The Okaloosa County Commission approved $1.623 million in funds on Sept. 3 for schools to have Mass Notification System installed.

Schools in Okaloosa County will be on the cutting edge when it comes to school safety, thanks to a $1.623 million Mass Notification System approved by the County Commission on Sept. 3.

The system was approved in a unanimous vote and will be paid for with funds from a half-cent sales tax designated for public safety, transportation and stormwater capital improvements that took effect Jan. 1.

Sheriff Larry Ashley gave the system’s chance for approval a big push after some initial debate among commissioners over whether or not county funds or School District funds should be used.

“Our job is to protect the vulnerable,” Ashley said. “And school children don’t have the ability to defend themselves. They’re among the most vulnerable among us, and you can’t turn teachers into law enforcement as much as you can’t turn law enforcement into teachers.

“When it comes to the safety of children and schools, these different entities have to work as a team and not get into the weeds about who is financially responsible. And if the tax says it’s for public safety, I can’t think of a better reason to use it than the safety of children in our schools.”

The system can be accessed via an app or computer, and can instantly push a notification to an entire campus via mobile devices, computer screens and newly installed, high-tech loudspeakers.

The county is still going over several bids from vendors to handle the system's installation. One proposal could have the system in place within seven to nine months while another could take longer and see the system installed in phases, with all 39 schools equipped within two years.

“(Ashley) pointed out that a sizable percentage of our county population is school age,” District 3 Commissioner Nathan Boyles said. “Indeed, the School District is the largest employer in the county, and it is likely that schools are the largest and densest regular gathering of citizens in our communities.”

While the new system will ostensibly have multiple uses when it comes to dangerous situations, it’s impossible to ignore its primary purpose: to give law enforcement and schools the upper hand if a shooter comes on campus.

In 2018, there were 110 incidents of gun-related violence on K-12 campuses across the United States — the highest total since the statistic began being tracked in 1970. It was almost double the second-highest total of 59 in 2006, and there have been 53 incidents so far in 2019 according to the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School.

“Certainly, the threat of school violence is on everyone’s mind,” Superintendent of Schools Marcus Chambers said, “and we can’t pretend that we are immune to the possibility of it occurring here. The Mass Notification System is one measure of many in keeping our students safe.”