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El Paso schools prepare against mass violence while managing fear of school community

EL PASO, Texas -- Schools across the country are grappling with how to prepare students for an emergency in an era of mass shootings. 

The Pew Research Center found 57 percent of teens told researchers they worry about a shooting happening at school. The survey shows parents felt even more apprehensive. 

“With what happened recently at Walmart, it has us all scared,” Coronado High School student Karen Nevarez said. 

“It’s scary,” said Francisco Chavira, who is a parent of a student at an El Paso Independent School District. “It’s something you try to keep in the back of your head every day.” 

For schools, the responsibility to be prepared against active shooters is high. However, some researchers suggest there could be unforeseen psychological consequences to safety trainings. 

EPISD says it is committed to being prepared, while also balancing the mental health issues that may arise. Manuel Chavira, the Interim Chief of Police Services, says each of the district’s campuses follows and builds upon an emergency plan from the state. 

“We’re being out there. We’re being visible,” Chavira said. “We’re asking everyone to be alert and situationally aware.”

The district says it also relies on the community to acts as a watchdog. 

“Without the help of the community, seeing something, say something. Assist us,” he said. “You can have hundreds and hundreds of officers, but there will also be that one little gap.” 

Following a shooting at Santa Fe High School in 2018, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed several bills into law this year he says will enhance school safety. 

One of them is Senate Bill 11, which expands access to mental health. It devotes resources to identifying troubled students - and requires districts to establish threat assessment teams.

“We have threat assessment teams in “manual mode” so to speak in which campus admin and counselors will use email to refer cases to Counseling & Advising or to Student & Parent services or to CPS or on to Police Services,” said Gustavo Reveles Acosta, the Director of Communication Engagement at EPISD, in a statement. 

Senate bill 11 also requires schools to integrate quote "trauma-informed practices,” which Chavira says means following through with anyone who has expressed a desire to seek counseling or following up on anyone who has behaved in a way that would require counseling. 

EPISD says they adapt the language of drills for different ages. While middle and high school students may learn a drill is in response to an active shooter, little children do not. 

“When we conduct the same drill at an elementary school, we say this has been our response to a stranger danger event,” Chavira said. 

Statewide strategies include using a “rabbit yoga pose” to teach younger students to hide from an active shooter, and teaching children about first responders from cartoon drawings like these. 

Chavira says parents have a role to play in this too. 

“We want the parents to be participative at home,” he said. “in the lockdown drills, so they can talk it over with their children and have closure to the event.”

Some students say the drills are worth it. 

“Thinking that it could be a possibility is really scary,” Nevarez said. “I think we are prepared for an emergency but we don't know how we would react in case of a real one.” 

As unnerving as they may be, for some, being prepared may help them face their fears. 

EPISD says that any student who needs mental health resources can go to their campus counselor or seek outside services like emergence healthcare network. 

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Madeline Ottilie

Madeline Ottilie is a reporter on Good Morning El Paso and co-anchors ABC-7 at noon.

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