As students head back to school from their summer adventures, teachers in Florida schools have already been working for several weeks. In addition to their regular activities of setting up the classroom and preparing to welcome students back, they’re been engaged in training through their respective school districts to ensure the safety of those under their care.

After the tragedy in Parkland, Florida in the spring of 2018, local governments, school administrators and law enforcement throughout the state have been working diligently to enhance safety plans in compliance with the Majority Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act.

The safety act, passed in March 2018, allocated $400 million to be shared among 67 counties in Florida for school safety officers, school hardening measures and direct mental health counseling and crisis intervention for students through the Florida Legislature, while establishing a threat assessment team within each district, and requiring mandatory active shooter training and drills.

Addressing the need for additional safety and prevention measures, school districts have opened their doors to risk assessments by law enforcement, taking steps to implement safety plans and provide protection at each of the district’s school campuses.

Here in St. Johns County Schools, the administration, led by Superintendent Tim Forson has built upon resources already in place such as a radio system, single points of entry into the district’s 40 schools and 15 youth resource deputies (YRDs) currently contracted from the ST. Johns Sheriff’s Office, while looking to add an additional 16 deputies during the 2018-19 school year, funded in part by the safe schools allocation through the state legislature.

Given the option by law to hire additional youth resource deputies, form their own police force through the school district or arm employees at the campus level as part of the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, St. Johns County has chosen the former.

Working with the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office and St. Johns County government to achieve these goals, the school district has contracted 28 armed security officers to begin the school year as the sheriff’s office works to hire and train deputies to serve in a permanent capacity.

Helping to fund the start-up costs of additional youth resource deputies, St. Johns County Commission Chairman Henry Dean sees the collaboration between the agencies to ensure the safety of the county’s nearly 39,000 students as a necessity.

“I think that the protection of our students is a top priority of the county that we need to all deal with – the school board, the sheriff and the county commission and I think that we worked out an excellent agreement, a very collaborative effort to reach what I consider a joint funding effort,” said Dean.

Helping further the effort is training for students and staff in the case of an active shooter situation.

“We’re fine-tuning some excellent training for the students and the staff for active shooter (situations),” said Sheriff David Shoar. “They know what to do for a fire drill, a hurricane drill, but what do you do for an active shooter? We’re in the process of developing the plans, with modules throughout the school year so our children know what they need to do,” he said.

Additional safety measures will continue to be implemented, including panic buttons, strategically placed security cameras and a direct link to the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office command center.

“We’re working, over time, toward the ability to integrate (cameras) so that the sheriff’s office can see those,” said Forson. “Communication is really important and we’ve purchased 800 megahertz radios that do integrate with all the local agencies – the sheriff’s office and fire rescue.”

While school hardening measures are a major component of how schools are addressing safety, another facet is front and center in the effort to prevent incidents, centered around social media and mental health.

Throughout the years, student and parent engagement has been a priority for St. Johns County schools. Hosting town hall meetings with parents and focus groups with students, important feedback has been gathered, and administrators hope parents will continue to stay engaged.

“There are a lot of opportunities for involvement from parents coming forward with this plan,” said Forson. “I think the students reinforced some of the concerns we had, that social media today is a concern. Students are heavily dependent upon social media and so as an adult in the school community, we have to be more engaged in that area. Students also reinforced that they need an adult to talk to, so it’s reinforced our expectation that the adults in our system are available, and that we’re open and encouraged to engage with students,” he said.

That engagement extends to the deputies on campus and the additional mental health counselors, social workers and school psychologists.

“They build relationships with the students, with the staff and so there are times when they can be the person, the mentor, who might help interact with a student we might be concerned with or a student that needs support,” said Forson.

While the solution to school safety is not a one size fits all when looking at the diversity of each community across Florida, Forson is hopeful that the combined efforts of the school district, sheriff’s office and St. Johns County government will be the key to a safe and successful school year.

“I think that the idea of arming and having somebody on campus is the physical feeling of security, but I can tell you we’ve done a great deal of work on the mental health side of support. Part of what you talk about – a student who might be at-risk or of some concern, we need to be able to get to children earlier when we start to see early warning indictors that a child might be in crisis or need support.

Visibility is important and so all of our local agencies, have been very supportive,” said Forson. “From a parent perspective, a student perspective, you will see that there is someone there looking out for your safety and well-being during the course of the day.”

Danielle Anderson

Danielle Anderson, a resident of Palm Coast, Florida
has worked in the public relations and media industry for
a decade. Writing for high profile publications across the
state, Danielle started her career as a news reporter for
Flagler Broadcasting, where she discovered her passion
for telling the stories of communities in Florida.