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