On Monday, the nation marked the solemn anniversary of the September 11th attacks, which forever changed the course of history and the life of one Harris County Department of Education employee.
In 2001, Leslie Etheridge, the new director of the Center for Safe and Secure Schools, was an officer with the New York City Police Department when the first hijacked plane crashed into the World Trade Center. Those memories remain etched in her mind some twenty-two years later.
This week, Director Etheridge reflected upon that momentous day as she rushed into danger and the unity that arose in the aftermath of the crisis. She said this sense of community demonstrated the strength and resolve of our nation as well as a willingness for everyone to come together and rise above their circumstances, even in their darkest hours.
Q: What was your initial reaction when you heard about the attack?
A: My colleagues and I were in the station house and heard a radio transmission in reference to the building being hit by a plane, so we turned on the TV. Everyone thought it was an accident, but we watched the second plane strike the south tower during the coverage and knew it was a deliberate attack. An announcement came over the precinct PA system for everyone to grab their riot gear, and as we all scrambled to gather our equipment, we couldn’t believe what happened. We loaded into the police vans and headed towards the scene. My precinct was in uptown Manhattan, so it didn’t take us long to get there. We were in shock, had no idea what to expect, and no answers to our questions. But we tried to help in any way we could.
Q: How did 9/11 change your perspective as a police officer?
A: Six years into my job, it was one of the first times I realized the danger in law enforcement and being a first responder. There is no such thing as an average day of policing because you never know what you will encounter, even on the simplest of calls. We are taught to hope for the best and prepare for the worst, but with the 9/11 attacks, we weren’t prepared. How could you train for an unprecedented event? There was minimal leadership, and everyone was dealing with whatever they encountered. That day, I learned I could think logically, make sound decisions, and regulate what was happening around me amid chaos and the absence of structured leadership.
Q: After this experience and subsequent leadership challenges on 9/11, how has this experience influenced your plans as Director of the CSSS?
A: When I started moving up the ranks in NYPD, I always encouraged and developed my team to understand that we are all leaders. Since joining the CSSS in August, I have emphasized that we are a unit. We all play an active role in the success of HCDE’s mission and the vision for the Center for Safe and Secure Schools. The supervisor is responsible for developing, motivating, and preparing your team to lead during your absence or stepping into a supervisory position when necessary. I take that role seriously, especially when it comes to the safety of our students. As we continue building on our programs, I want everyone on campus to be involved in keeping each other and the students safe, including administrators, teachers, custodial and kitchen staff. They need to feel empowered as campus leaders so if they see or hear something of concern, they share it with the proper channels. I’d rather them see something, say something, and it turns out to be nothing than be faced with a “what if.”
Q: How will your experience during an unparalleled crisis impact how you lead the division?
A: We must stay focused on what is happening and be proactive rather than reactive. I plan to take the same approach at CSSS, concentrating on current events in schools and the environment across Harris County and the nation, which could affect the safety of students. As standard-bearers in school safety and security, we must also have the foresight to see the unimaginable before it happens. No one ever planned for school shootings until we were rudely awakened. From there, we develop innovative approaches to mitigate potential incidents, which means making our first plan and then a second and third to continue preparing for different outcomes.
Q: What programs are CSSS staff developing that will merge your experience in policing and school safety?
A: Districts are mandating each campus have school resource officers (SROs), and I want CSSS to provide improved training for those officials. At the police academy, they teach you about policing, but there is a different culture when working in a school environment. SRO training doesn’t teach you how to be the best officer you can be, whether it’s mentorship or simply changing the perception of police. I spent most of my career as an officer working in the school system, which included running a youth police academy to educate inner-city kids. I’ve seen the value in building those relationships, teaching students about the justice system, and helping them feel like they can learn in a safe environment.
To learn more about the Center for Safe and Secure Schools, visit hcde-texas.org/CSSS.