In post-Parkland era, back to school means homework, new friends — and armed guards

Six-year-old Tyhler Herrera knows exactly where he’ll start school in August.

“KIPP Miami,” he’ll proudly tell you. The soon-to-be first-grader also knows that going to elementary school means new responsibilities, like bringing home good grades and doing chores around the house to help out his mother, Jessica Rodriguez.

Soon, Tyhler’s mom will have a tougher conversation with officials at his school: Who will be patrolling the campus with a gun? How will they be screened? Are they mentally stable? Then, she’ll have to talk to Tyhler about school safety, too.

“I never saw the day where I was going to have to have these conversations with the school, yet alone with my child about what are the possibilities that surround this,” said Rodriguez, 30, of Liberty City. “I can’t believe that I would have to have this conversation.”

Public school families across Florida have a different first day of school ahead compared to previous years. The 2018-19 school year brings new school safety mandates created by the Legislature after former student Nikolas Cruz killed 17 and wounded 17 more at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland: An armed guard on every campus, increased security technology and stricter rules.

School districts have spent the summer scrambling to get it all in place by the time students arrive Aug. 15 in Broward and Aug. 20 in Miami-Dade. It’s a big change for elementary schools, but most middle and high schools in South Florida already have a school resource officer.

“Parents will want this to be dealt [with] in a delicate manner, particularly for younger children,” said Nancy Lawther, the new president of the Miami-Dade County Council of Parent Teacher Associations and Parent Teacher Student Associations. “But people forget, high-schoolers are children, too.”

The Miami-Dade Schools police department, which was established in 1957, is looking for school resource officers that have a unique skill set, including someone who is like a mentor, coach and parental figure, said Edwin Lopez, Miami-Dade Schools’ new police chief. The district is in a hiring spree, recruiting about 10 officers a month.

“As a former elementary teacher, I know the importance of law enforcement intervention in the early stages of life,” Lopez said. “Being that we’re going to have a multitude of agencies in elementary schools, I feel that our elementary schools will be safer than ever before.”

As the school police department hires new officers, the school district is working on agreements with Miami-Dade County and local police departments to staff officers in elementary and K-8 schools as a stop-gap measure. To sweeten the deal, the Miami-Dade County School Board in July unanimously approved allocating $6 million, or about $35,000 for each school covered, to those agencies to offset costs.

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A school resource officer’s salary and fringe benefits costs about $100,000. About 90 Miami-Dade schools remained uncovered as of July 25.

“It really allows us to plan,” Miami Lakes Mayor Manny Cid told board members. “This item makes it crystal clear to us what we need to do.”

Without a schools police department, facing a tighter timeframe and a shortage of sworn law enforcement officers for hire, the Broward County School Board had no choice but to go back on its decision to only use sworn school resource officers and instead hired armed security guards.

As of July, Broward County has 17 applicants training to become armed guards. According to chief of staff Jeff Moquin, the district expects to have another group of 30 qualified applicants in August. To cover every school for the first few months, Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie said the district will continue pursuing agreements with municipal police departments to staff officers, pay officers overtime or hire off-duty officers.

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The district has 22 outstanding agreements with police agencies as of July 25.

“Our community expects us to make sure that we have armed security on our campuses, and we’re going to make that happen,” Runcie told reporters during a tour of new security improvements at Miramar High in late July.

Runcie said his district will send guidance to parents before the first day of school reminding them that safety is a top priority, but the district’s core work is teaching and learning.

“We can’t forget about the other pieces. We’ve got to create and get back to some sense of normalcy that includes not just the academics, all the great programs that we have,” he said. “Athletics, music, art, debate programs, clubs throughout the county. All those things that keep kids engaged, that to me is part of the whole safety picture.”

Aside from hiring officers, Miami-Dade County will ramp up security technologies that will not be visible to students and parents, said Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. He said parents should expect new closed-circuit, real-time TV systems, a synchronized radio feed, one point of entry, more police dogs on campus, universal ID checks and a new temporary electronic ID on school visitors’ smartphones that allows schools to track visitors’ whereabouts while on campus.

“Our theory of action going forward is that the parents and students do not see it as a different school year,” Carvalho said. “We’re going to strike a balance between safety and normalcy that schools bring to kids.”

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But even if the changes are behind the curtain, it’s a new normal for parents who never dealt with preparing against an active shooter.

“It starts to feel almost like a police state,” said Overtown parent Nicole Crooks, 44. “I struggle with the fact that I want every child to feel safe, but what exactly does that look like? Does that really mean having them surrounded by armed security all around? And who is to say that will really and truly make the difference ... and will that really help facilitate their learning?”

Dr. Nicole Mavrides, a University of Miami Health psychiatrist specializing in children and adolescents, said parents should talk to their children about safety and the importance of “see something, say something” over the summer.

“For us, it’s so foreign, but if you grew up having these drills multiple times a year or seeing police around the school, it’s not going to be any different because it’s all you know,” said Mavrides, a Marjory Stoneman Douglas alumna who lives in Parkland. “Most kids are going to be able to be resilient and work through stuff like that.”

But in case your child may be worried, Mavrides suggests asking open-ended questions to children about their concerns and answer their questions honestly, emphasizing that school guards and safety technology are there for their protection. Parents may also want to be on the lookout for trouble sleeping and changes in appetite in the weeks leading up to school.

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Teachers, too, have even more on their minds when it comes to the start of school. Along with all the focus on school safety, teachers cannot keep up with Miami’s high cost of living. A property tax referendum for teacher salary supplements is on the November ballot.

“Having an officer is great for optics but maybe that’s what the community needs, not so much what we need in our schools,” said United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernandez-Mats, who emphasized that the union is grateful the district did not choose to arm teachers instead.

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Lawther, the PTA/PTSA president, is thinking beyond Aug. 20 to the midterm elections.

None of this should be normal, she said, and parents and students can become active in advocating for more mental health counselors, gun control and funding for sworn officers, not armed guards.

“I think it will be the job of parents as the November election is closer to hold legislators’ feet to the fire,” Lawther said. “Are children not worth the cost of protection?”

Miami Herald reporter Doug Hanks contributed to this report.

Contact Colleen Wright at 305-376-3003 and @Colleen_Wright.