FORT WALTON BEACH — There hasn't been a major threat to school safety at Liza Jackson Preparatory School, a K-8 school of 800 students, since the doors opened in 2001.
This is no small feat for a school that isn't situated in a secluded area with a gate and barbed wire fencing separating it from the outside world. Liza Jackson shares a parking lot with a strip mall in the middle of a high-traffic area off busy Mary Esther Cutoff.
The charter school's security success didn’t happen overnight.
“It’s like riding a bike. The first time you get on a bike you’re a little shaky, but every time you get on it, you get better,” Principal Kaye McKinley said. “I think we have done so much training with the teachers and talk about the worst case scenario … The more we talk about it, the more comfortable they are getting with the procedures.”
Here, school security is constantly evolving alongside new technology and new threats.
“I spend more time with the deputy on security issues than I do with my assistant principal on curriculum … We can’t learn if we’re not safe,” McKinley said.
Between McKinley and the school’s experienced student resource officer, Okaloosa County Deputy Cullen Coraine, school security has become a full-time job and a top priority.
"Something will happen somewhere," McKinley said. "God forbid it's here, and we don't want to be the ones telling you, 'We didn't think it would happen at Liza Jackson.'"
Security measures in place
Coraine implemented new security protocols when he was first placed at Liza Jackson in 2015. These included putting better locks on outside fences; implementing active shooter training school-wide; establishing bus driver safety protocols; and restructuring drop off and pick up areas.
However, some security measures were already in place, like having a single point of entry, when he arrived.
Liza Jackson was the first school in the county to have bulletproof doors installed at the single entrance area to the school.
Getting inside Liza Jackson requires submission to a process.
After making it through the double glass doors, visitors are required to pull out a state issued I.D and speak with an attendant sitting behind bullet-proof glass about the purpose of his or her visit to the campus. Visitors are required to have their I.D. scanned before receiving a pass to wear on their shirt. Only then will they be buzzed in to the school itself.
This process to get through the front door of Liza Jackson is a requirement for everyone, whether a parent, third cousin twice removed, or a Coca Cola vendor.
But safety measures are in place before ever entering the double glass doors.
Even in the parking lot, eyes follow your every move. These eyes are watching via a recently added and very intricate security camera system.
One near future security investment is a new school bus camera system that school administrators will be able to immediately access if needed.
Along with the bus cameras, McKinley and Coraine plan in August to have emergency kits in every classroom for situations where students are locked down for extended periods of time.
These emergency kits will be stocked with far more than first aid requirements. These kits will have snacks, batteries, bottled waters, and other necessities.
McKinley said each teacher creates kits based on what their class wants. Kindergartners might prefer gummy bears while eight graders might want something different.
Making security happen
Much time, planning, meetings and money go into continuously improving security at Liza Jackson.
"Even after the Marjory Stoneman shooting, we had an emergency meeting with administration and the CEO Terri Roberts the next day," Coraine said. " ... I hate it when bad things happen, but the whole world is reactive now because everything is price-driven."
McKinley said their parent organization—Parents and Teachers Helping Students (PATHS)—plays a huge role in securing funds for safety by fundraising and soliciting donations from businesses.
The organization helped raise money for the school’s new surveillance system, which McKinley said allowed administrators to focus school funds on the $33,000 school bus cameras.
Finding funding for school safety simply comes down to making it a priority, McKinley said.
"Teachers have done with what they have," she said. "We've probably put off the purchase of new computers for a year in order to upgrade the cameras."
Coraine said that he makes a one through 10 list of what's most important security-wise, and McKinley tries to fund the top priority items.
“(McKinley) has my list of wants and needs, and she makes it happen,” Coraine said.
'The picture of Liza'
Walking through the hallways, little hands raise to the sky waiting to be greeted by Coraine, or Deputy Cullen as the kids call him.
“Have you drunk enough water today?" Coraine asked one student after receiving a familiar hug.
“He’s kind of the picture of Liza,” McKinley said. “He is out there every single morning. As the kids come in the building, he is the first thing they see in the morning.”
Coraine started out in law enforcement at the Walton County Sheriff’s Office in 2003. He came to Okaloosa County in 2013 and was selected to become an SRO in 2015.
Coraine was quick to make changes at Liza Jackson, like taking the school's one-page evacuation plan and morphing it into a 27-page crisis plan.
Soon after his selection, Coraine became the SRO unit’s training instructor.
But Coraine extends his training far beyond his fellow SROs.
"Ms. McKinley gives me more than ample time to get with the whole staff," Coraine said. "It could be a custodian, it could be a bus driver, it could be a teacher. It doesn't matter. They get trained on everything. Every single thing."
Coraine said the staff and students have trained to a point that the third- and fifth-grade girls can conduct their own lockdown.
Coraine said McKinley allows him to perform "soft lockdowns" at random when the students aren't testing, which also helps everyone become acquainted with what to do in case of emergency.
But for Coraine, keeping the kids safe goes beyond creating a crisis plan or conducting lockdown drills.
The little thank you notes and drawings spread throughout his office serve as testimony to the relationship Coraine has built with his students. As a project, every single second grader wrote Coraine notes that were collected and put together for him in a binder.
"I'm literally still blown away every time," Coraine said. "... You don't understand the ripple effect of being a positive person in their life."