Harlingen school security talks stall; negotiations enter second year

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A Harlingen Police Department car patrols Crockett Elementary Wednesday, May 25, 2022, after school dismissal. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)

HARLINGEN — After more than a year, city leaders and school officials continue negotiating a campus security agreement they had been automatically renewing for about 20 years.

Now into their second year, talks surrounding a new contract which would provide the Harlingen school district with police protection have stalled as officials negotiate key points.

“I don’t know what the holdup has been,” City Manager Gabriel Gonzalez said in an interview.

But officials are counting on reaching an agreement a year after residents called for heightened campus security in the wake of the May 24, 2022, shootings in which a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at an Uvalde grade school.

“We’re a lot closer than we were before,” Gonzalez said. “I think we’re going to get something resolved relatively soon.”

District officials did not respond to requests for comment by a 5 p.m. deadline.

District requesting more officers

Since 2019, the Harlingen Police Department has been assigning four full-time officers, including a sergeant and three officers, to help work security across the district’s 31 campuses.

As part of previous agreements, the district paid the city $213,714 in exchange for the four officers, along with $14,000 to cover vehicle maintenance and $2,336 for travel and training, city records show.

This year, district officials are requesting the police department assign six officers to the program.

In response, city leaders have proposed assigning five officers.

“We’re going to give them as much as we can,” Mayor Norma Sepulveda said in an interview.

‘One of our biggest challenges’

Now, the police department, with 138 officers on the force, is staining to staff shifts to patrol the city whose population has grown by at least 11 percent, climbing to about 72,100, since the 2010 Census.

“One officer is a lot,” Deputy Police Chief Alfredo Alvear said in an interview. “We also have to serve the citizens of Harlingen. There’s population growth. The population of Harlingen is growing. You never do (have enough officers) because you can’t predict the number of crimes. Anytime you pull an officer to man the school district, what happens is that vacancy has to be filled — and it’s not filled overnight.”

Alvear said it takes about a year to train an officer for police work.

“That’s one of our biggest challenges,” he said. “You’re talking about a year just to train an officer to replace an officer transferred.”

New administrative fee

As part of a new proposal, city officials are requesting the district pay a fee to help offset the cost of administering the school security program, including Police Chief Michael Kester’s time in overseeing the operation along with payroll expenses, Gonzalez said.

Late last year, negotiations stalled as the parties were discussing the proposed administrative fee.

“That was not part of the contract previously,” Sepulveda said, adding Gonzalez and Kester were working to determine the proposed fee. “It’s something we’re trying to iron out.”

A Harlingen Police Department car patrols Crockett Elementary Wednesday, May 25, 2022, after school dismissal. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

New bill requires districts arm security

In July 2022, city leaders opened negotiations with Kester calling on district officials to “take steps” to develop a police department like those of many school districts, adding the city would help.

“At the end of the day, it’d be nice if they could do that,” Alvear said, adding his child goes to school. “At the end of the day, it’s about the safety of the kids.”

During the past Legislative session, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 11, requiring school districts post armed security guards at all schools while conducting some employee mental health training in response to the Uvalde shootings.

“They’re going to address it to comply with the new Senate bill,” Gonzalez said, referring to the school district.

District works to heighten security

Amid last year’s negotiations, district officials entered into agreements with Cameron County and the cities of Primera and Combes to provide officers to work security, with the agencies assigning 12 to 17 off-duty sheriff’s deputies, deputy constables and police officers a day to work school security, Brianna Vela Garcia, a district spokeswoman, said at the time.

As part of those agreements, the district could request off-duty officers and deputies “on an as-needed basis,” said Danny Castillo, a former Harlingen police chief and city commissioner serving as the district’s director of emergency management and school safety.

Last year, the district also hired more security personnel, boosting their numbers to 42, Vela Garcia said.

At district offices, officials also began operating a “surveillance room,” monitoring hundreds of surveillance cameras across 31 campuses, she said.

Meanwhile, Harlingen officials continue honoring the parties’ previous security agreement, assigning four police officers to the district.

“The officers are there,” Sepulveda said. “They’ve been there. It’s a matter of getting the right (contract) in place.”