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School Safety A Priority Across Panhandle

In the aftermath of the deadly mass shooting last year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in south Florida, school safety and security has been pushed to the forefront.

The February 2018 shooting in Parkland left 17 people, students and staff, dead. Seventeen people were injured.

With the new school year now underway, district officials here in Northwest Florida provided an update on some of the measures they’ve taken to improve campus safety.

“School safety is our second priority, but it really is our first,” said Santa Rosa School Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick stating the importance of school safety.

This issue has become more urgent for all district administrators across the state since the shooting and subsequent adoption of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act.

The law requires the hardening of school buildings and grounds and the limiting of access. Now schools in each district have perimeter fences, locked gates and new protocols for gaining entry to schools through single points of entry.

“We close the campuses, basically, and there’s only one egress into the campus and into that, you have to be checked in. You can’t just walk through a door any longer in Santa Rosa County,” Wyrosdick added.

In addition to locked doors, the entrance to every public school in Okaloosa and Santa Rosa is equipped with some sort of video monitoring system.

Credit Daniel Hahn / Santa Rosa County School District
Santa Rosa County School District
Parent Sarah Rhodes, picking up her son, went through the Access Control system at Sims Middle in Pace last school year.

The “Access Control” monitoring system is in operation at schools in Santa Rosa County.

For example, visitors and parents have to buzz the main office, state their business, and show their identification to the camera installed at the front door.

“Can I help you ma’am,” responded an office worker at Sims Middle School in Pace after parent Sarah Rhodes buzzed in during a visit last school year.

“Yes, I’m here to check out a student,” answered Rhodes in reference to her son.

After complying with commands from the office, an electronic door chime sounded and Rhodes was welcomed inside.

In a recent development, the Santa Rosa County School District has taken the additional step of providing the county’s 9-1-1 dispatch center and Sheriff’s Office dispatch in access to every camera in every school.

While many security features are not visible to the public, safe-school officers are meant to be seen. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act requires at least one security officer at each school.

“I’m proud to tell you this: Every campus will have an SRO and that has been a monumental lift for the school district and for the sheriff’s department,” proclaimed Superintendent Wyrosdick.

He applauded the commitment it took from Sheriff Bob Johnson to have a full staff of SROs for the first time in about 14 years.

“I remember sitting down with him and we had a very frank, very short, but very intense conversation where we agreed that the only way to secure our schools is to put a school resource officer on every campus as soon as possible,” Wyrosdick said. “And, I don’t think it’s widely known, but we only had six out of 38 campuses covered at that time.”

“Safety is, you know, 100 percent our top priority,” said Okaloosa County School Superintendent Marcus Chambers. “We’re blessed to have what I believe is the best SRO unit in the state of Florida.”

Chambers does have the best SROs, with the Florida Association of School Resource Officers recently designating the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office School Resource Officer Unit as the SRO Unit of the Year.

Additionally, Okaloosa Deputy Cullen Coraine was selected as the state’s top SRO. A video was also part of the competition submission.

“Fifty-five rifle-qualified school resource officers in Okaloosa County carry M4s and backpacks at school and campus events,” says the narrator as rifle shots are heard in the background. “Stop the Bleed training is now routine.” 

Stop the Bleed is a national awareness campaign intended to empower bystanders to receive the training needed to assist in a bleeding emergency before professionals arrive.

In the video, Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley proclaims, “We have men and women who are ready to lay their lives down in order to protect our children.”

It’s that training and support that translates back to the lives of the students, back to the lives of our employees,” adds Chambers as the video continues. “And, that’s what makes a difference in Okaloosa County.”

Credit Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office
Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office
Okaloosa County Deputy Cullen Coraine was selected as the state’s top School Resource Officer. The Okaloosa SRO unit was also named best in Florida.

Not surprisingly, the district – yet again – will have a fully staffed team of certified School Resource Officers.

“Each of our schools has at least one SRO and our high schools will have two SROs,” added Chambers.

As required, the Escambia County School Districtalso started the school year with at least one law enforcement or armed security guard on every campus. Long-term Superintendent Malcolm Thomas plans to hire dozens of campus safety officers, but acknowledges that, to date, it has been a struggle.

“We put out application and put people through the first class. And, of course, it’s rigorous and not everybody has been able to pass,” explained Thomas, who planned a second class of applicants to coincide with the beginning of the school year.

“And, we’re going to have to open some additional classes in the fall to continue to try to recruit and solicit people that can meet the qualifications.”

Campus safety applications are available on the district website: www.escambia.k12.fl.us.

But, even with armed security, school hardening and required active-shooter drills, Thomas says much more is required to actually have a safe school.

“What we know from all the active school shooters is that it usually happens from someone that’s supposed to be inside the school,” Thomas proclaimed. “We have to make sure that every student on our campus knows an adult that if they’re in trouble or they have trouble or know a friend in trouble, (and) that they know an adult they can trust enough to go and tell them.”

Additionally, Thomas says the schools have to get the word out to students that mental health services are available on every campus.

Because of the new school safety law, which provides some funding, each school is now required to offer mental health services and establish threat-assessment teams.

For every district, safety in the classroom means a lot of in-school training for all teachers and support staff, and general awareness education for faculty, students, and parents to always be alert and do their part to create an atmosphere of safety and security. 

“We want to pre-empt; we think that’s how you make safe schools,” declared Superintendent Thomas.

“If we get to the point (where) I’m having to rely on the armed security, we’re in trouble already, because that means we’re in the middle of an event and have to fire back.”

Escambia and Okaloosa are among the 36 counties that have signed up to participate in Florida's school guardian program, which allows the arming of qualified school employees. Earlier this year, the guardian program expanded to include licensed security guards.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.