COMAL COUNTY, TX – With security as a priority, the Comal district is building what could be the model for the school of the future.
Student safety has been top of mind since the tragedy in Connecticut, but there’s a fine line: an elementary school can’t feel like a jail.
It has to be a fortress where kids are safe but still have the freedom to just be kids.
A Cowboy sculpture mounted to a column welcomes visitors to Kinder Ranch Elementary. His tip of the hat is nodding you inside a world of adventure.
"We want them to be friendly places,” district assistant superintendent Kari Hutchison says.
He’s friendly, but look closely: you’ll notice he’s wearing spurs.
"When they walk into that door and they come in our building, we want to know who they are,” Hutchison says.
She says the school of the future must preserve the cowboy’s balance.
"We've had a lot of parents come forward and visit with our principals – and our teachers, in some cases – and ask, ‘What are you doing on this campus?’" Hutchison says.
Kinder Ranch opened just two years ago and like most schools these days, if you don’t have a school ID, most doors are locked.
Only the front door is open to visitors, making the front office the first line of defense if someone wants to harm students.
"It's something – I hate to say this, we're getting used to,” district director of maintenance and operations David Springer says. "I was an elementary school teacher. I was an elementary school assistant principal."
He’s using those years in the classroom as building blocks for Comal’s school of the future, already under construction by Canyon Lake.
"This is the existing way it was supposed to be,” Springer says while showing News 4 the blueprints.
The new school’s layout was very similar to Kinder Ranch’s until the Newtown school shooting.
"Now we are going to glass in the foyer,” Springer says.
The change is small enough the kids won’t notice, but big enough to keep school shooters out.
"Let's just say something bad did happen,” Springer says. “They would come through the foyer and they wouldn't get in. We would hit the panic button which would dial 911."
And then immediately, two steel curtains would come down and seal off the school, just like the gates that protect stores at malls.
"It wouldn't stop everybody from coming in but it would delay them,” Springer says. “And that's the whole key: delay the bad guys from coming in."
It’s a simple solution for a school that hasn’t opened its doors, but what about older schools? How do you engineer – how do you pay for – those retrofits?
"How do you not?” Springer says. “How do you not?"
Comal ISD covers nearly 600 square miles. That’s 27 campuses patrolled by five Sheriff’s offices and about a dozen police departments. And soon, they’ll have one pair of eyes.
"These are all live feeds,” Springer says while pointing to an iPad.
The iPad app will give first responders access to a network of cameras watching over cafeterias, offices and parking lots.
"They'll pull up in their squad car and they'll be able to see anything that's going on inside our schools before they get here,” Springer says.
The cameras aren’t inside elementary schools yet, but there are heroes in the hallways, like Rafael Barajas.
"I'm a Watchdog,” he says.
That’s what the volunteers call themselves: Watchdogs, watching over kids as they move from class to class.
"We are there to make the kids feel comfortable,” Barajas says.
It’s a security measure that doesn’t cost a thing.
"Not security or policeman. We're not that type of security,” Barajas says. “We're almost like a home feeling."
Because the district believes on the day of a threat, it’s too late – those relationships have to be formed now to blend the high-tech and human touch into a cowboy that can protect the school of the future.
"Times change,” Hutchison says. “People and society need to work together through all of these changes."
She says the district hasn’t put a dollar amount yet on all the security precautions but so far, there haven’t been any changes made that would compromise things like new books.
Still, school boards around the area face big budget decisions and may ask for bond elections as they try to make school safer.