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  1. Opinion

Joe Henderson: As a new school year begins, we all cross our fingers and hope for the best

Students are evacuated by police out of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, after a mass shooting in 2018. (Mike Stocker | Sun Sentinel/TNS)
Students are evacuated by police out of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, after a mass shooting in 2018. (Mike Stocker | Sun Sentinel/TNS)
Published Aug. 7, 2019

Since the slaughter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, the emphasis in public schools throughout Florida has been on security and safety. There is no other choice.

In accordance with state law, Hillsborough County has armed security officers at every school. There are locked gates.

When classes begin next week, all teachers, support staff, and administrators will have transponder "Crisis Alert" ID badges that can blast out an emergency message.

District leaders stressed that employees should consider themselves part of the security team. The marching orders for everyone: see something, say something. That's especially important in light of the recent mass murders in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.

The district is doing what it can to make school campuses as secure as possible, but those two words — as possible — shows the challenge as everyone tries to learn from the horror at Parkland.

The Sun-Sentinel newspaper in Fort Lauderdale last December published a meticulous minute-by-minute breakdown of that tragedy under the headline "Unprepared and Overwhelmed."

It detailed what it described as "a series of blunders, bad policies, sketchy training and poor leadership" that allowed accused gunman Nikolas Cruz to kill 17 people.

It started when a security monitor was riding a golf cart and unlocking gates 20 minutes before school was to be dismissed. He saw Cruz walk through an unlocked gate carrying a rifle bag and recognized him as "crazy boy." He radioed another monitor but didn't pursue Cruz or signal a Code Red, which would have put the school on lockdown.

See something, say something. That might be the most important security feature of all because once a killer is inside a school building, it's too late to prevent carnage.

The armed resource officer might be on the other side of a large building when trouble starts. It also would take responding police officers a few minutes to arrive and locate an intruder.

Consider this: The shooter in Dayton killed nine people in about 30 seconds before police shot him. Cruz was inside the high school for eight minutes but spent half that time either preparing to kill or escaping after the damage was done. His total shooting time was about four minutes.

The Broward County Sheriff's Office was blasted for its poor response to the situation, but even if officers had reacted with lightning speed once the shooting started, people would have died.

Hillsborough County chose to opt out of the voluntary state program that allows districts to designate certain teachers and staff members to carry firearms. It was a wise decision since adding more guns to a potentially chaotic situation could make things worse.

Going immediately on hard lockdown and sheltering in place is a better plan.

That's the world we live in today. Short of requiring the kind of security we see at airports before students, staff, or visitors can enter a building, schools, I don't know what else school districts can do.

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And, of course, schools are far from the only vulnerable place. In El Paso, shoppers at Walmart were the victims. In Dayton, it was people enjoying a night out in an entertainment district.

Any place where people gather in large numbers is a potential target for a damaged individual with a high-powered rifle.

Society has created this situation with the easy availability of weapons that once were found only on the battlefield. Lawmakers weren't interested in taking steps that might have stopped the proliferation of the assault-style rifles that are the weapon of choice for mass killers.

And students today have grown up in a country where events like El Paso and Dayton are the norm.

So, a new school year begins, and we all cross our fingers and hope for the best. Security and safety are right there beside reading, writing, and arithmetic in Hillsborough schools.

Class, what have we learned?

See something, say something.

Contact Joe Henderson at JoeHTampa@gmail.com.

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