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.

In Flagler County, Dr. Earl Johnson has taken the lead as at the Flagler school district’s state mandated safety specialist, working closely with Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly, and the agency’s Domestic Homeland Security Section to implement recommendations gleaned from the risk assessment done for each of Flagler’s campuses.

In an effort to increase safety, the Marjory Stonemand Douglas High School Public Safety Act gave school districts the option to add additional school resource officers, formulate their own police force or participate in the Coach Aaron Felk Guardian Program.

With 13,000 students and nine public school campuses, Flagler Schools moved methodically to formulate a plan of action, deciding to add seven additional school resource deputies (SRDs) to the district’s contract with the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office.

“School security is of utmost importance,” said Johnson. “That is why we worked so diligently with Sheriff (Rick) Staly in expanding our School Resource Deputy Program and continue to work with the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office in identifying and correcting any security concerns on our campuses.”

The partnership between the school district, the City of Palm Coast, the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office and the Flagler County Board of Commissioners has ensured that each of the five elementary schools in Flagler County will now have a dedicated SRD on campus, middle schools will have their own SRD and both high schools will have two school resource deputies on campus.

“Prior to this act and this collaborative effort, the elementary schools were not covered at all, so what this really does is increase it so that every elementary school can have a deputy and two deputies at each of the high school campuses which are like small cities,” said Staly.

“The deputies need to refine their skills in their beginning years and have the right temperament for a school. It’s a different environment,” said Staly. “It takes a very level-headed deputy to be in the school and someone who’s willing to be a mentor and be almost a parent figure to the kids. We have a great team of school resource deputies and they take it very seriously but they don’t go overboard,” he said.

Leading the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office Youth Services Division is Commander Phil Reynolds, who has seen first-hand the benefits of positive relationships between students and school resource deputies.

“From my experience I’ve seen that the students get in a relationship with the officer whether that person is at-risk or the greatest kid,” said Reynolds. “I’ve have seen through recent cases, that somebody is at-risk and just wants somebody to talk to.”

Mental health counseling has become a major component of the prevention program through the school safety act, and Flagler Schools are building on the resources already in place to expand availability of services to students while providing platforms and support systems that encourage positive reinforcement and a place where students can safely share concerns, issues, or problems.

“We have embraced the PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports) system,” said Johnson. “We are also in the process of implementing restorative practices. This is a way to have students talk about issues they’re having with each other, to restore the relationships between and among the students. We believe having positive, open dialog among students is important in solving many issues on our campuses. Having the school psychologists and mental health counselors on our campuses enables us to identify at-risk students so that we can get the help and support they need as soon as possible,” he said.

“Flagler Schools recognized the importance of mental health supports on our campuses a number of years ago,” said Johnson. “We are working to place a school psychologist on all our campuses. Last year we had just two schools sharing a school psychologist.”

Even with state funding allocated, the mandates have been costly and it has taken the partnership of Flagler Schools, Flagler County Sheriff’s Office and Flagler County government to ensure success.

“To date, Flagler County (through the sheriff’s budget) currently pays about 73 percent of the costs for the existing school resource officers,” said Flagler County Commission Chair Greg Hansen. “The agreement moving forward is a 50-50 funding split between the Sheriff and the School Board. This amount will be approved when we pass the budget later this summer.”

“We are glad we can participate in the safety of our kids,” he said. “We hope we can maintain these funding levels in the future with the ever increasing financial challenges we face.”

Dr. Johnson wants parents and students to know school safety is a priority for Flagler County.

“We know parents send their children off to us in the morning and have every expectation of getting them back safely at the end of the school day,” said Johnson. “We want our families to know we are taking all precautions to ensure that happens.”

Info at a Glance

• Flagler County is home to 13,000 students

• A School Resource Deputy (SRD) will be on every campus in the Flagler School district

• Additional mental health counselors and resources are available to students and staff

• Active shooter training and drills are ongoing to ensure the safety of students and staff

• See Something, Say Something is key

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.