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'Spread kindness, not COVID' | Austin-area park leaders speak out after assaults on employees

Austin and Travis County Parks employees have been cursed at, threatened with weapons, punched and pushed into the water.

AUSTIN, Texas — As park rangers and monitors have been stationed around local parks to encourage social distancing and to enforce closures and reservation systems, the Austin Parks and Recreation Department issued an important message Monday regarding recent assaults on its staff members.

Since March, the department said rangers and monitors have been assaulted physically and verbally on at least six different occasions while out working in the community. These incidents include employees being cursed at, pushed into the lake, threatened with weapons, punched and pushed to the ground.

"It takes a toll on individuals trying to share an educational message, to be personally attacked both verbally and physically," said Amanda Ross, PARD division manager for natural resources. "These employees are there to assist the public, not become an outlet for their frustration."

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Rangers are trained and act as ambassadors to Austin's park system. Their job is to help people who could become lost on the trails, to share information about how to enjoy the parks, and provide educational programming to visitors. They are not commissioned peace officers and do not carry weapons.

Meanwhile, monitors are staff members who have been temporarily reassigned due to closures within their City divisions. They support rangers by checking reservations, explaining health and safety guidelines, and offering basic park information to visitors.

"During these difficult times we would ask for some grace and understanding as the park system reopens,” said PARD Assistant Director Lucas Massie. “This is new territory for us all.”

Travis County Parks has also made recent modifications to its operations. While they said they haven't seen as many incidents as Austin has, they share the same message.

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“We understand it can be frustrating when Travis County Parks have to close once they reach capacity, but we have these measures in place to ensure everyone’s well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Charles Bergh, Travis County Parks director. “Please know that our hard-working staff is there to help you enjoy Travis County parks safely and whenever possible. In return, we ask that you do your part by wearing face coverings when needed and staying six feet from one another as much as possible to help flatten the COVID-19 curve.”

In light of these events, both departments are asking the community to "Spread kindness, not COVID."

“If you see something, say something by calling 311, or 911,” said Austin Park Ranger Program Manager LeAnn Ishcomer. "Austin is an extraordinary community, and we have been through so much together this year.  We are asking for your support in making our Parks and public spaces safe for everyone in this community.”

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