Empty New Caney school becomes training site for police and first responders in shootings like Uvalde

Desks, chairs and bookshelves fill the classrooms and posters of a school mascot decorate the hallways. There are basketballs in the gymnasium and instruments in the music room at the old Keefer Crossing Middle School.

In recent weeks, however, the campus that once housed around 1,000 students in the New Caney ISD has become the training ground for law enforcement and emergency services, and eventually the police departments of the school district.

Officials say it will provide a hands-on training site aimed at helping prevent an event such as the May 24 Uvalde school shooting in which an 18-year-old walked into Robb Elementary with a weapon. AR-15 type and began firing, killing 19 children and two teachers. Montgomery County leaders said the training was launched after the 2018 shootings at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and Santa Fe High School in Texas.

“There is no better way to practice school safety than to use a (school) facility itself,” said Brian Zemlicka, assistant director of the Region 6 Educational Services Center. It’s not just about schools. These mass shootings happen in churches, they happen in malls, they happen in movie theaters, they happen in universities.”

“Unfortunately, we are in a time where we really have to care about school safety more than ever,” said Zemlicka, who oversees school safety at the center, which covers 57 school districts, including all districts of Montgomery County. .

New Caney District officials closed the school after the 2020-2021 school year and sold it to a limited liability company. Montgomery County leases the facility for the next six months, and Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management officials say the old school is something no other county in Texas has for assist training agencies.

“This is such a unique training opportunity that we have agencies as far away as Wisconsin wanting to come and use the facility for training,” said Jason Millsaps of the county’s office of emergency management.

On-campus training is marketed to school districts and all emergency response agencies, Millsaps said. Although no school districts have yet signed up to use the facility, several have expressed interest, including Conroe, Montgomery and Willis school districts, he said.

Conroe ISD has the third largest police force in the county and trains regularly with other agencies.

“We look forward to participating in trainings at the New Caney ISD facility that are beneficial to our goal of training and preparing a multi-agency response to a crisis,” Chief Matthew Blakelock said in a statement. “The Conroe ISD Police Department has trained in emergency response with other first aid agencies in our county for several years to better prepare for an integrated response.”

Montgomery ISD spokeswoman Jessica Grace said the facility will help the district prepare for any emergency.

“Montgomery ISD plans to use it and finds it to be a great benefit to the districts in our county, allowing us to unify our emergency plans and ensure our training is streamlined and coordinated with other emergency agencies. law enforcement who would work with us in any emergency,” Grace said.

Willis ISD also plans to use the school for its police force training, said Montgomery County Constable 1 and Willis ISD director of security Lt. Leslee Zemlicka.

“There’s no practice run when these situations happen, so we have to be ready long before that day comes,” said the lieutenant, who is married to the service center’s director of security. 6 Region Educational Centers. “It is critical that all local, regional, and state law enforcement entities be on the same page when responding to an active shooter event. Willis ISD officers will participate to all the county-led training that’s going on. We can’t get too much practice when it comes to saving children’s lives.”

New Caney officials sold the building with all furniture and equipment still inside and the fire extinguishers on the walls still usable.

For now and for training purposes, having the furniture in the building is ideal. Groups coming to practice can use the furniture to simulate different scenarios, such as a barricaded door. During a recent tour of the building, rounds of simulated ammunition were strewn throughout the hallways.

“They come in and they decide how they want to train in their section,” County Judge Mark Keough said. “We will leave it up to them to do what they need to.”

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Departments using the facility may bring their own trainer, or the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office will provide a trainer. Each group must provide its own practice ammunition.

“I can have up to three or four agencies here at a time doing independent training, as long as they stay in their own lanes,” Millsaps said. “At the same time, they can simulate high density, low density, low light and high light. There are a number of things they can do.

Other facilities are not as flexible as the abandoned Keefer Crossing building. But the new facility comes with challenges. Because the building has not been used, the water has been turned off and there is no electricity. The county spends about $22,000 a month to air-condition the building and run power generators, in addition to $23,000 a month in rent, which is paid for using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act.

But it is possible that the state will pay the bill for the establishment to remain a permanent training center.

“I hope the State of Texas steps up,” Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, said while touring the facility. “We’re hoping it will be emulated, but that the state will step in, help pay its fair share so other regional players can come to Montgomery County and benefit.”

Local agencies, including the County Sheriff’s Office and the County Fire Marshal’s Office, have used the new facility for various training opportunities.

Sheriff’s Lt. Scott Spencer said the New Caney facility provides a key component in training law enforcement for a variety of scenarios.

“We continue to operate under Montgomery County’s Special Threat Plan, which includes a robust multi-agency training program,” Spencer said in an emailed statement. “We welcome the opportunity to train with our fellow first responders at a facility like this.”

Kevin Bates, the county’s deputy fire marshal, said the facility provides training opportunities that most departments don’t.

“I think this is a game-changer for our department and other departments in the area,” Bates said.

The Office of the Fire Marshal has used the facility for demining-related training with robots, indoor drone training, and group training with other agencies the department regularly works with.

“It’s nice to be able to set up the different types of scenarios that each team needs to improve their skills and keep their skills level, and we’re able to do that in this facility,” Bates said.

The Office of the Fire Marshal plans to use the facility at least once a month while the county leases the building for other training sessions. The county does not charge other agencies for use of the facility and would not charge if the state were to appropriate the money to make it a permanent training site.

Brian Zemlicka said security is reactive in society.

“We don’t really worry about safety until something happens, just like we don’t really worry about the roof of our house until it starts leaking,” he said. declared. “I think creating this training center with this school is a perfect solution. Let’s practice before that happens.

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