School security ‘better prepared than ever’ but no cause to overlook diligence

The start of the 2023-24 academic year kicked off on July 19, and students and teachers are back to the grind. And so is Charles Cobbs, the director of district safety and security for Tempe Union High School District. With the start of every year comes the uncertain possibility of school-related events, but Cobbs, who has nearly 40 years of law enforcement experience in the Arizona Department of Corrections and Arizona Department of Gaming, plus a stint as community affairs specialist for the Tempe Police Department, says the students are in good hands.

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Cobbs stepped into his position in 2019, shortly before the start of the pandemic. He entered his role with a vision and a goal. However, that those were quickly moved to the back-burner while the world faced an unprecedented health crisis. His sole responsibility became COVID-19 contact tracing, and it remained that way for two years before schools transitioned back to in-person classes.

After navigating the murky waters of the pandemic and returning to what could be called normal, he could then fully commit to safety, the job for which he was hired, he says. Now on a steadier foundation, Cobbs says he was able to shift gears, being able to complete a thorough evaluation, a study that uncovered a view that existing school security lacked structure. In fact, he said, a number of school security officers felt demeaned and undervalued, leading to high turnover.

On top of that, he said, Cobbs found that school security had maybe “eight hours of some kind of training” during the entire school year. His first order of business was implementing extensive training for all TUHSD security, including and with the assistance of Tempe Union Assistant Superintendent Sean McDonald; extending the security calendar from 91/2 months to 10; and allowing ample time for a required “65-70 hours” of training prior to the start of classes. Under Cobbs’ ongoing guidance, that training will be be shared with school resource officers and other police agencies in what he describes as an effort to improve the response network.

“I will be honest with you,” Cobbs said. “Once that training was over, they went back to their campuses and I got a lot of calls from principals and administrators that said, ‘Charles, I see the difference in these guys already. They’re ready to go.’” Additionally, the teachers and administrators, who are surrounded by hundreds of students every day, also receive training for safety, as well as for emergency management. One of the benefits he enjoys in his role, Cobbs says, is his relationships with sister city agencies such as Tempe, Scottsdale, Mesa, Chandler and Phoenix. Constant communication has led to a fluid, always-changing process of training.

“I talk daily with the Tempe sergeant over the SROs (special resource officers),” he said. “We’re sharing information, and that builds our training. “He and I have ideas about training that he develops for his SROs that he’s like, ‘Charles, I think this would be good for security too.’ And so that’s the kind of collaboration that we have that helps me and this leadership team ensure that we’re implementing all the proper and appropriate safety measures.”

Although security stretches beyond physically protecting students and staff on campus, attention is also focused on illegal substances and online behavior, which Cobbs says is from which a “significant” amount of problems arise. “(Social media) tends to be where a lot of our issues (originate) and cause of a lot of things, especially online threats,” he said. “Over the summertime, over a break, there could be some stuff brewing on social media. “Then eventually, once everybody gets back to the campus, it blows up.” The complexities of high school High school is a complex time in many students’ lives as outside influences, such as social media and illegal substances, tend to make an appearance.

Nearly every student has access to or is on social media, which can lead to an array of bad choices if not monitored carefully, according to Cobbs. Fortunately, there is a team for that: A community engagement and mitigation unit monitor online activity and keep up-to-date with anything involving the safety and well-being of students and staff. However, Cobbs says the parents—he himself is a grandparent— also share responsibility.

“We (as parents) have to be more involved with monitoring what our kids are putting out and really having these really serious discussions about the consequences of you posted something. We encourage our parents to really have these discussions with their kids to check their social medias, and I know that that causes friction. But it’s for their safety. It’s for the safety of every one and within our school community.” Cobbs applauded both Tempe and Phoenix police for being so successful in their efforts in monitoring online activity as well as substance awareness.

“This year we brought a trainer from the liquor department to talk about liquor abuse, what to look for,” he added. “We do drug training, drug identification training, we do de-escalation for these guys. We do report writing for these guys and girls. So, there’s just a list of things that we are brought in to help train them. Because if they’re not training, competent, if not capable of giving them the resources to do their jobs, that we shouldn’t expect much more.”

Cobbs covers all the bases when thinking about total protection of our community’s youth, even during sporting events. For every event, every location, an emergency action plan is created and must be approved by him and is shared with Tempe fire and police. This includes emergency routes, head counts of on-duty and off-duty policemen as well as security. Football season kicks off the athletic calendar and is a major draw in attendance, but Cobbs says there is a plan in place for everything. “(Tempe police and fire) are going to set up their own ICS system,” Cobbs said.” They’re going to take control of everything. Our responsibility is to make sure that parents get united back with their children safely.”

Cobbs, who is also a grandfather, take his position to heart and works with a passion to ensure a safe environment across the Tempe Union district. “We’re going to do the best we can to keep kids and staff safe,” Cobbs said confidently. “Whether that’s me being at a sporting event for that day or whether that’s on a campus during school hours. We’re continually learning and changing. I don’t want to say I’m comfortable where we are because I can never get comfortable, but I can say that we’re better prepared than ever.”



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