Sweeping legislation enacted after the February school shooting in Parkland set in motion many changes to how Florida schools keep students safe. Some will be obvious to kids as they step back onto campuses in the coming days, while others are taking shape behind the scenes.
The preparations add a sobering note to this year’s back-to-school rituals, which usually center on lighter themes like anticipation, making new friends and the grudging goodbye to free time. But officials say they are working to prevent the new focus on safety from stoking fear.
Across the Tampa Bay area and in school districts throughout Florida, educators have worked through the summer to implement security measures now required by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, also known as SB 7026. Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill in March, less than a month after a gunman killed 17 people at the Broward County school.
The law created new policies to harden schools, both physically and organizationally. It set aside money to boost student mental health services and requires active shooter drills and trainings for the coming year. At many schools, students will notice a new face in the hallways, as all campuses now must have an armed security officer.
"It’s the new reality that we live in," said Pasco County sheriff’s Lt. Troy Fergueson, who oversees school safety officers. "We want to make safety something that is on everyone’s mind all the time … preparing them to meet threats of the current century in U.S. schools."
The added security officers and safety drills will be the most obvious changes for students. For many of them in elementary school, it will be the first time they see an armed person on campus, said Chris Stowe, a retired Marine master sergeant who oversees security in Pasco schools. Previously, resource officers were limited primarily to middle and high schools.
Guards hired for the new positions will train and work closely with the Sheriff’s Office to ensure they know how to explain to elementary students why they’re there, Stowe said.
"They’re not there to tell a second-grader that they’re there to kill a bad guy," he said, adding that his hope is to create communities within schools where students, teachers and parents see guards as an integral part of the education process. They are to be the schools’ "beat officer," getting to know the people and the climate.
The mission is similar in Hernando County, where school resource officers are resurrecting old programs used to educate elementary students on policing and the law. The goal is to foster relationships between law enforcement and elementary school students in the hope youngsters grow comfortable with the officer at their school, said sheriff’s Lt. Anthony Piarulli, head of SROs for the county.
Some parents in Hillsborough County have worried about how sensitive safety information will be delivered to younger students, said John Newman, director of school security in that district. It’s a concern he understands and is working to balance with his job to keep students safe.
"What looks like a lockdown drill for kindergarten is a lot different than an 11th-grader," he said. "You don’t want to traumatize a kid, but we also have to satisfy this mandate."
For drills and training, he said, Hillsborough is working with counselors and the state to tailor the language and materials used to educate younger students on safety. Other districts are doing the same, and plan to keep parents in the loop.
"We don’t want to alarm kids and we don’t want to alarm parents," said Pasco school superintendent Kurt Browning. "We don’t want to heighten the angst they might be feeling after Parkland."
None of the new measures should stir fear in students, said Luke Williams, who heads the Pinellas Schools police force.
"Our focus is to make sure we have the proper procedures in place," he said, "but we are also making sure that the students and teachers feel like they can focus on learning and teaching in the classroom, and are not so much concerned with their safety."
Other changes, like expanded student mental health services, won’t be as evident because they are happening "under the radar," Browning said.
As instructed by the new law, districts have worked to meet an Aug. 1 deadline to submit mental health plans to the state for approval. Although those changes won’t directly affect most students day-to-day, more resources will be there for those who need them.
To enhance services further, every staffer in Pinellas will undergo mental health training before school starts, said Donna Sicilian, executive director of student services. Same with Pasco, Browning said, adding that the district will have more mental health care providers in schools this year than ever before. Hernando is looking for more social workers to offer individual and small group counseling in schools.
Williams, the Pinellas chief, pointed out that the new legislation calls for law enforcement to keep in close contact with those who oversee mental health to ensure everyone has all the information available on possible security threats. Without conversation between all parties, dots are left unconnected and school security just isn’t as tight, added Fergueson, the Pasco lieutenant.
"It’s about putting all the resources together so that everybody is operating with the same picture of what is going on," he said. "Everyone needs the same shopping cart of resources."
Staff writer Jeffery S. Solochek contributed to this report. Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] Follow @mareevs.