ST. PETERSBURG — Like most other schools, Shorecrest Preparatory School had a plan. It had crisis manuals and practice drills, alarm systems and lockdown procedures. It had fences and locked the front doors.
But after 20 children and six staffers were shot dead in the classrooms and hallways of Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., last year, Shorecrest decided that none of that was quite enough. Last week, armed security guards began patrolling the St. Petersburg private school.
"I wanted to be a part of the leadership on this. I didn't want to wait for something to happen, to be reactive," said Mike Murphy, the school's headmaster. "And it wasn't that the other shootings haven't been terrible and offensive. But little children — that was a whole new world of 'wake up, everybody.' "
About a month after the shooting at Sandy Hook, Murphy began speaking with Critical Intervention Services, or CIS, a Largo-based security firm that has protected Gov. Rick Scott, coordinated antiterrorism deployments, and provided protection for everything from corporations to chemical plants.
CIS was looking to expand into school security, so it formed a partnership with Shorecrest. For a discounted price — "less than the cost of a full-time teacher," Murphy says — CIS agreed to beta-test a new security model at Shorecrest.
The private school now has seven armed guards that rotate shifts between 7:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. More than one guard is on duty at a time, although Murphy declined to say exactly how many. Teachers and staffers have received training on coded alerts that could go out over the intercom in a threatening situation. They'll also get heavier locks on their doors, and window tints so that a shooter could not see inside their classrooms.
In the next year or two, students' access to certain buildings will be limited. For example, a high school student would not be able to enter the building that houses the preschool.
"From the time of the trigger of an event to the time a response occurs, (shooters) are able to commit acts of atrocity. We knew that physical barriers had to be in place to slow them down," said KC Poulin, president and chief executive officer of CIS.
Because it's possible that a shooter could come from a school community, the staff also is being trained to look for signs that a student is considering an attack. Poulin said that nearly every shooter tells someone about the plan or posts it on social media.
The John Jay College of Criminal Justice will review CIS's work at Shorecrest, and has already visited the school.
Murphy acknowledged that some parents were troubled by armed guards working in the school.
"Those concerns are understandable," Murphy says. He tells the parents "that we're trying to establish a program that ensures the most vulnerable people at the school are protected, and that we're building a program that will not interfere with the friendly and open culture of the school."
Most of the armed guards are former military members, some with bachelor's degrees in childhood psychology and education, Poulin said. "Any type of public safety is built around trust. We're not using law enforcement officers, and they're not there for law enforcement purposes. They're there for the safety and security of students. That changes the relationship with students."
Lisa Gartner can be reached at [email protected] Follow @lisagartner on Twitter.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The administration at Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg did not tell parents to refrain from publicly discussing the school's new security program. An earlier version was incorrect on this point.