After the Parkland shooting in 2018, Sarasota schools sped up some security measures, and new ones appeared.
Even before 17 students and staff members were killed one year ago at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, officials with Sarasota County Schools were working on security upgrades, both physical and procedural, to all of its 53 campuses.
After Feb. 14, 2018, though, some of those plans were sped up and new initiatives added. Among the most visible, the creation of a school district police force to satisfy a state law requiring some form of armed security on campus. But a variety of other projects — some already in the works and some new — also have taken effect in the 12 months that followed.
Kelsey Whealy, a spokeswoman for the district, said the strategy revolves around the unofficial phrase “harden the outside, soften the inside” of schools.
“It’s an ever-evolving challenge,” said Becky Morey, an assistant principal at Sarasota High. “There are evil people out there and they will find ways to do evil things, but we’ve got the awareness, I think.”
Here are some of the security measures underway at schools:
Fences, cameras, entries
In early 2018, Sarasota County Schools had already embarked on a $23 million plan to “harden” campuses with things such as single points of entry, better fences, security glass, updated alarm and locking systems and more. After Parkland, that plan was condensed to one year.
Now, according to Sarasota County Schools Communications Director Tracey Beeker, the school district is on course to finish by the start of the 2019-2020 academic year without alterations to the budget. Each school was different and, based on its design and security needs, received a customized plan.
Among the changes: Almost 7,000 security cameras at work between all of the campuses, nearly double the number this time last year. Fences and entry systems help funnel students, staff and visitors through a single point, which allows easier monitoring and keeping unauthorized people off school grounds.
Not everybody was pleased.
“When we rerouted how kids walk onto campus in the mornings, we got some phone calls,” Morey said. “They were kind of upset they had to go a different way. There definitely are inconveniences that are necessary for the safety and security of our school. But I think [the students] understand why.”
In the next year, the district has a handful of campuses left to upgrade. Some schools, such as North Port High School, are not yet complete because they were designed as open campuses and require greater structural changes to create a more easily monitored flow.
“There are evil people out there and they will find ways to do evil things, but we’ve got the awareness, I think.”
If you’ve visited a campus recently, your identity has been scanned by the Raptor system. The electronic check of driver’s licenses screens visitors through a national database of sexual offenders and predators and has been doing so since 2011.
By spring, the school district plans to widen that database to begin looking deeper into volunteers’ identities.
“It allows us to broaden the search,” Beeker said. “So it’s not just sexual predators or offenders, but it goes into criminal background checks as well.”
Visitors typically check in with an ID check and, if cleared, receive an identification sticker that they wear at all times during their visit.
People who are flagged as sexual offenders or predators are denied access to the school.
Flagged criminal histories might get in the way of volunteering on campus, depending on the offense.
With $1 million delivered to the district through the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, passed in the Florida Legislature in the weeks after the shooting, Sarasota County Schools boosted mental health services for students.
In addition to its already-on-staff counselors, social workers and psychologists, the district has contracted with 16 additional licensed mental health therapists for elementary schools and five for local middle schools to reach younger students earlier. Previously, the services were only in high schools.
A smartphone app is also presented to students: FortifyFL. It allows students to report suspicious things anonymously.
“We also have the Crisis Text Line, which is brand new,” Beeker said. “It’s a national service that instantly connects you to a counselor if and when you happen to need one.”
School administrators realize that hardening the outside of schools is only half the job.
“Just listen to your kids and tell us when they hear things that don’t sound right,” Morey said. “Have conversations. That’s how we know that something is not good.”
School Avenue, which is owned by the city of Sarasota and bisects Sarasota High’s 85-acre campus, has remained a point of concern. Three months after Parkland, the city of Sarasota and the school board approved closing the street from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on school days — an extension of the original 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. closure — that accounts for hours of after-school activities.
But some want to make that closure permanent. The school district last summer sought a permanent abandonment of the road, something neighbors oppose.
“The open bike and pedestrian accessibility along School Avenue means every day school administrators worry that something horrible will happen to the children in their care,” the school district said in its request to the city, which is still under consideration. “In order to address this vulnerability, the District has made permanent closure of School Avenue to all users — pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists — a top priority.”
The Sarasota County School Police Department first entered county public schools at the beginning of the 2018-2019 academic year, placing officers first at elementary schools. As the SCSPD continues to hire new officers, they will gradually begin placing officers at public middle and high schools, as well. The
force stands at 26 sworn officers, three sergeants, two regional response officers and a chief. The most recently hired officer, Elena Giannini, is SCSPD’s first recruit from Suncoast Technical College’s Criminal Justice Academy.