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  1. Opinion

Some school districts are up to speed on safety. Others aren't. Name them. | Editorial

Hillsborough Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins displays one of the new, transponder ID badges the district will be providing to teachers and staff members as part of its new crisis alert system. [SAM OGOZALEK | Times]
Published Aug. 19

The hand-sized transponders that Hillsborough County school employees will carry this year are ideal — simple, convenient, quick — for hurrying students and staff out of harm's way in the event of a campus security crisis. The school district will need to adequately train its 27,000 employees to prevent any miscommunication and false alarms; crying wolf too many times will undermine the vigilance and safety these devices are intended to foster. Hillsborough's move should also bring heat on other school districts in Florida that have yet to comply with state laws strengthening campus safety.

As the Tampa Bay Times recently reported, the transponders will give teachers and staff a faster way to call for help or to trigger a campus lockdown in an active shooter situation. For medical emergencies, a staffer would click the transponder three times. That would alert school resource officers and crisis management teams. In life threatening situations, such as a school shooter, a staffer could trigger a campus lockdown by clicking the transponder repeatedly for six to seven seconds. That would activate newly installed strobe lights in school buildings that would flash as instructions are broadcast over the school's intercom.

The program is expected to roll out this month as the district distributes the transponder badges and trains staff. The "CrisisAlert'' system will cost about $7.6 million this year and be paid for with money set aside by the Legislature in the wake of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland that left 17 dead and another 17 wounded. Hillsborough approved a three-year contract with the security provider; the grant money will fund start-up and upkeep during the 2019-20 school year, and future maintenance costs are expected to be minimal.

The devices are easy to operate, and by outfitting personnel across entire school campuses, Hillsborough has created a healthy early warning system to protect large school populations. The system also promises to keep students better informed and law enforcement, firefighters and paramedics more prepared as they respond to an emergency.

While Hillsborough is moving forward, other districts across the state are dragging their feet on security, even as a new academic year begins. A statewide grand jury impaneled to investigate school safety found that "numerous" Florida school districts are not in compliance with the post–Parkland school security laws, according to an interim report released recently by Attorney General Ashley Moody. The report did not name the districts out of compliance or provide other details, citing a Florida statute that provides confidentiality for state grand jury proceedings. But Tampa Bay school districts say they are in compliance, and the most pressing issues apparently are in South Florida districts.

Still, the government should not be granting secrecy protection to public school and law enforcement agencies whose own ineptness and inaction puts Florida children at risk — especially when the grand jury noted that the excuses coming from state and local officials for coming into compliance are "wholly unpersuasive." The state needs to start naming names, and lagging school districts should be held accountable.

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