Violent threats in schools have increased in Galveston County since 10 people were killed in a shooting at Santa Fe High School last May, officials said.
Media attention on school violence and increased sensitivity to what constitutes a threat has helped lead to a jump in the number of threats that get referred to the Galveston County District Attorney’s Office, First Assistant District Attorney Kevin Petroff said.
“Absolutely yes, we have seen an increase,” he said. “Everyone is a little more on edge after Santa Fe.”
The district attorney’s office has charged 84 juvenile cases for exhibiting or threatening to exhibit a firearm on school campus, unlawfully carrying a weapon in a prohibited place, false alarm or report and terroristic threat, Petroff said. Twenty-eight of those cases were filed after Aug. 1, 2018 — the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year.
The increase has led to the district attorney’s office handling threat cases in a different way than before the shooting at Santa Fe. Before May 18, a threat that didn’t rise to the level of a felony — if a student threatened another student, for instance, as opposed to threatened the entire school — didn’t go through the district attorney’s intake process, which it reserves for felony cases, Petroff said. Now all cases get looked at, no matter how small.
“Since Santa Fe, we’re erring on the side of charging where we have probable cause,” he said. “We’re asking that school officials contact us directly about any threat, whether we reject or accept charges. Our office is handling cases more sensitively now.”
Because the district attorney’s office has requested school officials contact them about any threat, Petroff said sometimes he gets questions about incidents that don’t rise to the level of a criminal act. When an 11-year-old girl said that her pencils were bombs after another student took one from her didn’t lead to criminal charges, for example.
“Sometimes they rise to a level where we can charge and sometimes they don’t,” he said. “The call we got about the girl who said her pencils were bombs, obviously that didn’t rise to the level of a charge. But it shows you to what extent the schools are documenting potential threats.”
According to Texas Appleseed, a Texas nonprofit that analyzes data related to criminal justice, the increase has been seen statewide, too. The Texas Juvenile Justice Department saw a 156 percent increase in referrals for students making terroristic threats, and a 600 percent increase in referrals for the exhibition or threat of exhibiting firearms during the first five months of 2018, compared to the first five months in 2016 and 2017, a 2018 report found.
The increase has led to school officials employing new methods to prevent threats as well. Texas City school district, for example, has created six-person threat assessment teams that are assigned to each of the district’s 14 schools that are responsible for responding to reports of threats that get sent to them via an anonymous threat-reporting phone app called P3 Campus.
The app, which bills itself as an anonymous reporting solution that’s used by more than 11,000 schools across the country, according to the P3 Campus website, allows the district’s security officials to receive reports of anything happening in the district, sent by anyone.
Depending on what campus the report comes from, a school’s threat assessment team will make contact with the parties involved with the report and determine how to proceed, Executive Director of Security and School Safety Mike Matranga said.
“Whoever’s reporting can choose which campus the activity is happening at and then it goes immediately to the threat assessment team that is assigned to that school, and also me and other administrators,” said Matranga, noting that he had received two threat reports on Friday alone.
“We have to equip our staff with knowledge and skills to recognize these things. By doing that, it allows them to have a better feel for the students and the climate in which they’re working in.”
When Pam Butler wants to buy groceries, she has to walk about a mile to Dollar General.
There’s no produce or meat, but the canned goods, milk and eggs the store carries will get her by until one of her children can take her to Walmart in La Marque or Kroger in another nearby city. For people like Butler, 58, who are without a vehicle and live in Hitchcock, there’s really no other option, she said.
“Every day, you see people from my neighborhood walking down the street to the dollar store, or to one of the convenience stores to buy little items,” she said. “Not having transportation — it ain’t easy. We really need a grocery store.”
Hitchcock’s only grocery store, Baywood Foods, closed in September 2014 and a new one never opened to replace it, creating a so-called food desert, an area where substantial numbers of low-income residents have little access to grocery stores or other retail outlets for healthy, affordable food.
But if a new plan — the winner of an American Planning Association conference held in Galveston in October — that addresses how the city can tackle its food desert problem takes off, then Hitchcock could become a different place.
The proposal, titled “Dealing with Food Insecurity and Preserving City Beautification,” looks at several different ways Hitchcock, a city with fewer than 8,000 people, could make it easier for residents like Butler to obtain groceries.
Community gardens, a local farmer’s market, a central place for people to receive fresh food donations from local charities and, of course, a new grocery store, would solve the food insecurity problems the city faces.
“All people have in Hitchcock is a Jack in the Box and a Subway, pretty much,” said Andret Rayford, the Texas Southern University urban planning student who co-authored the proposal with Stephania Alvarez and Jason Moreno. “Other than that, there are a couple little convenience stores that have sodas and chips and condiments. But besides not having much nutrition value, we found that that can be too expensive for an elderly person on fixed income or a young person without a job.”
The students’ proposal is the product of a $30,000 partnership Hitchcock’s Economic Development Corp. made earlier this year with Texas Target Communities, a Texas A&M University service program through the college of architecture that works along local governments to create sustainable communities.
Participating universities worked with Hitchcock city officials and stakeholders to develop a strategic plan for hurricane resilience, recovery, emergency management and zoning, according to the group’s website, as well as on community beautification, workforce development, drainage, strategic infrastructure, community outreach and communications and planning and zoning.
Whether or not the Texas Southern University plan catches on is up to how Hitchcock officials choose to use it, Rayford said. While some aspects of the proposal might take longer to put in place — a beer garden where people in the community can meet up and relax, for example — there’s nothing standing in the way of turning part of Stringfellow Orchards, a private event space on state Highway 6, into a community garden where people can pick up vegetables and other food, Rayford said.
