The world has never been a safe place but for most people there were places that seemed so. Schools were on that list. It has always been reasonable and expected that when parents sent their children to school in the morning, they would come home in the same condition that afternoon as when they left.
Another expectation turned on its head by modern events.
Still, you can’t let fear run your life – or your children’s lives – so the community has to find some way to get back our lost security in response to the rash of outrageous and unacceptable school shootings in recent years.
No one is sure just how to do that, but the Florida Legislature passed the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act in March. The act is far reaching. In part, the act deals with bump stocks (used to increase the speed of semi-automatic weapons), increases the age residents may purchase guns to 21 years and boosts penalties for crimes like threatening schools.
It also expands law enforcement’s ability to confiscate weapons and ammunition from someone seen as a “significant” threat. Perhaps the most controversial section of the act allows concealed firearms in schools. Referred to as the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, it was named for the hero coach who threw himself between the gunman and his target - students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland this past February 14.
The Guardian Program is evolving and many people have questions, but guns are so much more lethal than ever before. Horrific shootings are taking place all over this country. In response to the danger and intensity of the times, the Hendry County Sheriff’s Office and School District have agreed on a plan to arm specific school employees as an extra layer of protection for our students.
Sheriff Steve Whidden supports the new law, although he said he is not necessarily a “fan” of carrying guns in school. He said he recognizes that this is not a total solution to one of the most devastating and complicated issues our society faces.
For one thing, attitudes toward firearms have changed. The sheriff himself said he remembers lots of guns in trucks on campus parking lots when he was in school. They were not considered weapons as much as tools in those days. Obviously, today firearms, especially in historically weapon-free zones like schools, cannot have the same level of toleration.
There are a lot of factors involved in the Guardian Program, which was initiated in the county with a Memorandum of Understanding between the School Board and the HCSO to coordinate and move forward on the program.
Also, schools have to function in the real world, and school violence is only one of the major issues we all face today. After all, this country remains under threat from terrorist groups and individuals, both foreign and homegrown.
Hendry County’s Guardian Program, a collaboration between HCSO and the School District, is just in the planning stages. Volunteers who will carry concealed weapons on our school campuses will be thoroughly trained by a Florida Department of Law Enforcement-certified HCSO trainer, the sheriff explains. In fact, volunteers will be trained to a higher degree than law enforcement officers, Sheriff Whidden said.
When a situation arises, he said, “We may have only seconds to respond,” noting that there are a lot of factors in such a scenario.
Training will include a thorough background check of the volunteer, with a polygraph test and mental health screening. The semi-automatic handguns HCSO will purchase for the guardians to carry will remain unloaded, but with immediate access for the Guardian. These weapons will only be kept on their person, not in a drawer or other area, and Sheriff Whidden said there will be no reason to remove the gun from their person.
Very importantly, training will continue periodically to ensure that volunteers remain ready to meet their responsibilities as necessary.
The sheriff said that the HCSO can meet these standards on its current budget with state funding.
To allay fears of allowing guns on campus, the sheriff reminds people that a firearm is not required to hurt someone and that any intruder can create a potentially violent situation. This country is, after all, still under a terror threat.
He reasons that, if an intruder were to “take out” the SRO at a school, someone will still need to be there to meet the threat before other law enforcement can respond.
Currently, one School Resource Officer (SRO) is stationed in every public school in this county, but the sheriff wants two. If funding for that becomes available, he said, the Guardian Program may become unnecessary.
SROs have been familiar sights in Hendry schools for years. Sheriff Whidden added SROs in elementary schools since the Sandy Hook shooting which cut short the lives of 26 elementary school students and adults in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.
Hendry County Superintendent of Schools Paul Puletti is directing the school system’s reaction to this threat. Deputy Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Lucinda Kelley and Deputy Superintendent for Continuous Learning and Deputy Dr. Robert Egley are collaborating on the various details that will make the Guardian Program work.
Ms. Kelley points out that there are three separate layers in Hendry County’s answer to school violence: the Guardian Program; the “hardening” of school buildings; and enhanced reactions to mental health issues.
Ms. Kelley and Dr. Egley will identify and recommend volunteer Guardian Program participants (staff, no classroom teachers) to be screened and trained for the program. The hope is that they can be trained over the summer for full implementation in the fall.
She said staff employed in buildings have been surveyed and 64 percent approve of the program and reiterated that no classroom teachers will be Guardian volunteers. To keep the community involved in the effort, the district has presented two public forums that generated lots of discussion and community input. Many questions were answered and information shared. She feels the community’s comfort level with the plan has increased with a better understanding of the safety steps being taken.
Dr. Egley explains that this whole program is a “work in progress” but says that changes are coming. School campuses require so much more safety measures than ever before. The cost of bulletproof glass for windows and doors puts them out of reach at this time, but there are alternatives like glazed and tinted windows to limit visibility from outside of rooms. Adding ballistic film could keep windows intact after being struck by a bullet, delaying access to an intruder and giving law enforcement more time to respond to a situation, he explained.
In time, possibilities could include hurricane shutters for all schools and even the small windows on classroom doors. Door jamming devices can be installed to prevent doors from being opened by an intruder.
The district has intensified its School Safety Assessment begun in March and added significantly more detail for the Department of Education’s Office of Safe Schools.
One tried and true method to stay on top of school threats of any kind is through tips from students and parents. Dr. Egley said that, with some 1,100 students at LaBelle High School and 1,000 at Clewiston High School, staff gets a lot of important information in that way. It’s a “powerful tool” for schools to keep everyone safe, he said.
Fencing campus perimeters and keeping gates locked are a simple beginning, limiting entry and exit from our schools. Adding security cameras and video cameras with speaker capability could also go a long way to providing more security.
Simple vigilance is an easy way to provide layers of safety - keeping staff alert for people who do not belong on campus. Another way is having teachers move around the schools more and into areas where they would not normally be seen provides more eyes to see what is going on. See something, say something, then do something, if necessary, Dr. Egley said.
Checking IDs, wearing badges and even signage making people aware that there are armed volunteers on campus can have a positive effect, Dr. Egley pointed out.
Next year students will have to use clear backpacks so their contents can easily be seen.
Delaying access to buildings and classrooms can be accomplished with methods like altering evacuation drills and providing more radios for staff providing outside speakers for communication.
Dr. Egley laid out the plan this way, “deter, detect, delay, respond and recover.”
Ms. Kelley’s four years in working in Exceptional Student Education (ESE) has given her experience in how mental health affects students and staff and makes her a good fit to continue oversight of the school district’s ESE program and the mental health element of the Guardian Program.
The district provides mental health services in-house. The Guardian Program will enhance screening and protection for students in need of services.
Mental health referrals for students in need can come from many avenues. Parents can seek help for their child. Teachers or guidance counselors can take the lead and have a threat assessment done for a child who has suffered some type of trauma (such as death or accident) or who exhibits violent behavior or causes trouble.
There is also an online referral to one of the district’s two psychologists for any teacher or guidance counselor.
There are multi-tiered levels of support, Ms. Kelley points out, and the school district tries to react quickly to a situation.
Violence, Sheriff Whidden said, in this world is random and impossible to completely stop. The answer is being as prepared as possible. He sees the Guardian Program as this county’s best option at this time.
Till more elaborate means can be developed, the Hendry County School District and Sheriff’s Office will collaborate through the Guardian Program to ensure any threat to our children at school is minimized.