One of the main topics of conversation at Tuesday’s school board meeting centered around the safety of Monroe County students. According to Superintendent Mark Porter, “We are not starting from point zero, we are always working toward increasing efforts to provide safe schools for our students.”
Pat Lefere, the district’s director of Operations and Planning, said Porter’s statement is the biggest take away from the meeting. “The past 4 to 5 years, we have been updating safety procedures and security in schools,” he said. “This isn’t something new.”
Those include active shooter trainings held by FBI agents and school level drills, infrastructure improvements like single point entry, securing doors and gates, and fence repairs, and updating and repairing camera security systems.
Monroe County Sheriff Office spokesperson Adam Linhardt said the law enforcement agency is not in charge of scheduling or conducting active school shooter drills in the Keys, although it does participate. However, all new recruits do go through active school shooter training at the academy.
“But there is proposed legislation that would change that,” Linhardt said. “There is a plan to call for mandated, quarterly drills at schools throughout Florida that would be documented, approved and reviewed by local law enforcement. If that happens, our office would be much more proactive.”
The district also brought on a career law enforcement officer Jason Brown this week. “He will be assessing every school in the district to see where we need more improvements,” said Lefere.
Parents Catherine Dunn and Allison Sayer of Marathon addressed the board with their personal concerns about the lack of a School Resource Officer (SRO) on duty at Stanley Switlik Elementary School in Marathon. Poinciana and Gerald Adams also do not have an officer which serve only elementary students. In the Keys, SROs are on duty at traditional combined elementary and middle schools, and all high schools.
“Each time I drop my children off, I say a prayer and there is a knot in my stomach,” said Dunn, a mother of four. “We have to do something. We need you to make the school as safe as we can.”
Sayer and Dunn said they have heard from other parents and offered the following suggestions to make the school safer: acquiring a metal detector, an armed security officer, and an onsite social worker to help those in need before they become young adults. The other budget issue is the cost of an in-school SRO in Monroe County: an estimated $50,000, shared between the district and police jurisdiction, either Key West Police Department or Monroe County Sherriff’s Office.
Key Largo School teacher Shannon Hickery spoke against the idea of arming teachers. “We are trained to take care of our kids and our response,” she said. “The day that I have to go to a school knowing that my colleagues are armed, I will be done teaching. I don’t want to teach at a prison and our students don’t want to go to school in one either.”
School board member John Dick said that won’t happen. “That is off the table.”
School board member Ron Martin, said, “There is never a day that went by that I didn’t worry about this happening,” as a retired educator. “I am hell-bent to get something done. This is more than drills; we have to get back to the root of the evil, and that’s the gun.”
School board member Mindy Conn, who was personally affected by the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas – her friend’s daughter was killed – said alternative education students should be moved off-campus. “We have been discussing this way too long, and it needs to be addressed immediately,” she said.
Board chair Bobby Highsmith suggested putting together a task force. He also said the U.S. Ranger Dive Team stationed in Key West has offered to teach emergency first aid to teachers and staff. He also brought up the lockout and door safety. “We need to do everything in our realm to keep our schools as safe as they can be,” he said.
All doors in new buildings are designed to open into the hallway to meet fire code. This means students would not be able to blockade themselves in a room to hide if there was an active shooter. “These were fire-related rules made long before we worried about bad guys in our schools,” Lafere said. “We have infrastructure money we can use to make investments in door jams or other locks in the event of a crisis, if the board approves,” he said.
After the meeting, the board met in closed session to discuss further measures in private for security reasons at the request of board member Andy Griffiths.
Mental Health at Monroe County Schools
On Feb. 22, Monroe County School District officials met with KWPD, MCSO, FBI, the State Attorney’s office, and mental health providers to talk about three major issues: weapons access, school hardening and security, and student mental health. “The earlier we intervene the better,” said Porter. “Stopping someone at the school-house doors is the last step.”
Parent and school board candidate Sue Woltanski offered information from the National Association of School Psychologists, suggesting that the district is short when it comes to ratio of counselors, psychologists and case workers assigned to the 8,000 students in the district.
Porter said the district is the connector to help identify those who need help and try to get them the help. “Undoubtedly, something needs to be done for mental health services for students,” he said.
On Feb. 23, Monroe County School District officials released a statement detailing recent incidents at Keys schools. Six separate schools — Marathon Middle/High School, Coral Shores High School, Key West Collegiate Academy, Horace O’Bryant School, Plantation School and Key Largo School — dealt with events ranging from online threats and verbal threats relating to guns, as well as talking inappropriately about school shootings. In the past 10 days, every Keys high school has staged a peaceful remembrance of the victims of the Parkland shooting victims.