One year after Parkland: How has school security changed on the Suncoast?

One year after Parkland: How has school security changed on the Suncoast?
Sarasota and Manatee County Schools have both made major school security changes in the past year.

SARASOTA (WWSB) - One year ago, 17 students and staff were gunned down in Parkland, Florida. Another 17 were injured. Authorities say Nikolas Cruz walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where he used to attend, and opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle. It was a mass shooting that sparked a gun control debate and changed the future of school security forever. Both Sarasota and Manatee County Schools made major changes post Parkland to better protect their students.

Sarasota County

After the Parkland tragedy struck, Sarasota County Schools sprang into action, immediately making changes to better protect its students from any possible threats.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we are a lot safer today than we were a year ago,” Superintendent Dr. Todd Bowden said recently.

After some push back, the district created its own police department, putting an officer in every elementary school for the first time ever and adding more school resource officers to middle and high schools. Today, that department is still growing.

“We are in a process of adding 15-25 officers for the 2019-2020 school year,” Sgt. Steve Kim with the Sarasota County Schools Police Department said.

The district also implemented a single-point of entry to every school campus. In each of those lobbies, there’s now bullet resistant glass.

“We are requiring parents, staff, teachers, individuals to come in through the front lobbies to be checked through our RAPTOR program to make sure they are not sex offenders,” Sgt. Kim said. “Once they are cleared, they are given a visitor ID pass.”

Since Parkland, Sarasota schools have practiced more lockdowns. Inthe event of a real emergency, any staff member can now issue a lockdown.

“If you feel there’s an act of violence that will occur or a threat that is at the school, there is no requirement that you go through an official process,” Sgt. Kim explained. “You can initiate that immediately.”

Another change post Parkland is that students and parents can report any potential threats from their mobile devices using the new statewide Fortify Florida app or the district’s Crisis Text Line. Both resources are anonymous.

“In this school year, we’ve had several incidences reported to us through those apps that we are able to investigate and come to a conclusion in,” Sgt. Kim explained.

Even with that laundry list of school security changes, the district isn’t done yet.

“In school safety and security, it’s a destination that we will never arrive at,” Dr. Bowden said. “There are always things we can do to enhance the safety and security of our campuses.”

For the 2019-2020 school year, the school district is moving toward a universal, county-wide panic alert system.

"Essentially, [you] hit a panic button, and it will alert a list of individuals,” Sgt. Kim said. Immediately, first responders will arrive.

Also for next school year, finalized emergency response plans will be implemented, individualized for each school.

Manatee County

To the north in Manatee County, things changed just as drastically after the Parkland shooting.

"The world as we knew it, at least in terms of school security, changed on February 14th,” superintendent Cynthia Saunders said recently.

Thirteen days after the shooting, armed officers were in every school in Manatee County as threats poured in.

“We have tried to get the point out to these kids that this is not a joke,” Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells said. “This is not something that we are not going to take lightly. If you joke about blowing up a school or shooting up a school, we are going to find you and you are going to get arrested.”

With the start of the current school year came a new security effort for Manatee County: the guardian program. Now 35 guardians are in elementary schools, four are in high schools, and five are currently in training.

“I was very pleased to see the quality of applicants that we received,” Sheriff Wells said. “We have a lot of retired law enforcement officers. We have a lot of ex-military. People who just want to do what they can to protect their community.”

School resource officers from Palmetto Police Department, Bradenton Police Department, Holmes Beach Police Department and the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office man the remaining schools. Aside from officers in schools, like Sarasota County Schools, Manatee County Schools implemented a single point of entry for their schools. All doors are now always locked, and a buzzer system was added for security.

"We’ve added a number of new cameras to most schools so we have a probably a 30% increase if not 50% increase, and they’re wide angels so we have a better view,” Manatee County School Board member Scott Hopes said.

Some schools got new fencing, but not all of them. The district has hired an engineering firm to evaluate every school’s hardening needs moving forward. Hopes says the district is also looking into instituting the same ID system Sarasota County has in Manatee County Schools.

"I think throughout the state school districts have been awoken to really what we need to be focusing on and that’s the safety and security of our students and staff,” Hopes said.

Parents Thoughts

We asked Suncoast parents, “With all of these changes to school security, do you feel safer sending your children to school?”

300 people responded to our Facebook poll, and 59 percent of people said no, that they don't feel safer sending their children to school, while 41 percent answered yes.

Janice Roehr commented, “As a teacher I sometimes felt that all the added security measures added to the general fear factor. Parents/teachers/students were more worried by an alarm or a loud sound. That being said, it also made us more aware that we are not safe anywhere, be it a school, a church, our homes. So be vigilant! And prepared to respond appropriately.”

Jacqueline Monique Marguglio said, “Add metal detectors and use them.”

And Shanice Wire said, “I think they did what they could. Do I feel safer when my child is at school? No not really. Even with all of this, our world has changed. The schools are trying, to do the best they can, in these turbulent times.”

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