Pasco schools superintendent takes issue with Pinellas sheriff’s accusations over security

Sheriff Gualtieri told lawmakers that school districts have no sense of urgency in addressing safety needs.
Pasco County school district superintendent Kurt Browning speaks to reporters in January 2018.
Pasco County school district superintendent Kurt Browning speaks to reporters in January 2018.
Published Jan. 24, 2019|Updated Jan. 24, 2019

Pasco County schools superintendent Kurt Browning stared at the television in disbelief as he listened to Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri brief lawmakers on school security.

“I watched the testimony before the House committee,” said Browning, president-elect of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. “I was thinking to myself, districts are not like that.”

He referred to Gualtieri’s criticism that some school systems are dragging their feet in implementing safety measures mandated in the aftermath of the February 2018 deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Gualtieri called for sanctions against officials who don’t meet the letter of the law.

Browning acknowledged the state might have a handful of laggard districts, but suggested that is far from the norm.

Most districts have worked diligently to meet the requirements within their financial and logistical constraints, Browning said, stressing the importance of ensuring student and staff safety as a paramount responsibility for school districts. Even law enforcement agencies struggle to hire enough officers and conduct their own primary obligations, Browning observed, and districts were given a quick turnaround with limited funds to do such things as hire more armed guards and improve building security.

Pasco schools, for instance, have hired and trained uniformed, armed guards for every elementary school, while placing law enforcement officers at every middle and high school campus. Teachers and staff have received added training, he said, including on some details that in the past had gone unaddressed.

As one example, Browning noted that many employees were under the impression they had to wait for permission to call 9-1-1 or implement a “code red” status if an emergency occurred.

“We have told all employees they have the authority to activate the active threat plan,” Browning said.

Whether everyone acts properly and in accordance with the plan is perhaps one of the biggest worries.

Beyond that, a district’s adopted active threat plan might conflict in some places with the state’s recommendations, Browning said, such as establishing “hard corners” in every classroom for people to hide if an attacker threatens.

The district uses an “avoid, barricade, counter” model for emergencies, and “it may not be best to bunker in a corner,” he said. “It’s situational.”

Browning said he and other school district leaders met with Gualtieri in the past to discuss such issues, and had come away thinking they had good understandings of their roles and missions.

They now have another session scheduled for Feb. 8 in Tampa, where the agenda calls for conversation about how school districts and sheriff’s offices can better collaborate in the effort to make schools safer. Topics are to include law enforcement and school guards, threat assessment teams, site assessment, and information sharing.

FADSS CEO Sen. Bill Montford already has called for a closer look into Gualtieri’s accusations, as the Capitolist reports. Browning hopes for a positive outcome.

“We’ll probably have a pretty frank conversation,” he said. “We’re in this together.”