Pasco schools adopt new safety measures

An initiative to place school safety guards into Pasco County’s elementary schools attracted 125 applicants for 53 job slots.

Training for the safety guards is scheduled to begin in June, with a goal of having the guards prepared for duties by August. Some applicants were retired law enforcement officers.

“We’re excited about the level of interest and the caliber of people who are interested,” said Betsy Kuhn, assistant superintendent for support services with Pasco County Schools.

Betsy Kuhn, assistant superintendent for support services at Pasco County Schools, standing, and Pasco County Superintendent Kurt Browning, sitting to the right, led discussion on school safety at Wiregrass High School. (Kathy Steele)

The update on hiring school safety guards was part of a broader presentation on school safety, hosted by the Pasco County Schools public school district on May 7, at the Wiregrass High School cafeteria.

About 100 people attended, including parents, teachers, school board members and school bus drivers.

The presentation highlighted the school district’s response to a new state law requiring elementary schools to have armed security. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act is a reaction to the Valentine’s Day school shooting in Parkland when 17 people were killed.

Lawmakers approved some financial assistance for boosting school safety, and for mental health care. But, school officials said funding is inadequate, and won’t pay to place School Resource Officers, who are certified law enforcement officers, at every school.

The school district now has SROs at its middle and high schools. The security guards that will provide protection at elementary schools are a less-expensive option.

Before being stationed at schools, the guards will go through 132 hours of training with the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.

Other topics discussed at the public meeting included the school district’s update to its Active Threat Plan; the highlights of the state’s new restriction on firearms; and mental health care services.

Making campuses safer
The school district began a review of its existing school safety plan in January. The updated version was implemented in August.

Priorities are on safety, prevention efforts and working collaboratively with the sheriff’s office.

An assessment of the district’s 90 facilities is underway. The final report will look at additional ways to eliminate vulnerabilities on campuses, Kuhn said.

“We want to make sure we remain vigilant as we get farther away from Parkland,” she said. “We’re looking at how we balance our facilities so they are welcoming to the community, but safe.”

That isn’t a balance everyone supported.

One woman during public comment said, “I don’t want my school open to the community. I want it closed.”

About a dozen people spoke during public comment. They talked about their fears, and those of their children or students. They also spoke about how the school district can improve safety, and do better at communicating to parents and school employees.

Rayomond Chinoy has two children who will attend high school next year. He has met privately with school officials about his concerns.

One issue he raised at the public meeting is how school officials would stop potential shooters from entering school buildings, once they have been identified as threats. He also worries about safety on school field trips.

“I don’t think they’ve figured out a balance yet,” said Chinoy, speaking after the meeting. “I want to know this is how we’re going to fix it. This is where the money is coming from.”

Some also wanted greater emphasis on prevention efforts, and mental health support.

Browning said, “This district works incredibly hard to identify those kids who need extra support.”

But, funding is an issue.

And, regarding the issue of identifying potential active shooters, Browning said, “I don’t know of anyone who is a clairvoyant who knows what’s in the head of every kid.”

Lt. Troy Ferguson, with the sheriff’s office, talked about law enforcement’s role in school safety.

“It’s a sad commentary on society that we have to have these types of meetings,” he said.

But, the sheriff’s office monitors threats on a daily basis.

Recently, a teenager who moved from Pasco to Ohio made a threat on social media. Ferguson said he was arrested in Ohio.

And, even if it means waking parents at 2 a.m., to ask about a tweet or Facebook post by their child, Ferguson said deputies will do what’s necessary for safety.

Active shooter situations generally last 6 minutes to 12 minutes, he said.

In those moments, response plans rely on a “mitigation strategy not a prevention strategy,” Ferguson said.

The goals are self-evacuation; communications and alerts for school lockdown and barricading classrooms; concealment; and, as a last resort, countering the attacker.
“It’s literally about defending your life and the life of a child, looking for a place to take refuge,” Ferguson said.

The sheriff’s office, similar to the school district, wants to strike a balance.

“We want to be inviting to the community,” said Ferguson. “We don’t want to think about building moats and putting in big dragons, just yet.”

There were divisions among those at the meeting on whether to arm school employees, including teachers, with firearms.

Browning said state lawmakers want SROs at every school, but they didn’t provide funding for that.

“We can’t afford true SROs on all of our campuses,” he said. But, he added, “I’m not ready to arm district personnel. I’m just not ready to do that.”

Browning said deputies responding to active shooters would have trouble distinguishing between school employees and the shooter.

One woman suggested that district personnel could wear badges or special vests, if they were armed.

Some parents spoke about building modifications that were needed. For example, they said many schools have doors with glass windows that can be broken for easy access into classrooms.

Once the campus assessment is done, Browning said the district will know more about additional expenses needed to boost safety measures. The next step would be to identify financial resources, which might involve local fundraising activities.

“This was an insightful evening,” Browning said. “We’re still working through the plan. We can do a better job of communicating. The conversation does not stop here.”

Published May 16, 2018

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