June 11, 2001
(LUBBOCK, Texas) – When Thomas Nichols retired as police chief in Lubbock, he began organizing a new police department, this one for the city schools.
The Lubbock Independent School District Police and Safety Department is now 10 years old. Its six fulltime officers, backed up by 25 city officers assigned to the schools part-time, police a district the size of a good-sized town, with more than 29,000 students and 3,000 employees.
Nicholas came into the school system at the request of the then-superintendent, Michael Moses, who believed that security needed to be increased. The chief convinced Moses that the schools needed a sworn police force instead of a safety department with unarmed security guards.
“Parents and teachers are concerned about the unpredictability of school violence,” he said.
“There’s a greater feeling of safety knowing that uniformed officers are available.”
Lubbock, with a population of 200,000 is in West Texas, about halfway between Albuquerque and Fort Worth. The city, an important educational and medical center for the area, is the only large one within a hundred miles. It is ethnically and racially diverse. The city’s most famous new resident is the controversial basketball coach, Bobby Knight, recently hired by Texas Tech.
Nichols measures the district’s success in what does not happen. He said that the first year the police department confiscated 15 guns from students in the schools. The second year the total was cut in half, and in subsequent years officers have discovered one or two weapons and sometimes none at all.
“One of the things we do is tally up the score, and we continue to win,” he said.
The police district has a total of 42 employees, including civilians who work with K-9 dogs. Every school day, 12 uniformed officers and two K-9 teams are sent into the schools to do random sweeps for weapons or drugs. Dogs trained to sniff explosives are generally sent only to the high schools and junior highs while the drug dogs go to all the schools, Nichols said. At the elementary schools, the main reason for the visits is educational.
Police officers work with teenagers who have become involved with gangs. The schools even have plastic surgeons available who have volunteered to remove gang tattoos at no cost. The officers and the schools also meet gang members’ families.
“That’s where you often find the difficulty,” he said. “Many of these kids come from very dysfunctional families. The discipline that they will not accept at school or from their family, they will accept from the gang.”
Overall, Nichols said, the schools are safe. One of the biggest problems is drop outs who try to return to school to visit their friends. They are given one warning, and then anyone who makes a repeat visit is arrested.
“Most of the kids really want safe and enjoyable schools,” he said, adding that many potential wrongdoers have been caught because students reported their plans to a teacher or school police officer.
In addition to running the police department, Nichols has published a novel, “The Color of the Prism,” based on his work as a narcotics investigator in Tucson, Ariz., and is working on a second book while he negotiates with producers for a film of his first one. He said the school children are not impressed by his new Hollywood ties – “most of them don’t even know about it.”
He said there is one thing he always emphasizes to parents worried about violence and Columbine-style school massacres.
“There’s not a safer place for a child to be than in school,” he said.