Joslin Elementary School Principal ChaoLin Chang walked along the edge of the campus on Menchaca Road in South Austin, pointing to where a 6-foot-tall fence is going to be installed.
“This is our existing fence. The new fence will pretty much [be] similar to this, so there’s continuity there,” he said as cars zipped by the campus.
Joslin Elementary is one of about 70 Austin ISD campuses getting new perimeter fences as part of the $2.4 billion school bond package voters approved in November. The bond includes roughly $147 million to improve school safety and $5 million of that is for fence upgrades. Michael Mann, AISD’s director of construction management, said security was a top concern when deciding what to include in the 2022 bond.
“It’s something we hear about every day, and it’s our top priority to keep our students and our staff safe,” he said.
Mann said the cost of installing new fences varies by campus. At Joslin, for example, it will cost approximately $250,000.
“We do a tour of the campus with the principal, talk about what the needs are and determine exactly how we need to secure each property because each one is unique,” he said. “We look at what the needs are and make sure that we’ve secured everything and still allow the access that the campus needs.”
It’s important to Chang that the campus remains a welcoming place, even with the new fence.
“We don’t want to make it look … unwelcoming, while we are providing a safety layer for our students and communities here,” he said.
Mann said that’s the balance Austin ISD officials are trying to strike.
“We look for that combination of what’s secure and what is still welcoming,” he said.
But Mandi Richey, a parent at Joslin Elementary, said she’s concerned the fence will make the school feel a little bit like a fortress.
“Sadly, I think that’s where we are as a culture, when you have people taking lives of small children the culture is going to react and try to protect the rest of the ones that are left,” she said, describing herself as ambivalent about the project. “So, if this helps the campus and the community here at Joslin to feel safe, great, I’m not going to get in the way of that.”
A growing number of state laws require Texas school districts to increase the physical safety of their buildings in response to school shootings. Mann said Austin ISD seeks to exceed state standards.
“We are designing everything to those standards and higher,” he said. “We have additional standards that we are implementing to keep the students and the staff safe in our district.”
In 2019, a little over a year after a gunman killed 10 people and injured 13 others at Santa Fe High School, Gov. Greg Abbott signed legislation to increase access to mental health services and help schools harden campuses.
“[Senate Bill 11] improves the quality of the safety and security audits that schools must submit to the school safety center,” he said, while flanked by fellow Republican lawmakers at a signing ceremony. “It establishes threat assessment teams in each school. It establishes higher standards for school facilities.”
This year, the Texas Legislature approved more school-hardening measures following the shooting last year in Uvalde, where a gunman killed two teachers and 19 children at Robb Elementary. House Bill 3 requires at least one armed officer at every school and gives districts $15,000 per campus to improve security — a sum many districts have said will not cover the total expense of complying with the law.
Texas is not the only state focused on hardening campuses, said Chris Curran, directorof the Education Policy Research Center at the University of Florida.
“We really are seeing school hardening become something that is common and is happening in almost all schools, at least to some extent, across the country,” he said.
Not only are new schools being built differently, Curran said, but older buildings are being retrofitted to improve security. There is an argument to be made that multiple layers of security will reduce the risk of something happening on campus, he said.
“At the same time, though,” he said, “the research literature suggests that in many cases if an act of violence is going to occur or someone wants to commit an act of violence in a school environment, they’re going to find ways through many of these security measures.”
Curran said one of the most promising ways to increase school safety does not have to do with physical security measures at all; it has to do with improving a school’s social climate.
“We know from the research that there’s a lot of evidence that relationships between teachers and other school personnel and students, as well as positive relationships between peers, really contribute to the overall school climate and environment that help build community and a sense of belonging that can help reduce violence,” he said.
Curran said approaches to school safety should be multifaceted and combine reasonable security measures with investments in support for students’ social and emotional well-being.
For Richey, who has a child going into fourth grade at Joslin, it is not the infrastructure of the building that ultimately gives her peace of mind; it’s the school staff.
“It’s just that I know Mr. Chang would do anything to keep these kids safe,” she said. “The teachers would do anything to keep the kids safe. The front desk staff, the cafeteria staff, the custodial staff, the counseling — like they all have the safety and the wellness, emotional, mental, physical of the children in mind.”
Mann said Austin ISD expects to begin installing the fence at Joslin Elementary this month. The district anticipates all the bond projects will be complete by 2028.
“The thing to remember is that by the end of this bond, all of our campuses will have secure perimeter fencing, and the window film up to our security standards and a secure entry vestibule,” he said.
Richey said her daughter is ready for classes to begin Aug. 14.
“She said this summer: ‘I wish school would start again. I miss my friends,’” Richey said.