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.

Taking a hybrid approach, Volusia County Schools has engaged the community for qualified participation in the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, to meet the requirements of having security on each of the district’s school campuses according to Volusia County Schools Superintendent James. T Russell.

Working in conjunction with Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood, the school district will employ the Guardians, known as school safety specialists while the sheriff’s office will have school resource deputies (SRD) on campuses throughout the district.

“We are implementing a hybrid system with all middle and high schools having an SRO/SRO on campus and the elementary schools having school guardians assigned,” said Russell.

Over the summer, a panel – made up of school board employees and a member of the sheriff’s office, began reviewing the applicants, which included retired members of law enforcement, before beginning interviews and a stringent screening process.

“The school board adopted Guardian Program received close to 200 applications, that goes to show the interest that we had,” said Chitwood.

“The plan is that these men and women will be armed with the same training and firearms as the deputies. They are going to go through the same exact screening that we do with our deputies,” said Chitwood, including psychological, drug testing, and background checks, and will complete a 40 hour annual recertification before each school year begins after their initial training requirements have been met.

Signing an agreement with Sandy Hook Promise, started after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, Russell is looking forward to implementing the training for staff and students focused on three core elements: “Say Something,” “Start with Hello,” and “Signs of Suicide.”

The programs focus on how to identify warning signs and threats of violence, how to be more inclusive and connected to each other and how to identify, intervene and get help for depressed or suicidal individuals with the help of social workers, counselors or mental health crisis teams.

In addition to the Sandy Hook Promise and the creation of the Guardian Program, school hardening measures are in progress. Russell notes safety upgrades like single-point entry with interior fencing, slated for completion in the next six months, and the installation of cypher locks and cameras, based on the needs of each campus.

Working closely with Sheriff Chitwood and the local governments, Russell is diligent about the safety of campuses under his direction.

“We have had a great working relationship with the sheriff’s office, and the staff are assisting us on interviews with the applicants for the guardians. They will provide the necessary 132 hours required training and will manage the program with record keeping and requalification training.

They are also providing 17 SRD’s to staff our schools with a cost share this year. We work with the sheriff’s office daily as we work out the details with this program. We also have a good working relationship with our municipalities,” said Russell.

While the Florida Legislature appropriated $400 million for the school safety act, school districts, local governments and sheriff’s offices are grappling with balancing the requirements of law with the dollars available. Local governments are working to help ensure the needs of the school districts are being met as they wait for funding to be disbursed from Tallahassee.

“We adjusted the rate we contribute,” said Volusia County Council Chairman Ed Kelley. “We had been billing the schools for a 75-25 split on the cost of providing the deputies to the schools and this year what we’re going to be doing is about a 50-50 split, allowing them to provide for the deputies in the schools that they need.”

It’s an expenditure that Kelley knows is needed to keep children in the community safe. “I think this is the first step to helping provide the safety until we really get into hardening the campuses, which is sad that you have to do that, but I think that it’s going to help a great deal,” said Kelley. “I think it will help in letting people know that if the bad guys want to do something, that there’s law enforcement in place. We care about our kids.”

lt will also help our kids to understand the relationship, I know our kids still remember the officer that was there at Seabreeze High School and it helps develop a good feeling and a good relationship between the law enforcement and the students at a younger age. That’s important, they have to understand those are people they can trust and depend upon.  -Council Chairman Ed Kelley

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.