With over 111,000 students, 85 campuses (including 11 high schools and 17 middle schools), and an annual budget in the neighborhood of $775 million, Cypress-Fairbanks ISD is the third largest school district in Texas and the 24th largest in the country. So when the district’s board of trustees voted two years ago to cancel its contract with Harris County Precinct 4 and start their own police department, there was no doing things half-way.
First, they recruited Alan Bragg, an FBI-trained veteran policeman with a copstache and bulldog demeanor, to head up the new department. Next, they hired 40 full-time officers, all certified by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education, to patrol the district 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Just as with a regular police department, the officers are armed with handguns. To house the new department, a 13,500-square-foot station is under construction; when completed later this year, it will feature 12 detention rooms, an evidence locker, and a wall of flat-screen monitors to keep tabs on the district’s closed-circuit system—Cy Creek High School alone has close to a hundred cameras monitoring its students’ every move. That may seem extreme, but the district says that safety, not privacy, is their top priority.
Cy-Fair is hardly the only district with its own police force—there are 175 such departments across the state. Still, the district’s sheer size made building an in-house security team a heavy lift. “It’s as if they built a new school and they hired me as principal, and I have to develop a school mascot, colors, and everything,” Chief Bragg said shortly after being hired. “It’s truly being built from the ground up.”
Until recently, Cy-Fair contracted with Harris County to provide security, which meant that key decisions involving personnel and policing strategies were out of the district’s control. “One reason we started our force is, we wanted to have officers who knew how to work with students,” says Superintendent Mark Henry. “Working with a 15-year-old is different than working with a 35- or 50-year-old.” [Harris County Precinct 4 did not respond to a request for comment about its officers’ training.]
Across the city, districts like Cy-Fair are grappling with the problem of school violence. A graphic reminder of the problem came in September when a Spring High School student stabbed a fellow student to death near the school cafeteria. Scott Poland, a national expert on school security who served as Cy-Fair’s director of psychological services for 31 years, said that in large high schools students may be less likely to report another student’s threat of violence. “It’s really important that every student feels like somebody cares whether or not they come to school,” Poland says. “If you look at the times when students didn’t warn somebody, it’s because they don’t have relationships with the adults, they don’t trust them.”
That’s why having a proprietary police department is so important, according to Superintendent Henry. All Cy-Fair officers receive psychological testing to make sure they are comfortable interacting with adolescents. “The biggest way to stop violence in school is building relationships,” Henry says. “Our police officers are there to support our students, not arrest them.”