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School security dramatically increased in two years since Parkland; challenges remain

Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla. — Ryan McKinnon Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.

Feb. 14-- Feb. 14--In the two years since a gunman killed 17 people and wounded 17 others on Valentine's Day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, school districts across Florida, including Sarasota and Manatee counties, have instituted sweeping security reforms.

Both districts opted out of allowing teachers to be armed, a controversial measure through the state's Guardian Program. But armed officers, lockdown drills, bulletproof windows and zero tolerance for threats of violence have become the new normal.

"It's just a more cohesive plan that we have ever had before," said Sarasota School Board Vice Chairwoman Shirley Brown. "The employees and the students all know what to do in an emergency like (Parkland). They all know how to lock down and where to go, and they all know how important it is to go there."

As Sarasota and Manatee have taken steps to remain in compliance with new state requirements, legislators are questioning some of the reforms, including the frequency of active shooter drills, the reliability of school safety reporting and the unintended consequences of having law enforcement officers in schools.

The state's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, a body tasked with studying the tragedy at Parkland and making recommendations for schools to prevent similar attacks, issued a report last October that identified several weaknesses within new security measures.

State Sen. Manny Diaz, R- Hialeah Gardens, has filed a bill that would address many of the issues raised by the commission.

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Lockdown drills

Safety drills have become routine in Florida's schools, with lawmakers mandating that schools conduct drills at the same frequency as fire drills, which occur monthly.

However, the commission concluded that may be too often.

"The current requirement for monthly active shooter drills for all K12 students is excessive and potentially traumatizing, especially for K5 students," the report stated. Diaz's legislation would task the State Board of Education with developing new drill requirements in line with the commission's recommendation to decrease the required number of safety drills from 10 to six.

In both Manatee and Sarasota, schools conduct monthly lockdown drills. During the drills, teachers lock their classroom door and students huddle in a corner of the classroom without speaking.

"How you drill is how you will act in the emergency," said Sarasota County Schools Police Department Chief Tim Enos. "I am in agreement that we might not need 10 drills, but I think we need to make sure we are consistent and continue in the strides that we have made."

Some districts have faced criticism for making drills too realistic or terrifying students by teaching them how to fight off an armed assailant.

Neither Manatee or Sarasota teach students tactics to fight against a shooter. Enos said Sarasota had implemented some drills in the high schools where students run. Manatee has not conducted any drills involving running, district spokesman Mike Barber said, but students are taught that their three options are to run, hide or fight.

Paul Damico, Manatee School District's new chief of safety and security, has been holding "tabletop exercises" with school leaders, in which they review who does what in the event of a mass tragedy. The district will hold its second active shooting training later this year, when staff will practice responding in a realistic reenactment of a shooting. Students will not be present for the training.

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Campus security

Sarasota and Manatee have taken different approaches toward meeting the new requirement for every school to have an armed school safety officer on campus.

The Sarasota School Board opted to create its own police force, establishing the Sarasota County Schools Police Department, staffed with FDLE-certified officers who have completed 770 hours of training.

"My goal has always been when we came in here is to lead and be a model police agency as it comes to school policing," Enos said. "That's the expectation when your kid goes to school, that they are going to come home."

In Manatee, the School Board decided to participate in the state guardian program, which requires 136 hours of training from the Sheriff's Office. Damico, Manatee's new safety chief, said the upside to staffing schools with guardians is that their sole responsibility is student safety, and they don't spend their time writing reports, making arrests or Baker Acting students.

Damico said the Guardian position is an attractive role for former law enforcement officers.

"Some of these (guardians) are more tactically trained than anyone you can find on the street right now," said Damico, who is a former SWAT team leader himself, with 31 years of experience in law enforcement. The district declined to release information on previous positions held by guardians, citing a public records exemption.

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Questionable reporting

Despite increased scrutiny on school security, the state's method for logging safety incidents at schools is hopelessly unreliable, the commission concluded. Each year, school districts are supposed to report how many crimes or "serious breaches of the student code of conduct" take place on each campus.

The Florida Department of Education publishes the numbers in its annual School Environmental and Safety Incident Reporting (SESIR) report, but the results indicate that there are widespread disparities over what school districts are reporting.

"It has significant data-quality issues," the commission concluded.

In the most recent report, Miami-Dade reported zero physical attacks taking place at schools, despite having a student population of 354,840. Sarasota, with 43,150 students, reported just two physical attacks. Manatee, with roughly 50,000 students, reported 23 such incidents. Meanwhile, one elementary school in Duval alone reported 119 physical attacks.

Enos said having a school district-based police force would lead to greater consistency on state reporting, and he said the department keeps its own statistics in addition to what is reported to the DOE.

"Nobody wants to look like the bad school by doing all of these reports, so they may end up not doing what's appropriate," Enos said. "But at the end of the day, you need to report what is accurate so we can provide resources to you."

Under Diaz's legislation, a school board or charter school governing board can withhold an administrator's salary if it is evident that the SESIR numbers do not align with reality.

Mental health

The state allocated $69 million to enhance mental health services in Florida's schools following the Parkland shooting. Sarasota added 22 new mental health therapists in schools at the beginning of last school year, and Manatee contracted with Centerstone to place 13 additional counselors in schools.

Lawmakers hope that having more therapists will mean fewer mental health issues in schools, but the steady increase in children being placed under supervised care through the Baker Act has raised concerns among commission members.

Commissioners singled out the state's lack of any mechanism to track students who have been Baker Acted multiple times, reporting that a 14-year old in Pinellas County had been Baker Acted 35 times and arrested 14 times without any red flag alerting authorities that the child was a repeat risk.

"There is no system for tracking or flagging high recidivist Baker Acts," the commission's report stated.

While the number of children under 18 has decreased in the past decade, the number of students being Baker Acted has more than doubled, from 15,000 in 2002 to 36,000 in 2018, according to the commission's report.

Melissa Larkin-Skinner, the CEO of Centerstone Health overseeing Florida and an appointee to the commission, said the increase in Baker Acts is partially due to increased awareness but is also a symptom of the lack of funding for mental health services.

"There is an overreliance on the crisis system versus the more steady maintenance part of the system," Larkin-Skinner said.

The commission is urging lawmakers to increase funding for mental health in schools and to create a mechanism to track students who have been Baker Acted multiple times.

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