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Following the Parkland Shooting, Are Our Children Safe in Dallas Schools?

After a concerned call from a teacher, I had a conversation with DISD Police Chief Craig Miller.

Craig Miller became the DISD police chief more than six years ago, after 30 years with the Dallas Police Department. I worked with him when he was still with DPD and I was still with the City Attorney’s Office. When I received a call from a DISD teacher concerned about safety measures in her secondary school following the tragic shooting in Parkland, Florida, I checked in with him to find out how the DISD Police Department is responding. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

I don’t know much about the DISD Police Department. How does it work? We’re the second largest school district police department in Texas. If you had 1,100 police chiefs in Texas, roughly 180 of those are going to be school district police departments. In the state of Texas, 90 percent of all police agencies have less than 30 people on the department. We’re up around 200 people in our department. If you put things in perspective, not just compared to school police departments, we’re in the top 5 percent of the largest police agencies in the state.

Who does your department report to? I think, for me, one of the things that’s important to the school district is that our police department actually works for the superintendent of schools. When you’re an SRO [School Resource Officer] for a municipal police department, you’re actually still working for your police department. If you’re in Richardson, Plano, Garland, Mesquite—they have SROs that work in schools, but those SROs are still assigned as employees to their police departments. Me and the guys that work for me are actually employees of Dallas ISD. I think for that reason, we have a responsibility to work with the campuses and the administrators because we’re all on the same team.

How do individual schools develop safety plans? I think when things like Florida happen, I think all of us feel the sorrow for the people experiencing the problem. Then we realize how important it is that we have a plan and we know what we’re going to do in the event something should happen. The emergency management function for the school district falls under the police department. We’re responsible for the safety plans that the campuses get, the Campus Emergency Operations Plan or CEOP. We work with them in the fall. In doing that, there’s a part that deals with active shooters, and the expectation is that every school in the district, in the first two weeks of school, will do an active shooter lockdown situation. We kind of start the school year off with that because we have a lot of principals that change here. Each new school year brings about new challenges for each of the campuses. Emergency management folks work with them on their plans.

DISD Police Chief Craig Miller, via Twitter

Are the drills only done once a year? In the fall, the state of Texas requires that you do one type of drill. Dallas ISD does two drills. One is a lockdown drill, and then another type of drill. That doesn’t include a fire drills, which they do all the time. Then in the springtime we do, once again, two more drills. Those include the weather, shelter in place drills for the storms that come through Texas. I feel like we’re prepared that way. I just think anytime something like this happens, it’s a shock. There’s always outrage. How could this happen? I think it’s just a reminder to us of how important our function is here.

What do you think that DISD is getting right in terms of student safety? I think physical security is really important. I think two years from now, there’ll be a question when the civil lawsuits come out in the case in Florida about how did this person get onto the campus and get into the school to pull their alarm and then get back out? With many doors on our schools, I think it’s really important that we harden our facilities. Since most of our resources are placed at the secondary campuses, the middle schools and the high schools, I think it’s really important that we provide the elementary schools with things to make their lives easier. That really came about after Sandy Hook happened, and we were given $2 million. With that $2 million we were able to do some real enhancements in physical security. When you go up to the school, you’re greeted by a buzzer that has a camera. You talk to the buzzer. Then we made sure the portables all have the doors that have the peephole in them where a teacher can actually be 7 feet away from the door and see who’s knocking on their door. Previously, they didn’t know who was knocking.

Card access is something that we’ve really rolled out following Sandy Hook, and then we have crazy cool, intricate camera systems in our secondary schools and middle schools and high schools. We didn’t, at that time, have so much camera coverage in any of the elementary schools. Today, we have camera systems in all the schools in the district. I really think that’s something DISD is really getting right.

I heard from one DISD teacher who said she was concerned that her school has a secure front door, but there were a number of side access doors that were never locked. On several occasions, she had discovered former students and other individuals roaming the halls without authorization. She felt that her administrators weren’t taking the issue seriously. If teachers are seeing a failure in security on campus, how is that best handled? I think that the mantra going across the country right now is “See something, say something.” I personally take it another level and I say, “See something, say something, do something.” If you’re a teacher and you are aware that other teachers are leaving doors open, or there’s access points where an intruder could come in and violate your safety, it’s your responsibility to report that to your campus administrator and have them work with our emergency management folks. If you are at a school that’s a secondary school and you have a police officer or security on that campus, you can actually reach out to the police officer who’s on campus and say, “Hey, I’m noticing this, what do you think?” I think a lot of the times, if you really get into that “do something” part of the phrase—don’t sit there if you know there’s a problem. We can’t fix it unless you let us know.

Part of the problem with the shooting in Parkland appears to be the fact that the local police department, and even the FBI, had received prior complaints about the shooter, but that information was not followed up on or communicated to the school. Do you feel that you have a good line of communication with DPD and federal authorities? I tell you what I feel comfortable with, Kathy, is the fact that with 158,000 kids—and I have no idea if 100,000 of them are on social media or what the number is—it’s impossible for us to monitor every kid’s social media site. I think that gets back once again to that “See something, say something, do something.” When it’s brought to our attention that a student has made a threat, similar to what happened in Florida, I do believe that we do a very good job of vetting those complaints, those concerns. It’s an ongoing thing, where one parent will have heard from another parent who heard it from a parent that a child said they were going to do this. It’s incumbent upon us to be able to review those things. You and I, being from the city, have a great relationship with DPD. And the ability to reach out to the North Central Texas Fusion Center, gives us an asset being here in a large city, that a lot of places may not have. If we think there’s a threat, if we determine that there’s a level of credibility and it indeed rises to that level, we have the ability to reach out to the Fusion Center, which is an incredible intelligence source and can help us out. I feel real comfortable that when threats are brought to our attention, that we act on those threats and do everything we can to vet them and to ensure whether or not they’re legitimate.

