HOW SAFE ARE FLORIDA KEYS SCHOOLS?

It happened again.  A mass shooter killed 19 kids and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas on May 24. 

As the nation debates and divides itself over a mental health crisis, background checks and the wisdom of making assault rifles easily accessible at gun shows, the Keys Weekly sat down with local school district officials and Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay.

The question is simple: how safe are our schools with regard to mass shootings? The answer isn’t as simple. Every time a mass shooting occurs, protocols are analyzed, policies are changed, assessments are made and training is implemented. 

Monroe County schools, mental health professionals, Key West police and the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office are no different, but here in the Keys, they’re all working together. 

“School hardening” efforts have addressed physical barriers to prohibit unauthorized access and protect people, while monthly active shooter drills have been implemented as well as teacher and police training.

But additional prevention efforts are being taken, said Alfredo Vazquez, the school district’s certified director of safety and security who is also a retired Key West police sergeant.

Vazquez undergoes annual statewide training and thoroughly inspects each campus every year.  In the wake of the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland,  Florida schools have mandated security upgrades in terms of cameras, single-entry points to buildings, shades covering classroom windows and doors that lock automatically from the inside. But everyone agrees; there’s always more to be done. 

“We’ve come a long way since 2018,” said Pat Lefere, the district’s director of planning and operations. “Before Parkland, we had school resource officers in all schools except elementary schools. After Parkland, to their credit, Key West police and the sheriff’s office immediately stepped up and we all found a way to put officers in every school.

“We’ve upgraded cameras and are continuing to do so. We’ve changed all the locks on classroom and building doors. We’ve added the window shades to prevent a shooter from seeing whether people are inside.”

The school district also has established a behavioral threat assessment team at every school in an effort to provide foresight rather than horrifying hindsight, when it comes to someone’s dark social media postings, past mental health issues or behavioral problems and firearms access, Vazquez said. 

Daliana Goins, coordinator of counseling and intervention services, said the district also has added several social workers who can bridge the gaps between a student’s school and home life. 

In a message to all employees following the Texas shooting, Superintendent Theresa Axford wrote, in part, “Let’s continue to perfect our system that enables us to identify any possible problems in our district before something like that happens. Prevention is the key and early identification of possible problems of paramount importance.”

When speaking with the Keys Weekly on May 31, Axford added, “The shooter in this case was a loner who was disgruntled over not graduating. He had been out of school for a number of months. These types of students must be followed and assisted when they drop out.”

Lefere added that fences around all schools have been upgraded, in many cases, heightened from a 4-foot chain link fence to a 6-foot one. 

“From a physical standpoint, I think everything is in place,” Lefere said. “Now we just need to maintain it, upgrade it when necessary and train staff to follow the protocols that are in place.”

Fences continue to concern Sheriff Rick Ramsay, who has spoken with Axford and school board chair John Dick and will meet with them next week.

“Any 14- to 19-year-old kid can climb a chain-link fence,” he told the Keys Weekly, urging the school district to install wrought-iron fencing that curves outward at the top to prevent climbing. The federal government uses a similar style fence around sensitive properties. “Is there a cost? Yes. But is our kids’ and teachers’ safety worth that price?”

“After Parkland, the sheriff’s office did an in-depth analysis of all schools and provided the results to the school district,” Ramsay said. “A lot of the measures were taken, but not all. I’ve also been in touch with Lt. David Smith, my director of school resource officers. He’s going to get with all his officers to see where we can do things better.”

The sheriff will meet in the coming week with Axford and others to discuss school security and continue the beneficial partnerships between schools and law enforcement.

Vazquez commended those partnerships, saying that when he attends training throughout the state, he often encounters school administrators at odds with local law enforcement agencies.

“Thankfully, that’s just not the case here at all,” Vazquez said. 

If you would like to have the Weekly delivered to your mailbox or inbox along with our daily news blast, please subscribe here.

Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.