“This kind of thinking is what Hitchcock needs,” said Sam Collins III, the Hitchcock resident who owns Stringfellow Orchards and weighed in as a source on the Texas Southern University students’ plan. “People here need a grocery store and other food options to survive and be healthy.”
Hitchcock officials weren’t available for comment about whether or not they were planning to turn the proposal into a reality in the city, but judging by their involvement in the Texas Southern University proposal, Rayford said she could see some elements of what the students came up with getting put in place quickly.
“The city was very receptive to what we came up with,” she said. “It’s pretty obvious that people who live in Hitchcock need a way to have healthy food.”
Galveston County agencies last week came together in Texas City to sign a memorandum of understanding, committing for the first time to work together against human trafficking.
“It’s so important to make sure all sectors of the community are on the same page and working together to make a dent in this issue,” said Christie Shumate, executive director of the Texas Gulf Coast Coalition Against Human Trafficking, the group that spearheaded the effort.
Galveston County District Attorney Jack Roady, who serves on the coalition’s board of directors, said his office has been involved with the coalition from the beginning when it held an awareness event in 2015 to inform the community about the problem of human trafficking.
Human trafficking is defined as the trade of humans for forced labor, sexual slavery or commercial sexual exploitation.
It’s a widespread problem, and the Houston/Gulf Coast area is generally considered a hub of activity.
“We’re talking about both sex trafficking and labor trafficking here in Galveston County,” Shumate said. “I would say our biggest source is simply proximity to Houston. And we’re also a port city and a tourist destination. Any time you have lots of people entering and coming here from different places, that increases trafficking.”
Poverty demographics play into the likelihood of trafficking as well, with poorer people more likely to be vulnerable to a trafficker promising money.
The memorandum of understanding signed on Nov. 25 lays out the joint coalition’s mission: “To develop and coordinate the identification, reception, assessment, referral, treatment, housing and restorative care of victims of human trafficking;” and to “support law enforcement’s efforts to train personnel, investigate, identify, apprehend and prosecute those engaged in human trafficking,” acknowledging that “the work of combating human trafficking is best achieved by a team approach.”
The work of the coalition will allow law enforcement to identify gaps in services when it comes to victims of trafficking and will provide training to officers in identifying trafficking cases while also identifying resources to help victims, Roady said.
“Law enforcement can be a clearing house where the coalition can direct victims to immediate care and after-care while investigating the activity,” Roady said.
And though the number of prosecutions for human trafficking violations is low, by filling in the gaps and offering training to law enforcement and the community at large, there’s a better chance that offenders will be identified, charged and prosecuted, Roady said.
“This is a starting point,” he said. “It’s something that hasn’t been done before here in Galveston County. The coalition has been working on this for some time now and making steady progress forward. We’re encouraged by the enthusiasm of law enforcement in Galveston County.”
The coalition also will help law enforcement understand how to look for the signs of human trafficking, Santa Fe Police Chief Philip Meadows said.
“The coalition will give us training in the warning signs, questions to ask people, and insights for officers in what to look for to recognize human trafficking,” Meadows said. “When our officers can recognize victims, they can let them know we’re on their side and want to help them.”
Agencies that signed the memorandum include the University of Texas Medical Branch, the Galveston County District Attorney’s office; Galveston, La Marque, Santa Fe, Dickinson, Texas City, Bayou Vista, Hitchcock and Port of Galveston Police Departments as well as police from the medical branch, Texas A&M University at Galveston and Galveston and Santa Fe Independent School Districts; the Resource and Crisis Center, Child Advocacy Center of Galveston, Galveston Urban Ministries, Samaritan Woman at the Well, Catholic Charities and the Alcohol/Drug Abuse Women’s Center.
As one of few ports in the nation to have rail capability on its property, the Port of Galveston is in a unique position to market that as a draw for industry, Director Rodger Rees said.
But, before leaders at the public docks can take advantage of it, they must first answer questions about who exactly owns the city’s miles of rail lines, Rees said.
Port officials have for months been combing through often conflicting historical documents and reaching out to other interested parties to determine what parts of the rail line the public docks own, said Ted O’Rourke, chairman of the port’s governing board.
The main issue is determining who owns what when many records are contradictory, Rees said.
“A lot of the records are just incomplete on who owns the rail,” Rees said. “All the real estate, if it is unowned, could go to the port.”
The port owns an unspecified number of rail miles, called the Galveston Railroad, which is a separate entity owned through the governing board and operated by a management company called Genesee & Wyoming, Rees said.
While the public docks’ railroad used to own cars and actually ship items, it now operates similarly to a toll road, charging cars that use it, Rees said.
Some documents show the port owns about 35 miles of rail line, while others show as much as 55, Rees said. But even that’s complicated because some of the miles could be buried rail line.
Genesee & Wyoming, for instance, shows it currently manages about 39 miles of rail line, according to records.
The port currently receives about 20 percent of revenues that Genesee & Wyoming generates through collecting “switching” revenue from railway companies that use the tracks, Rees said.
Leaders at the public docks anticipate rail revenues will bring about $500,000 to the port in the current fiscal year, but those profits used to be considerably higher, Rees said.
“Three years ago, we were making $1.5 million off the railroad, but it’s down to $500,000,” Rees said. “What’s driving that? Less rail coming into the port, is a big part of it. It’s not rocket science.”
Once the port completes its research project in coming months, and has a better idea of what it owns, it can move forward determining how to increase revenues, Rees said.
The city’s ongoing asset review might also help the port figure out what it owns and doesn’t, said Mayor Jim Yarbrough, who also is on the port’s governing board.
“There’s just a lot of potential there that I don’t believe has been marketed,” Rees said of the railroad’s possibilities. “We’re really trying to understand what is the port’s and what isn’t so we can market and bring in new business to the port. But we’ve got to know what we have to deal with.”