Schools em­brace se­cu­rity in­crease

Dis­tricts across the coun­try bol­stered safety mea­sures af­ter Park­land shoot­ing.

The Times-Tribune - - FRONT PAGE - BY PA­TRI­CIA MAZZEI

PARK­LAND, Fla. — For­ti­fied by fences and pa­trolled by more armed per­son­nel, schools will open their doors to stu­dents for the start of the new year with a height­ened fo­cus on se­cu­rity in­tended to ease fears about deadly cam­pus shoot­ings.

The mas­sacre in Park­land, Florida, one of the most lethal in U.S. his­tory, un­nerved school ad­min­is­tra­tors across the coun­try, who de­voted the sum­mer to re­in­forc­ing build­ings and hir­ing se­cu­rity.

In Florida, armed guards will be posted on al­most ev­ery cam­pus. In In­di­ana, some schools will be get­ting hand-held metal de­tec­tors. In western New York state, some schools plan to up­grade their sur­veil­lance cam­eras to in­clude fa­cial recog­ni­tion.

Six months af­ter the ram­page at Mar­jory Stone­man Douglas High School in Park­land, pub­lic schools have em­braced ex­pen­sive and some­times con­tro­ver­sial safety mea­sures.

“If we can find the re­sources, and if our tax­pay­ers are will­ing to sup­port us, then we will do ev­ery­thing in our power to try to cre­ate a sense of nor­malcy and ease,” said Don­ald E. Fen­noy II, su­per­in­ten­dent of the school dis­trict in Palm Beach County, Florida, which bor­ders Park­land.

Palm Beach is nearly dou­bling its school po­lice force — and ask­ing vot­ers to sup­port a prop­erty tax in­crease to help pay for it. But, Fen­noy added, “we know that schools are still the safest places for the ma­jor­ity of our kids.”

The wave of ef­forts marks the lat­est es­ca­la­tion of se­cu­rity en­hance­ments prompted by hor­ri­fy­ing and highly pub­li­cized school at­tacks. Af­ter the Columbine High School shoot­ing in 1999, ad­min­is­tra­tors be­gan rou­tinely prac­tic­ing lock­down drills and hir­ing po­lice of­fi­cers. Af­ter the Sandy Hook El­e­men­tary School shoot­ing in 2012, dis­tricts in­stalled more buzzer sys­tems and lim­ited points of en­try on cam­puses.

“It’s eerily sim­i­lar, what I’m hear­ing to­day to what we ex­pe­ri­enced in our com­mu­nity,” Guy M. Grace, di­rec­tor of se­cu­rity and emer­gency plan­ning for the school dis­trict in Lit­tle­ton, Colorado, which neigh­bors Columbine, said this week to a Florida com­mis­sion tasked with mak­ing statewide rec­om­men­da­tions on school safety.

Schools opened with metal de­tec­tors last week in Mar­shall County, Ken­tucky, where two stu­dents were killed at a school shoot­ing in Jan­uary. New York City has con­sid­ered ex­pand­ing the use of metal de­tec­tors, though some stu­dents worry they dis­pro­por­tion­ately tar­get schools with stu­dents of color.

Arm­ing staff

No pol­icy has caused more de­bate than al­low­ing teach­ers to carry weapons, a pro­posal pushed for years by the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion and sup­ported by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump in Fe­bru­ary. Pro­po­nents filed a flurry of bills in state leg­is­la­tures to en­act such pro­grams this year, but only Florida adopted leg­is­la­tion to al­low schools to arm and train “guardians” on cam­pus — school em­ploy­ees who are not full-time teach­ers.

At least 10 states al­low dis­tricts to arm teach­ers and other staff mem­bers. One of the states is Texas, where a shoot­ing at Santa Fe High School in May left 10 peo­ple dead. Gov. Greg Ab­bott re­sponded by propos­ing more spend­ing on po­lice of­fi­cers and armed guards on cam­pus; the Santa Fe school dis­trict ac­cepted do­na­tions of metal de­tec­tors, pro­tec­tive vests and other po­lice equip­ment be­fore the new school year.

In ru­ral south­west­ern Vir­ginia, the Lee County school dis­trict is now al­low­ing teach­ers and staff mem­bers who al­ready hold con­cealed weapon per­mits to opt for more train­ing in or­der to carry guns on cam­pus — the first dis­trict in the state to do so. Brian T. Austin, the su­per­in­ten­dent, called the pol­icy a fis­cal de­ci­sion: The dis­trict can­not af­ford to hire po­lice of­fi­cers for all of its 11 schools and still pay for new roofs and other needed re­pairs.

“We were try­ing to ad­dress a lo­cal need in the most fis­cally re­spon­si­ble man­ner,” Austin said. “We had no in­ten­tion of be­ing the first in Vir­ginia to do this.”

