July 8, 2019

The Right Solutions for the Right Strategy

By Ally Jones

Based on the article by Joe McKenna, “From Theory to Practice: Improving Student Safety and Security.” Read the full article on Upshot

Joe McKenna became the Director of Safety and Security at the Comal Independent School District in August of 2018 after receiving an undergraduate and Masters degree as well as PhD in criminal justice. He worked as a researcher and associate director at the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University where he was able to assist administrators, trainers, and legislators “to create safer schools and healthier learning environments.”

Comal ISD is a diverse and quickly growing district that sits between Austin and San Antonio with enrollment increasing by 900 to 1,000 students annually. The district is spread out with 3 high schools of choice, 7 middle schools, and 18 elementary schools allowing for the possibility of a 40 to 50 minute drive from Joe’s office to a school.

Finding the Right Balance

Joe McKenna emphasizes that while an overall safety strategy is essential, it is equally essential to be able to implement the strategy to specific conditions. “School safety is a combination of strategy and implementation. It is not simply the adoption of a set of procedures or a software platform. Seeing the big picture is a matter of bringing everyone to the table and putting together all the pieces in terms of how we would actually execute the strategy.

We need to look at our facilities. We need to work with our counselors and support staff to address mental health issues. We need to collaborate with law enforcement and emergency responders, and we need to train our administrators on how to run drills and implement safety and security protocols.”

Old Made New

When Joe McKenna got to the district, they were already implementing technology into their safety and security operations in the form of Google docs, online file sharing services, and internal servers. However, Texas law required over 500 emergency drills across the campus annually, each one requiring detailed statistics for further analysis. And while the district’s current data collection through Google Docs allowed the district to sort data by date, it did not provide the quality of data that McKenna needed in order to better secure his schools.

A unique challenge that Comal ISD faces is that it is spread across 5 counties which means about 20 emergency response agencies are a part of the district between fire, EMS, and police. “Getting the right information to the right people as needed requires a lot of coordination. Thom showed us that Emergency Management softwared could fill in the gaps in our safety and security protocols. He didn’t promise to do the work for us. Instead, he offered a solution that could improve the way we handled everything.”

For McKenna, the software provides a better mechanism for reporting and resolving issues that they experienced during drills. It also improves student accountability with up-to-date student lists through daily syncs with the student information system. Additionally, it allows for improvement in data collection. He noted, “The software streamlines and standardizes the data entry and retrieval process. Principals can enter information about the duration of a drill, the number of students and teachers involved, the participation of law enforcement and emergency response personnel, and any other relevant factors.

The entire district now uses the same standardized forms to submit their results. I can then go into the back-end, run some simple reports, and start to get a better view of everything that’s going on. I can analyze trends and see what we’re doing right, and what needs improvement. I can break down the information according to location, type of school, and the size of the student population.”

One of Joe McKenna’s goals is to make the district as revered for school safety as it has been for academic standards, athletics, and fine arts, and it is clear that his hard work and expertise is helping do just that.

How do you deal with the unique safety challenges that your district faces be it due to size, location, budget, etc.?

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Our district is small but spread out geographically. We coordinate drills with our first responders to do all drills on the same day so they can schedule staffing to meet the drill needs. We apply for grants and other funding to help offset the large costs of upgrading our safety programs and facilities. We offer remote access to administrators to see cameras from anywhere they are in case of emergency or alarms. We have quarterly meetings with our community members as well to help improve our programs.

Chad Leggett

By no means do we have the size dilemma that Joe has, our farthest trip is 10 minutes (with traffic). Our biggest problem is dealing with schools built a long time ago that do not have the entrance setup desired by staff and parents. Most of the new school have the office right up front with glass vestibules and entrance buzzers and cameras. We have installed cameras and other systems, but some of the school stiff have the office located in the middle of the building. Plans have been made and construction is being done over the summer to fixed… Read more »

I believe school safety really starts with building relationships with kids. This “hands on” approach seems to make a difference with how our students feel at school and inevitably helps with school safety. We do have some unique challenges, but we hit those issues head on. We have great programming in place like Navigate, Capturing Kids Hearts, APL, and many others. These programs are not free, but the investment is minimal if it is truly good for our students.

I look to our local emergency responders for input and advice. I think it is important for us to include them since they will hopefully be the ones rescuing us!


We work closely with our police department and even employ them off duty as SRO’s. We work together to develop and maintain our security protocols. Our overall safety procedures are more complex and require input from multiple sources

We are pretty lucky to have first responders nearby (and a school resource officer at our high school), as well as highly qualified and trained staff members. We also have a very small radius in which our 4 school buildings are located.

Steven Zentz

We are behind the times, so all I really have are issues, not successes. We have a change of administration to an interim superintendent just trying to keep the ship afloat. A strong teachers union who doesn’t see this as a solution to safety, and fights the implementation at every corner. Technology issues with the use of the program and people not having smart phones or connectivity issues. I’m in a small town, but we have six building to control. Multiply that by 8 fire drills minimum per building and 4 lockdown drills per building minimum and having never done… Read more »

Shannon Myers

Often times we practice drills during convenient times. We need to start being real about running through drills spontaneously. Doing this allows us to truly see how we respond and what we would do in those scenarios. It’s inconvenient and time consuming, but crucial.


Our district has recently renovated our building to provide a safer entrance.

Tyarra Toomey

Navigate is a great tool because we have such a large building and reunification takes a long time. The app allows teachers to respond more immediately and emergency responders can more quickly respond to a situation if necessary.

Julie Hermes

Our building recently renovated with safety in mind.


We just redid the front entrance of our building to make it safer. A lot of planning, Money, and time went into it. It disrupted our day to day activities for several months but it’s making the school safer.

Having the navigate app is the best solution we have come up with due to the large district I serve. It helps connect teachers no matter what school you are at. This is definitely a step in the right direction.

Jason Greathouse

Our district isn’t too large as we only have 1 high school, 1 middle school, and 2 elementary’s. We have district level safety meetings where we get our city and township folks involved so that we are all on the same page. This school year we also did a full fledged active shooter drill (students were not present) with all of our staff in the district, coordinated with all the first respondents from our city and township as well as our county. This was a very eye-opening experience for all persons involved. We are planning another active next year to… Read more »