Santa Fe public school officials suffered a trauma unimaginable to most of us when a student on May 18 shot and killed 10 people and wounded about a dozen others at the district’s high school. And they suffered a different kind of shock when reporters from local, national and international organizations descended on the small community as it grieved.

What happened to the school district was unprecedented locally. So, it was understandable the district would struggle to respond and to deal with the hordes of reporters. The district’s immediate strategy was to attempt to tightly control messages by posting information on a special website or through social media and to ignore reporter questions altogether.

With the exception of Patrick Kelly, school board officials went incommunicado, too. We won’t dwell on the fact that the absence of a spokesperson and the silence created more problems than they solved, essentially leaving rumors to fester and the public to make what they would of conflicting stories.

But more than a month after the shooting, we fear district officials are getting a little too comfortable with the silence and might use this tragic event to openly disregard rules meant to keep public business public.

Earlier this month, the school district held its first meeting to discuss how it might change security measures to protect students from harm in the future. The meeting included parents, teachers, law enforcement officials and school administrators who discussed things the district might be able to implement before the start of school next fall.

But the school district ensured the discussions were out of public view. The district sent out a summary of the meeting, but wouldn’t make school officials available for interviews about the committee meeting. Because it was an advisory committee, the district wasn’t in violation of open meeting laws.

The district justified its closed-door meeting on the “sensitive nature of the confidential strategies for students and staff safety that will be discussed,” Santa Fe ISD spokeswoman Patti Hanssard said in an email. “The very nature of improving safety and security measures ensures there are plans in place that cannot be known to the public in their entirety, because the knowledge of certain aspects of the plans will decrease the effectiveness of the overall safety and security measures.”

The district’s justification for limiting the meeting to hand-picked members of the public — protecting security methods and policies from disclosure — implies a very specific and detailed discussion about things that are going to happen. The one firsthand report we’ve seen describes a general brainstorming session during which “nothing was off the table.” The meeting could have been either of those, but it can’t be both of those.

The meeting probably was the latter and it’s highly unlikely opening a such general discussion to the public would jeopardize safety.

The advisory committee’s closed-door meeting likely didn’t violate Texas open meeting laws, which state that boards that make binding policy decisions must be open and accessible to the public, including the media.

Jessica Hagewood, a committee member who agreed to speak to The Daily News after the meeting, said she believed the school board would be compelled to pass whatever the committee recommends. Indirect as it is, that sounds pretty binding to us.

We should note that Clear Creek and Galveston independent school districts have similar safety committees. The meetings in those cities are open to the public, not because the law demands it, but because the meetings are of compelling public interest and school leaders understand that public participation leads to public agreement about what to do — it’s the means of achieving buy-in.

Santa Fe school district officials are human and coping with tragedy. But eventually, they’re going to have to answer many questions about that tragedy, including policies that might have been ignored. There are signs that school leaders have gotten too comfortable with operating in the dark, which is not surprising, because that’s easier. It’s not an option for the long run, though, because the public will tolerate silence for only so long.

• Laura Elder

 Laura Elder: 409-683-5248; laura.elder@galvnews.com

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(18) comments

Paul Hyatt

With the way the media is and has been I for one do not blame Santa Fe for shutting its doors to the media. The media causes more trouble and keeps the pot stirring by the way that they are so called reporting the facts which usually have no relationship to the truth. The press "used" to be important for finding out facts, but to often today we see the press reporting the story the way that they want it slanted instead of just reporting what actually has happened.

Josh Butler

Agree. Even the Houston media is slanted. The reason why other districts can have open meetings to the public is that the media isn't watching those meetings. I feel that the GDN has covered this tragedy fairly, though. And as a Santa Fe citizen with children who attend SFISD, and a spouse who works for the district, I feel that the district has communicated well. I think they've done a great job in keeping this event from becoming political. Still, I think questions need to be answered as to who dropped the ball on enforcing policy. I have confidence that the Santa Fe community will hold the district accountable for making changes.

Diane Turski

I support the free press! Today, especially, the free press is usually the most reliable source to find out the facts and report them to the citizens! I support informed citizens!