He likened op­po­si­tion to the pol­icy to crit­i­cism that out­lier dis­tricts faced years ago when they be­gan hir­ing school re­source of­fi­cers to pa­trol their cam­puses. Now, a lot of high schools and mid­dle schools ex­pect to have one. “School cul­ture has changed as the wider cul­ture has changed,” he said.

Still, teach­ers re­main wor­ried about be­ing asked to as­sume se­cu­rity du­ties. A re­cent sur­vey of 1,000 pub­lic school­teach­ers by Ed­u­ca­tors for Ex­cel­lence, an ad­vo­cacy group, found that 52 per­cent of re­spon­dents strongly op­pose arm­ing teach­ers. The same sur­vey found that gun vi­o­lence is ed­u­ca­tors’ top safety con­cern in schools.

Guardian pro­gram

A law Florida passed af­ter the Park­land shoot­ing re­quires armed se­cu­rity guards at ev­ery school and also ex­pands men­tal health fund­ing for schools. But get­ting those ser­vices into place will take more time, ad­min­is­tra­tors from sev­eral school dis­tricts ac­knowl­edged.

Florida’s guardian pro­gram, funded in part by $67 mil­lion from the state, was mod­eled on a pro­gram in Polk County cre­ated by Sher­iff Grady Judd, a pro­po­nent of arm­ing teach­ers and school staff. The sher­iff said he knew long ago that guardians would be needed as a re­sult of the state’s con­tin­u­ing po­lice of­fi­cer short­age.

“I knew when I was work­ing in the leg­isla­tive process that even if they had the money, we didn’t have the cops,” he said.

In Broward County, where Park­land is, the nine-mem­ber board voted unan­i­mously in April against armed guardians, in fa­vor of po­lice of­fi­cers. But they re­versed their de­ci­sion in June, af­ter mem­bers re­al­ized the dis­trict’s part­ner­ships with po­lice would not yield enough of­fi­cers to pa­trol ev­ery school.

Broward will not have trained enough guardians by the start of the school year this week, so it will tem­po­rar­ily de­ploy sher­iff ’s deputies, off-duty po­lice of­fi­cers and school dis­trict in­ves­ti­ga­tors to fill in. Un­like school re­source of­fi­cers, who are po­lice of­fi­cers, guardians do not have the power to make ar­rests. The dis­trict gave hir­ing preference to can­di­dates with law en­force­ment or mil­i­tary ex­pe­ri­ence.

The de­lay in train­ing guardians up­set fam­i­lies of the Park­land vic­tims, who last week called for the ouster of lo­cal school board mem­bers over their han­dling of se­cu­rity pol­icy since the shoot­ing. The fam­i­lies’ group, Stand With Park­land, crit­i­cized the dis­trict for putting off the in­stal­la­tion of metal de­tec­tors at Stone­man Douglas and scrap­ping a planned in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the at­tack.

“There has been no sense of ur­gency,” said Tony Mon­talto, the group’s pres­i­dent, whose daugh­ter, Gina, 14, was killed. Two other par­ents who lost chil­dren are run­ning for school board seats. Stone­man Douglas stu­dents who founded March for Our Lives, a group protest­ing gun vi­o­lence, have spent the sum­mer tour­ing the coun­try and urg­ing young peo­ple to vote.

Changes ev­i­dent

When stu­dents ar­rive at Stone­man Douglas for the new school year Wed­nes­day, se­cu­rity changes will be ev­i­dent. New chain-link fences ring the in­side of cam­pus, in­clud­ing around the va­cant fresh­man build­ing where the shoot­ing took place, which will never be used again. More sur­veil­lance cam­eras are mounted high up on the walls. Class­room doors have been out­fit­ted with han­dles that lock au­to­mat­i­cally.

Clear plas­tic back­packs will no longer be re­quired, as they were im­me­di­ately af­ter the shoot­ing, but iden­ti­fi­ca­tion badges will re­main manda­tory. Vis­i­tors will have to be buzzed in. Three school re­source of­fi­cers — in­stead of only one — will be on staff.

What will mat­ter most in Park­land and else­where, how­ever, will be what school dis­tricts do be­hind the scenes, said Al­berto Carvalho, su­per­in­ten­dent of the neigh­bor­ing Mi­ami-dade County Pub­lic Schools, which has also ex­panded polic­ing and in­vested in more ad­vanced se­cu­rity tech­nol­ogy. The most ef­fec­tive way to pre­vent a tragedy is by giv­ing school com­mu­ni­ties a way to re­port con­cerns about trou­bled stu­dents and then of­fer those stu­dents the help they need, Carvalho said.

“Af­ter all of this, the strong­est tool we have avail­able to use is low cost but highly ef­fec­tive: It’s the level of alert­ness of par­ents, stu­dents and com­mu­nity mem­bers,” he said. “We re­ally mean it when we say, ‘If you see some­thing, say some­thing.’”

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