More than a year since the Parkland school shooting claimed the lives of 17 students and faculty members, ensuring school safety remains a forefront priority for Pasco County Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning.
Browning discussed that, and a number of other school issues, as the featured guest speaker at the North Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce March breakfast meeting at the Pasco-Hernando State College Porter Campus in Wesley Chapel.
“Parkland kind of rocked our world,” Browning said, during the breakfast meeting. “It really shook everybody’s core about the magnitude of what our responsibility is about making sure that our kids are safe in our schools.”
Browning said Pasco Schools have made a number of sweeping changes to enhance school safety, in the wake of the February 2018 tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in South Florida.
Among the most noteworthy, Browning said, was the district hiring around 60 armed school safety guards to place in elementary schools — in addition to school resource officers at all middle and high schools — to comply with Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, also known as Senate Bill 7026. The district’s safety guards are required to have a minimum of 10 years of experience in the military or law enforcement.
Browning explained the safety guards have quickly made a positive impact on school campuses, by taking on a mentoring relationship with students, which, in turn, has led to fewer discipline referrals districtwide.
“These men and women are kicking it,” Browning said. “Just having that presence on the campus has been significant, has been incredible for this district, and also provides a sense of security, and, it does provide security.
“We’re much more tight about who’s on campus. If you don’t have a (identification) badge on, they’re going to ask you where you are from or what you’re doing on campus.”
As another safety measure, Browning said district schools are getting upgraded door locks, thanks in part to a security grant from the Florida Department of Education, whereby classroom doors can lock from the inside when they are closed.
“There’s no getting back in that room unless you have a key,” said Browning. “Whether teachers or principals like it or not, those doors are going to lock, and you better have a key on your body if you want to get back in a classroom, because your kids need to be safe and they need to be protected.”
The school district is also “installing a lot more (security) cameras,” Browning said.
Browning also mentioned there’s a districtwide policy requiring gates and classroom doors to be locked and secured during school hours.
Browning said the policy — put into effect a week after the Parkland shooting — received pushback from some teachers and administrators, who called it “inconvenient” at the time.
“I don’t want to hear about how inconvenient it is that you’ve got to wear a key on your lanyard to get back into your door,” Browning said of those complaints. “It would be inconvenient for me to have to stand before a bank of national TV cameras explaining how someone got onto our campus, and worse yet, got into your classroom. That’s what’s inconvenient to me.”
He continued, “Kids needs to be safe in our schools. Parents need to have the expectation when you drop your child off at our school that they’re going to be safe.”
Besides addressing school safety, the superintendent offered an update to some new school projects in East Pasco, including the new Cypress Creek Middle School being built next to Cypress Creek Middle High School, which opened in 2017.
“We have broken ground. We are tearing ground open. We are putting walls down at Cypress Creek Middle School,” Browning said.
The new middle school is set to open in 2020.
Once complete, the approximately 185,000-square-foot to 195,000-square-foot middle school will become Pasco’s largest middle school. It will serve more than 1,600 students in grades six through eight.
Related to that, Browning said the school district is set to undergo another redistricting either later this year or early next year, whereby students from Seven Oaks Elementary will likely be zoned to the Cypress Creek schools — a measure to reduce overcrowding at John Long Middle and Wiregrass Ranch High schools, respectively.
Browning also said moves are being made to bring a technical high school to East Pasco.
“We’re getting ready to break ground. We’re in the design stage now,” Browning said.
The superintendent explained that district officials are leaning toward having the unnamed technical school built on the recently purchased 104-acre Kirkland Ranch property, situated at the southeast corner of Curley and Kiefer roads.
The district has also considered the technical school for a 125-acre tract along Handcart and Fairview Heights roads.
Browning, however, said the Kirkland Ranch property may present a more desirable location once the new Interstate 75 interchange at Overpass Road is completed.
“It’s a good shot from Zephyrhills, a great shot from Wesley Chapel, and a great shot from Dade City,” Browning said.
Either way, Browning said a technical school would help relieve overcrowding concerns at Pasco, Wesley Chapel, Wiregrass Ranch and Zephyrhills high schools.
“It will lower the numbers again in those schools, but also give kids in this area a technical education if that’s what they want to do,” he said.
Elsewhere, the superintendent touched on teacher salaries — and finding ways to boost them.
Browning said he’s having ongoing discussions with district staff about the possibility of holding a millage election “solely for the purpose of paying our teachers more money.”
“The mission we have in Pasco is paying teachers,” Browning said. “We’ve got to make an investment in our teachers.”
Published March 20, 2019