After the Parkland school shooting in 2018 that killed 17 people, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri was appointed to lead a statewide commission to investigate what led to the shooting and make recommendations to improve campus safety in Florida.
After the nation’s second deadliest school shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Times spoke with Gualtieri about campus safety, the commission and what has changed since the group was started in 2018.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How has safety improved in Florida schools since 2018?
The initial bill the legislature passed raised the bar considerably with putting an armed person on every campus, (it) created mandatory threat assessment teams, provided a lot of funding for hardening of campuses, infrastructure improvement. So there were a number of things that began in 2018 because prior to that, in Florida, we just simply were not where we needed to be.
How has safety improved in Tampa Bay schools more specifically since 2018?
I think the Tampa Bay schools are really just an example of the changes throughout the state. One of the things that I would say that is probably most consequential, most significant, is kind of an intangible, and that is a culture change within the schools in the prioritization of school safety and security.
How can Florida schools improve safety?
An unfortunate reality is that it is impossible to prevent another school shooting. So we have to operate from the perspective, unfortunately, that it’s going to happen again and the question is when and where. And the most important question in that string is really the third question. And that is, what have we done to mitigate the harm?
I think there is still room to harden the campuses, fortify the schools and to make sure we’ve got the resources in place that will stop the event as quickly as it begins.
Since 2018, threat-assessment teams have been required in every school, but they are not as consistent and robust as they need to be. There’s also no common statewide threat management database and there’s no connectivity between districts, or even in some cases, within districts.
And then you get into the areas again of reunification. The bill that’s pending the governor’s signature right now would require that every district have a reunification plan. Some districts don’t, again, four years after Stoneman Douglas.
Looking at Tampa Bay specifically, how could schools here continue to improve their safety?
Well — some of the things that we just talked about. I think they need to continue doing what they’re doing and looking at opportunities with the drills that are done on a monthly basis, with the physical site hardening, with the right personnel on the campuses who are trained to deal with an incident when it happens.
I think that they’re doing well in the Tampa Bay area overall but like anything I think there’s always room to continue to improve it. I think looking at the threat assessment process, making sure that we are not just assessing, but we’re managing, there’s a difference.
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Can you tell me a little bit more about the threat assessment process?
Every school is required to have a threat assessment team. So when somebody does something, says something that is of concern and it has become known through their observations or it’s reported, then the threat assessment team convenes and there’s work that’s done to investigate the concern.
As a result of the threat assessment process, action could be taken, or it could be unfounded. If action is to be taken, it could result in somebody being Baker Acted, it could result in an arrest, it could result in a safety plan. It could result in just monitoring and trying to get the person into some sort of services, to get them help.
How do schools and law enforcement balance monitoring for threats of violence with concerns about over-criminalizing kids?
I think that we’re all very clear in there’s known processes in place and protocols in place. We don’t want to over-criminalize. We don’t want to over-Baker Act.
The idea is to intervene, get them the help and then it doesn’t become a crime. Every silly mistake that some kid makes does not need to be charged criminally That’s why we have very robust diversion programs when they make basic mistakes.
What steps would you like to see the Florida Legislature take to further keep kids safe in schools?
Keep doing what they’re doing because the Florida Legislature has really done a good job.
I think that the leadership and the legislature and … two governors … have been extremely responsive to the recommendations of the commission and needs. Again, we’re working on things, but overall, they’ve been great in what they’ve done.
What would you say to parents in Florida who are afraid that school is not a safe place for their child after another tragic shooting?
I would say to them that overall, the schools in Florida today are a lot safer than they were four years ago and overall, they are safe. The kids in school are as safe at school as they are anywhere else. And again, that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to continue to enhance that.
I have a daughter who goes to school in Florida and is in high school and I am very comfortable with where we are today. So I don’t think there’s any basis for having any great concern other than just a general concern that bad things happen in this world.
Times staff writer Kirby Wilson contributed to this story.