The teacher I talked with was also concerned that metal detectors weren’t being used appropriately at her school, and that while students walked through them, their bags weren’t being searched. Do you think they are an effective tool? I think that metal detectors are something that there’s a lot of debate about. The Houston ISD’s larger than us, and they don’t use metal detectors. They use wands. I think that’s one of the things, moving forward, is doing random spot checks with wands, might be more effective. Our district’s stand is still to use metal detectors in the secondary schools and that’s what we do. Are they successful or not? I know that we don’t get weapons as they come through metal detectors. I know that we had a situation a couple years ago, a student did come through a metal detector and inadvertently shot himself in the leg. That tells me right there that they can get on the campuses. That’s the way it is. I think that it’s just incumbent upon us to stay vigilant, and when a kid says they think there’s another student with a gun, or when anything comes to our attention that we think there might be a gun, that we investigate each of those. I think that’s the beauty of us.

What’s your approach to potentially violent students? I can tell you something that the DISD is doing, I think, that’s really out of the box. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the term “restorative justice“? In our situation, a lot of times, a student, possibly like the one in Florida, might have been intercepted after having 36 calls to the police. Having his own history, he might have been interjected here into a restorative justice type of program. In doing that, he would have been surrounded in this circle, and had a chance to really vent and say the things that were going on, or the concerns, or thoughts that he had. In our scenario, a Dallas ISD police officer would have been a part of that restorative team. I think that’s trying to foster kids to come forward and tell campus officers. If you’re aware of something, let your campus officer know. I don’t know if they were doing this in Florida, and I don’t pretend to, but I know that in our district we’re moving forward with that restorative justice program.

How has DISD historically handled it when kids have brought weapons into schools? Our goal as police officers in schools is not to criminalize children. I always want to work with a kid. If it’s just a failed threat, and they don’t actually have a weapon, that doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t arrest them, but I think it’s our intent to try and find out what the problem is. A couple years ago, we had the clown threats and we had a lot of stuff going on. We had kids that weren’t in school and people were concerned, and we handled that in the appropriate way. I do think that we investigate those crimes that we feel are appropriate to be investigated. And if they need to be criminalized in our school district police department, I’ve got the exact same arrest capabilities I have right now as a DISD police officer as I did when I was a Dallas police officer—no more, no less. Being school employees, our goal is to try and work with these kids and not give them a criminal record, but if someone does something that warrants being interjected into the criminal system, we’ll certainly do that.

I read a Dallas Morning News interview with you, I think it was several years ago, where you were talking about the training that the officers go through for school shootings. You mentioned that, down the road, you wanted to see teachers receive active shooting training, but at the time I think it wasn’t an option or wasn’t a priority. Is that something that’s happening now? Well, I don’t think it’s not a priority. I just think that we’ve still not really evolved to where we have teachers engaged in that. I think a part of that problem is the fact that schoolteachers are what I refer to as 187-day employees. They’re off in the summer, and they’re off on the breaks. When the teachers are off in the summer and off on the breaks is when our police officers really have an opportunity to train them. We’ve not been able to marry up those two to where we can get teachers involved in our active shooter training. They get introduced to active shooters and what to do through the Campus Emergency Operation Plans.

When school shootings like the one in Parkland happen, does it prompt any sort of internal analysis? Unfortunately, in our world, to be honest with you, Kathy, major events are what prompts major change. Look what happened after Columbine. Police officers learned, as a result of Columbine, that we really don’t have the opportunity to wait for backup in some instances. Even with lesser resources, we’re going to have to handle that. Then you look at what happened in Virginia Tech, and the Clery Act that was basically introduced about that time, and how it’s enhanced today where you can notify 50,000 students at the University of Texas that there’s a problem. Then Sandy Hook prompted the changes that we made to physical security. One of the very first things we did that didn’t cost very much money at all was to put that peepholes in the doors of 1,500 portables. It’s as big as a silver dollar on the inside, and it looks like a peephole on the outside. And then we put the cameras in all of the elementary schools. We started card access, and we put what I call the buzzer intercom systems, some people refer to it as the 8-ball system, at the front of the school where you push the button and then you talk and you’re on a camera. We did all of those. Look at what’s taken place with Dallas PD following the shooting there—the officers getting millions of dollars to get Kevlar helmets, to get Kevlar vests. Sensational events prompt sensational things.

The DISD “See Something, Say Something” campaign does not currently have a dedicated hotline, but parents, teachers, and students can make anonymous reports online at North Texas Crime Stoppers or by calling the Crime Stoppers hotline at 1-877-373-TIPS. They can also contact their school administrators, their on-campus DISD police officer, or the DISD Office of Emergency Management directly.


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