Education

‘We have to do something.’ How schools in South Florida say they’ll keep kids safe.

Luisa Sorroza and Corey Rottman, students at Atlantic Technical College, pay tribute at a memorial for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018.
Luisa Sorroza and Corey Rottman, students at Atlantic Technical College, pay tribute at a memorial for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. pportal@miamiherald.com

Schools in South Florida have made a promise to parents: We will keep your children safe.

Now, after 17 students and staff died Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, public schools and police in both Broward and Miami-Dade have announced new measures to uphold that pledge. They include arming deputies on school grounds with rifles and making sure officers are patrolling school campuses that are currently unguarded.

On Tuesday, the Miami-Dade school district sent a memo to parents detailing some of the changes on campuses. Teachers are now required to keep their classroom doors locked during the day and all students, teachers and staff at middle and high schools will have to wear school-issued IDs, a requirement that will be implemented in the coming weeks.

Miami-Dade is also evaluating how it can reduce the number of entrances at each school and reviewing protocols related to drills and school lockdowns, according to the memo. In the meantime, all available law enforcement and mental health staff currently working in school district offices have been deployed to schools.

“While our schools are among the safest places for children, we recognize that there is always room to make improvements, particularly when it involves protecting children,” Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said in the memo.

The school district is also changing how it communicates with families. Parents will now begin receiving text messages from their child’s school about threats on campus and notifications will be sent through the school district’s mobile app. Previously, parents typically received messages from the school district via automated phone calls, which were often made to home phone numbers, said district spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego.

Broward County is also making changes to fortify its schools. The Broward County school district is in the process of upgrading video surveillance equipment and making sure all schools have a single point of entry, as well as evaluating its active shooter trainings, said Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie.

School officials plan to hold community meetings on school safety to get additional recommendations from residents, Runcie said. A date has not yet been set for the meetings.

“Right now, our focus is getting the school [Marjory Stoneman Douglas High] open this week and serving staff, students and families,” Runcie said.

Palm Beach Sheriff deputies train to respond to active school shootings to save lives, evacuate students and eliminate the threat.

More police on campus

Last week, Broward Sheriff Scott Israel announced that school resource officers would now be outfitted with rifles.

“We need to be able to defeat any threat on campus,” Israel said.

BSO is also in discussions with county commissioners to fortify schools, supply more resource officers and to build safer schools, according to Israel.

In Miami, city commissioners voted unanimously last week to analyze the cost of placing Miami cops in public schools that are within city limits and don’t have armed school resource officers. Meanwhile, Miami-Dade Schools Police Chief Ian Moffett told the Miami Herald on Thursday that he will beef up patrols at county schools and direct officers to be more vigilant at certain times of day.

Some Miami-Dade Schools Police officers already have rifles, which are stored in locked boxes inside patrol cars, Moffett said. In the coming weeks, well before any agreement is reached with Miami, Moffett said he plans to re-allocate officers so that all middle and high schools are patrolled.

Right now, Moffett said, schools need to be “more vigilant” at times like lunch and dismissal when parents, students and staff cluster around campus.

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Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel speaks before the start of a CNN town hall meeting, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018, at the BB&T Center in Sunrise. Michael Laughlin South Florida Sun Sentinel

Both the Miami-Dade and Broward school districts have asked the state for more security funding, in part to pay for additional school resource officers.

Miami-Dade has asked for $30 million, which would include money for 100 additional school resources officers, bulletproof glass, automatically locking doors, upgraded public service announcement systems, more counselors and social workers and advanced monitoring of social media. Runcie wouldn’t say how many additional school resource officers Broward has asked for, citing security concerns about publicizing information related to school defenses.

Meanwhile, Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina said before Miami cops begin patrolling county schools he needs to come up with cost estimates and a solid plan has to be coordinated between Miami and Miami-Dade, which is authorized to patrol all county schools.

Colina said the goal is to help find a patrol officer for all of the county’s more than 350 schools. Most — but not all — middle and high schools now have a resource officer.

Colina said ideally he’d also like to send officers to protect the city’s charter schools.

“We have to do something,” he said. “Everything is on the table.”

No easy answers

At a nationally televised CNN town hall in Sunrise last week, students pleaded with politicians to keep them safe.

“Why don’t we have more funding to protect ourselves?” asked Stoneman Douglas student Michelle Lapidot. “Why do you guys protect yourselves with guns, protect yourselves with vests and you protect America’s children with nothing but drywall?”

At a town hall held by CNN in Sunrise, Florida, on Wednesday night, thousands of angry students, teachers and parents booed Republican Sen. Marco Rubio when he indicated that he would not support an assault-weapons ban

But the answers aren’t easy.

The Parkland shooting demonstrated that the presence of school resource officers may not be enough to defend students.

On Thursday, Israel revealed that the school resource officer assigned to protect Stoneman Douglas never went into the building where Nikolas Cruz was slaughtering teachers and students. The deputy, Scot Peterson, was armed with a handgun. Cruz had a semi-automatic rifle. Peterson was suspended last week and immediately resigned.

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A law enforcement officer rushes toward Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. John McCall Sun Sentinel

Peterson released a public statement on Monday, saying that he did not enter the building looking for the shooter because he initially “heard gunshots but believed those gunshots were originating from outside of the buildings on the school campus.”

The sheriff also said the department was looking into whether other deputies responded correctly to a live shooter. They’re trained to rush in and confront the threat.

“It’s no secret [that] since Columbine we’re instructed and trained to immediately move in, push toward the shooter,” Israel said.

Israel has faced widespread criticism for BSO’s response to the shooting, including calls by dozens of state representatives that Gov. Rick Scott suspend the sheriff from office.

There have also been calls to arm teachers so they can defend their students from school shooters. A committee of the Florida House approved a bill Tuesday that would allow teachers to carry weapons, an idea President Donald Trump has said he supports. Both Carvalho and Runcie are against the proposal.

Instead, the superintendents argue that more funding for mental health services and stricter gun control laws need to be a priority.

“At what point — after how many killed? — will we have the courage to address the issue of access to guns and gun ownership?” Carvalho said after the Parkland shooting. “There are some on this equation who will only want to talk about mental health. Others will only want to talk about gun control. How about being reasonable, and talking about both?”

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