CRESTVIEW — Local school officials and law enforcement are moving forward with plans to keep schools safe in the wake of recent tragedies.
The Feb. 14 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. has reignited national debates on gun control, mental health issues and school safety.
At the state level, Governor Rick Scott recently announced a $500 million school safety plan that will increase the number of school resource officers and mental health counselors in schools.
At the local level, Okaloosa County schools and the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office are not only preparing to implement state-level changes, they are also working on other ways to deal with the threat of mass school shootings.
Reaching out to students
School officials in Okaloosa County are seizing on a nationwide school walkout movement scheduled for March 14 as a way to collaborate with students on ideas to make schools safer. The school district is planning a student leadership safety summit for that date at 9 a.m. at the Central Administrative Office in Niceville. Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson will meet with student government leaders from each of the district’s six high schools.
The purpose of the summit is to bring student leaders together with school officials and law enforcement to try to develop solutions to the problem of mass school shootings, according to Andy Johnson, safe schools specialist for the district. Governor Scott’s plan will be one of the issues discussed at the summit.
“We want to review some of the things that we’re hopeful for,” Johnson said, mentioning the governor’s plan and other proposed improvements. He said that students and school officials will be participating in workshops to brainstorm new ideas on how to curb violence in schools.
Students at Okaloosa County middle and high schools will be allowed to participate in a walkout at 10 a.m. on March 14 for 17 minutes, with parental permission, to honor the victims of the Parkland shooting. Attendees at the leadership summit will also have the opportunity to stand in silence at that time.
“It’s not a protest. It’s a time for remembrance and it’s a time for students to stand in unity, to show solidarity,” Johnson said. “We expect great participation in it. It’s the right thing to do.”
School resource officers
A key component of the statewide plan is to deploy additional school resource officers to schools. But the school board and sheriff’s office aren’t waiting for lawmakers in Tallahassee to start moving forward.
The Okaloosa County School Board, at its Feb. 26 meeting, approved additional school resource officers for six county schools based on the size of the student population. Three of those schools, Crestview High School, Baker School and Northwood Elementary-Richbourg School, are in North Okaloosa County. The resource officers were already in place on a temporary basis following the Feb. 14 shooting, and are now permanent.
“We don’t want to ever have to respond to active shooters. We want to be there already to prevent it from happening to begin with,” Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley said to the school board. “When you look at a school that has 500 students versus a school that has 2,000 students, that’s going to be a different number (of school resource officers). It’s just common sense.”
The sheriff’s office acknowledged that additional changes are being made to the school resource officer program, but declined to give specific details. The Okaloosa County program was nationally recognized as a “Model Agency” in 2015 by the National Association of School Resource Officers.
The Broward County program has come under fire since the Parkland shooting when Sheriff’s Deputy Scot Peterson, the resource officer assigned to Stoneman Douglas, did not enter the building during the incident. Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley said that was not an option for his officers.
“Our policy does not give a deputy the discretion to refuse to engage an active shooter,” Ashley said. “Whether you’re alone or have 10 others with you, engage until the threat is eliminated.”
The sheriff’s office stated that their school resource officers “undergo active shooter training on a routine basis.”
Responding to threats
The number of threats in the weeks following the Parkland shooting has increased, according to the sheriff’s office. Sheriff Ashley said that while threats of school violence have always been taken seriously, there have been “many more complaints made as people have become aware of the seriousness of threats.”
Authorities arrested a 12-year-old Crestview online student Feb. 22 for sending threats to another student in his online class. That incident occurred two days after a 13-year-old Pryor Middle School student was arrested for sending a Snapchat photo of an M4 rifle and text threatening to carry out a school shooting.
Nikolas Cruz, the alleged Parkland shooter, posted similar threats to Instagram two years prior to the Parkland shooting. Those threats were brought to the attention of Peterson, who was still the school resource officer at Stoneman Douglas at the time, but no further action was taken.
“These kids must understand that when you make a threat, whether you’re joking or kidding or trying to get out of school, it’s no different than making a bomb threat or pulling the fire alarm,” Ashley said in a PSA video on how to handle these types of threats. “You put people’s lives in danger and you will suffer the consequences. There are no ifs ands or buts. You go to jail.”
Part of the national debate about school safety has involved training and arming teachers. The Florida Senate, in its March 3 session , moved forward with a school safety bill, which included a provision that would allow local sheriff’s officers to deputize certain specially-trained teachers and school staff to carry guns in schools.
Governor Scott has previously opposed arming teachers.
“I disagree with arming the teachers,” Scott said at a press conference announcing his school safety plan. “My focus is on bringing in law enforcement. Let law enforcement do the keeping us safe and let teachers focus on teaching.”
The Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office said the idea is in discussion but is waiting to see how things play out in the legislature.
“All is premature until passed legislative proposals are known,” Ashley said. “(We) will continue planning for this possibility and what it will require from OCSO and OCSD.”
Capital improvements to schools
Physical improvements to school buildings are also in discussion as part of a possible solution. Shortly after the Parkland shooting, Superintendent Jackson announced plans to create single points of entry at all county schools, making it easier to monitor traffic into and out of school buildings.
Improvements to existing buildings would be the most costly piece of the school safety puzzle. In November, the school board voted to abort a referendum on a half-cent sales tax increase to raise funds for county school improvements. The move was made in the face of numerous investigations into the school district.
Andy Johnson supports the idea of raising money to improve schools. “There would be no greater purpose for communities to join together and help fund an effort than to help make our schools safer.”