In early September, just days after Fort Worth schools finished checking exterior doors across the entire district to ensure they worked properly, a malfunction kept a door from closing all the way at Young Women’s Leadership Academy, a choice school located in downtown Fort Worth.
The door stuck open after a student entered, officials say, and a man experiencing homelessness entered the campus, wandering the halls looking for a bathroom and encountering a student.
While Fort Worth ISD officials say the incident is “extremely isolated,” a parent whose daughter attends the all-girls school and a security expert say the episode highlights critical weak spots in the district’s security infrastructure that could result in more extreme safety incidents in the future.
Those concerns include doors that open out directly onto the street, faulty doors, lack of cameras and not following protocols for responding to possible intruders.
Student was first to encounter unauthorized individual
The district’s executive director of safety and security, Daniel Garcia, said a student was the first to encounter the man.
“All this person was wanting to do was come in and use the bathroom,” Garcia said. “He came in and went immediately to the bathroom. The student went into the library and the librarian went and told the parent liaison staff member, and they both went to the bathroom.”
Once the man finished using the bathroom, the staff members asked him to leave and escorted him out, Garcia said.
Roxanne Martinez, the trustee who represents the district the school is located in, heard from parents about the incident a few days later and immediately reached out to the principal and security staff to ensure the door was being fixed.
When she toured the campus to make sure the door, which is on the corner of Jones and Eighth Street, was fixed and operational, she was notified of other concerns with doors resulting from a delayed-access control.
“The initial door that the unauthorized person came in got fixed immediately,” she said. “And then we identified a second door.”
She also got in contact with the Fort Worth Police Department, which confirmed to the Star-Telegram that it would be increasing presence “in this particular area to enhance public safety and to deter any potential incidents such as this.”
Additional cameras and a campus monitor are also being added to the campus, officials said.
But parents say they have concerns about how the incident happened in the first place.
Incident follows comprehensive door check
The incident comes the same month the district was required by the state to submit proof that it had checked exterior doors across all 140 campuses.
Garcia said it was not clear whether the issues that caused the door at YWLA to stay open would have been caught in the audit, since the door was functional most of the time.
“On this particular door, it was actually a piece at the bottom, the striker that was maybe a little higher than it needed to be and was causing the door … (to have) a delay to be able to let the force of gravity close that door properly.”
The state-mandated check, which follows a mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 students and two teachers, requires districts to check every component of every door, including the door assembly, locks, related mechanisms and frames. A door that failed to lock allowed the gunmen to enter the Robb Elementary School campus in Uvalde, according to reports.
“It’s actually … operation and maintenance staff going out and physically checking every exterior door at our schools,” Garcia told the Star-Telegram. “It took a substantial amount of maintenance staff to be able to do it.”
As of Aug. 9, the staff had only completed checking about 30% of the doors, according to a presentation at a special board meeting. But less than a month later, Garcia said, the rest had been checked.
Some components of doors were found to be out of compliance, but Garcia said all issues have since been resolved.
“As we sit here today, all the issues that were marked as non-operational have been addressed and fixed to 100% operational, for every exterior door in the district,” he said.
Martinez, who said she is reviewing documentation from the exterior safety audit, said that the audit is not enough to make parents comfortable
“Just in looking at the audit itself … I don’t even know that it’s sufficient enough for me as a parent,” she said. “In addition to that audit, there are things that our safety and security team has been doing and can continue to do to really ensure that the schools are safe.”
One such thing is the convening of a blue-ribbon safety and security committee “to support Fort Worth school’s safety and security plan.”
Martinez said it was important to her to actually see the door in question working properly after the incident, noting the high presence of individuals experiencing homelessness in the area.
Incident ‘could have been much worse’
The district has protocols in place as set out by the Texas School Safety Center, to respond to a variety of events including an intruder. Those protocols were not initiated during the incident at YWLA.
“It was quickly identified that it was a homeless person who just wanted to use the bathroom,” Garcia said. “I think that’s why none of the other protocols were used because it was so quickly resolved.”
But experts say the situation “could have been much worse.”
Mark Seguin, the CEO of TBG Solutions, works with hundreds of districts across Texas and other states to enhance operational security and train staff and teachers. He advises schools to harden the outside perimeter to prevent any possible threats from getting into the school in the first place.
“Once you let somebody in the building, you’ve now given them an advantage,” he said. “And stopping them and keeping them from hurting someone is going to be a lot more difficult.”
At campuses that are uniquely located and have doors or breezeways directly accessible to the public, he has advised schools to create perimeters with gates or chain-link fences, he told the Star-Telegram.
YWLA has several doors that open onto the street and Star-Telegram reporters saw adults walking in close proximity to the campus as children entered and exited on Thursday afternoon.
Seguin also said having law enforcement on hand as quickly as possible whenever a potentially dangerous situation is occurring is essential.
“Whether school resource officers or local police … they should immediately be called to either accompany or back up administration when they approach the individual,” he said. “Because it could have gone south.”
Garcia said in a text message Friday that a school resource officer was called after the man entered the campus.
“What if the guy went into the bathroom and he pulled his weapon out and had it ready … and then when he came out of the bathroom or when he was approached by administration started using it?” Seguin said.
Trustee promises greater communication
Parents from YWLA heard about the incident from their children in the days after it occurred, and no official communications went out, according to interviews and emails reviewed by the Star-Telegram.
Frustrated parents talked to each other, and one reached out to Holly Plemmons, an outspoken critic of the district who is a regular at school board meetings and has removed her children from the district.
Plemmons was one of the parents who reached out to Martinez, chastising the district for allowing the incident to occur and for not reaching out to parents.
In response, Martinez said in an email that she agreed that more transparency was necessary.
“I agree that transparency is needed and that this information should have been communicated to parents,” she said. “We have to do a better job with that — plain and simple. FWISD Safety & Security Executive Director Danny Garcia and I discussed how to improve communications to parents about security and safety incidents, moving forward.”
But Garcia told the Star-Telegram that the incident did not rise to the level of communicating with parents under current policies.
“There is a protocol or a mandate that if there is a terroristic threat or a bomb threat to a school that that would trigger a communication to parents,” he said. “We don’t think that this incident reached that threshold.”
Since the individual was not armed and did not “necessarily pose a great danger… it did not necessitate that notification,” he said.
One parent said she regularly gets email reminders and alerts on much less important issues, but did not learn about this incident until her daughter mentioned it.
“It really boggles my mind,” she said. “The students are very aware of their surroundings and they don’t feel safe at all times. Because they don’t know if they are secure in their school.”
Garcia said his message to parents is that safety is a shared responsibility for the entire community, and that the district is doing its part.
“Parents in the community should feel very good about their students’ safety in our schools,” he said.
“We have a large district and it is a challenge to make sure that all the items are working properly, every day, day in and day out,” he added. “But we’re very focused on making sure that these items are working properly, and that we’re checking them regularly for functionality.”