But going into the second year, students and teachers have gotten to know him better, he said.
“I get a lot of high fives and a lot of hugs around the kneecaps,” he said.
A year into the program, Brannan said the rest of his officers seem to be making inroads at their campuses as well. All 10 of the officers returned for a second year. Over the summer, he asked if any of them would prefer to switch to another campus. The answer from each of them was an emphatic no, he said.
Brannan said he thinks the program is a good solution to the question of how to keep elementary schools safe. Although his officers are retired after many years of service in law enforcement, they’re still capable people, he said, and they understand the importance of their role. If the school safety officer program didn’t exist, most would have been willing to do the job on a volunteer basis, he said.
“This is something that has been needed in our elementary schools,” Brannan said. “These are our most vulnerable treasures, these elementary kids.”