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Parkland shooter pleads guilty; massacre still top of mind in school safety efforts

Law enforcement say Florida schools are safer than they were, “but we’re not there” yet

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Gena and Tom Hoyer, the parents of murder victim Luke Hoyer, leave the courtroom in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, after the shooter pleaded guilty to murder in the 2018 massacre that left 17 dead.

Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP, Pool

By Jeffrey S. Solochek
Tampa Bay Times

PARKLAND, Fla. — The following first appeared in the Gradebook newsletter, a weekly dive into the latest policy, academic and political happenings in Tampa Bay area schools and across Florida, from Times education reporter Jeffrey S. Solochek.

It’s been 3 1/2 years now since the shooting massacre that took 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County. The shooter on Wednesday pleaded guilty to several counts of murder and attempted murder. Families of the victims this week reached a $25 million settlement with the school district.

Concerns about enhancing school security have not dissipated, though, as the case of the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history winds down. School districts continue to review their safety measures regularly — their annual state-required assessments are due by month’s end — and in many ways, much work remains.

As the end of October nears, school boards across Florida are taking their yearly stock of how their districts stack up when it comes to keeping campuses secure.

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Keeping with a mandate imposed after the Parkland shooting, district safety officials are reporting their analysis of the current situation and offering recommendations for how to move ahead. The approaches vary from county to county.

In Lee and Hernando counties, for instance, talk has centered on adding armed school guardians as another layer of protection, one that many other districts already have in place. Volusia County schools have their focus on fences and cameras rather than expanding personnel.

Several districts are examining how to implement a panic button alert system the state required, so news of any incident can more easily be relayed throughout a school and to law enforcement.

“Parkland was a paradigm shift” for how Florida schools look at safety and security, said John Newman, chief of security and emergency management for Hillsborough County Public Schools. He said watching the families of children killed in the shooting puts school safety plans into perspective.

“We’re making sure we’re all moving forward at a steady clip, to make sure our schools are the safest they can be,” said Michael Baumaister, a longtime Tampa police officer who heads the Pasco County school district’s safety office.

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Baumaister noted in his annual report that while progress has been made, some schools have further to go because of the way they were built, at a time when security was less a concern. The goal is to bring upgrades to the system, making all schools equally safe. That can take time, he added.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he has found schools throughout Florida to be much safer now than in 2018.

“But that doesn’t mean we’re there, and we’re not there,” said Gualtieri, chairman of the state’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission.

If there’s one area where significant effort must continue, he suggested, it “hands down” comes in the area of communication, particularly relating to threat assessment and management.

“You don’t want to have to use your active assailant response plan,” Gualtieri said. “You want to keep it from happening to begin with.”

That means identifying indicators of potential violence, and then keeping and sharing the information among schools and law enforcement, so they know what they might be dealing with. The commission recommended a statewide threat assessment database previously, and Gualtieri said, “We’re pushing for that again.”

School districts also need better coordination with mental health care providers serving students, he said. And within schools, more attention must be paid to the alert system that many teachers have said they don’t feel comfortable using.

Of course, not everyone is keen on the idea of heightened police presence and information gathering in the schools. Concerns have been plentiful about turning childish misbehavior into criminal offenses, with much attention paid to the arrests and involuntary commitment of youngsters.

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The collection and sharing of student personal information with law enforcement, often without parental knowledge or consent, also has raised community ire, as evidenced by a recently curtailed program in Pasco County.

Still, those tasked with overseeing school security say the effort must continue.

In 2023, the commission is scheduled to sunset. Gualtieri is pushing for a replacement of some type. With the state’s model dependent on school district self-reporting, he said, oversight and verification is critical. He has seen many examples where actions haven’t occurred until the commission asked questions, pointing to Broward County’s plan to reunify students with families after emergencies, which it didn’t finish until this fall, as an example.

The work of keeping schools safe, both Gualtieri and Baumaister said, is not something that has an end. Just look at how far districts did not progress after Columbine in 1999, or Sandy Hook in 2012, they said.

“By 2018, look at where school districts in Florida were not,” Gualtieri said. “The notion to say we can get to a point where we can just relax or maintain — no. The foot needs to stay on the gas pedal with school safety.”

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