Carlos Ponce

Santa Fe students had an encounter with a CNN reporter trying to get them to say what she wanted. Not good. Let the school personnel recover, let the students recover, let the parents recover, let the city recover. A constant barrage of media attention is not needed at this time. Wait for the press release from the district while wounds heal, bodies buried, friends and families mourn. I have a great niece who had classes with the shooter. She still will not talk about it. And she is not alone. She was pictured in the GCDN editorial page the day after crying with her friends about her friends.

James Bowles

I heard one moring CNN and the marching idiots from Florida were at the high school. I drove across time and by time I got to the school the GOOD people of Santa Fe had kicked them out the door

James Bowles

YOU are brain dead

George Croix

Fortunately, we are now led by an Admin. that recognizes the value of not giving speeches and telling your enemy what your plans to counter him are with dates and times included. No longer are security and battle plans splashed across the front page of the NYT and others. That lesson should work its way down to state and local levels on matters of security.

While taxpayers have a right to know what they are paying for, they should have the good sense not to expect to know or be talked into it, each and every specific detail of how a threat would be countered. A broad overview is all that's needed for publication.
Posting a sign by your front door detailing your home security features would be no more of a good idea than posting them in a newspaper.

Steve Fouga

"Fortunately, we are now led by an Admin. that recognizes the value of not giving speeches and telling your enemy what your plans to counter him are with dates and times included."

You must be kidding, George! Trump telegraphs his security strategies, his legal strategies, his domestic strategies, his trade strategies, more frequently than any president I've seen.

He warned the Syrians, TWICE, that strikes were coming. He sabotaged his own Muslim ban, his border strategy, and potentially his Russia-investigation strategy, by blurting out his predilections and intentions when he could have said nothing. He has repeatedly whipsawed the stock market by telegraphing and then retracting and then telegraphing again his intentions for trade wars. The man is a walking sieve. He should shut up and stay off Twitter.

George Croix

Steve, Barack Obama's words out of his mouth were not the issue plastered all acros the pages of newspaper(s). EVERY President gives warnings and puffs up like a cobra . It was the 'leaked' battle plans, evidently encouraged, or at least not discouraged, the actual, this is exactly what we're doing, at these times and places, stuff that gets people KILLED, not just warns our enemies they better straighten up and fly right. We have military leadership in place now that cares more about the military than kissing a President's behind, and is not being ordered around by a bunch of two bit players from the theoretical war games section of the local X-box sales place.
Kidding?
No way.
Not drawing any false equivalencies, either.....

George Croix

ps:
Re-reading, it would have been a lot clearer if I'd said that we are led by an administration who's speeches do not restrict military leadership or give away exact details.
I'll give ya that.....
.

Steve Fouga

And I'll give you that I was repeatedly dismayed by the obama administration is this regard.

Steve Fouga

I guess that's the "small-O" Obama administration... [smile]

George Croix

Wait!
I didn't see that comment until just now.
Gotta...gotta say....but...how about...but......
No...
It's just too easy....
But that's about the funniest three words I've seen in a while....

George Croix

Back on the school safety issue that led to this, do YOU need to know, or even should know, the details of the school(s) security plan(s)?
I tell ya what, if it IS decided to publish any details, I hope ALL particiapnts input is published, and not just one-sided to fit some canned and predictable narrative......

George Croix

Hey.....no reason for that stuff
Laura gave her opinion in the editorial section, just like we are doing...
Agree with her on this subject or not, and I do not and said so, she's not a 'tramp'. She's a heckuva good writer and information source....and I say that knowing full well we are about 180 degrees apart on many subjects.
Laura makes her case, or writes her articles, and is one of the few staffers who will backup what she says and also update as necessary.
That's a good thing.

George Croix

Hmmmmm.....
Looks like the post my last comment was addressed at has been deleted.
Good.
Laura, sorry I didn't get mine in earlier - been trying to get heat stroke all day working on a deer blind build....

lauraelder Staff
Laura Elder

It's against the rule to call people names, so we deleted it and sent a warning.

lauraelder Staff
Laura Elder

George, I enjoy the debates on these forums. They're fun to read and I learn a lot and it makes me think. I agree with you that name-calling is unnecessary.

Welcome to the discussion.

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