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Local sheriff says school districts aren't implementing school safety recommendations fast enough

Posted at 5:58 PM, Jan 23, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-23 19:01:00-05

The Pinellas County Sheriff fears districts in the state aren’t ready and aren’t making changes fast enough to help prevent another school shooting.

Bob Gualtieri spoke before the State and House education committees Tuesday about the recommendations the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission released three weeks ago. He is the chair of that commission.

"When parents send their kids to school in the morning they have an absolute right to expect those kids are coming home alive in the afternoon,” said Sheriff Gualtieri.

Yessenia Ferreira has a son in 5th grade and says that is what she thinks about every day.

"I’m scared from the moment he’s gone at 7:30 to the moment he’s back at 2:15, 2:30,” she said.

But Gualtieri worries some districts are not moving fast enough to implement the MSDPSC recommendations.

"It’s going to happen again, the question is when and where?” he asked.

"Hard corners" are safe areas in each classroom where students are out of a shooters line of site. That’s one recommendation Gualtieri says costs little to no money and could save lives. He says at Stoneman Douglas, there were only 2 in the entire school.

"There was one girl who was literally standing on the line and she was being pushed out of the hard corner because there was a room for her because it was full of stuff," he said.

We reached out to multiple school districts in our area and all of them say they have met the changes mandated by the state.

As for the recommendations, Pinellas county says they already have many of those in place. Hillsborough and Polk will review them and Pasco says they are working on the design and construction of “hard corners” before moving forward.

See full statements from each of the districts below:

We are in full compliance with the mandates in the law, including having an armed, trained officer in every school, providing a threat assessment of every campus and having a district wide mental health plan.Our security chief watched all of the commission meetings and is reviewing the report to determine what measures our district has already implemented and what we should implement, with the idea of doing it as quickly as possible.As you probably know, we don't discuss specific security measures.

Last year, the completion of the Florida School Assessment Tool was
required by the district and not by individual schools. This year will be
the first where schools will complete the FSAT. For the record – The
Hernando County School District completed ALL required assessments and we
do have SROs at all of our schools.

Also, the recommendations provided by the MSD Commission are taken under
advisement by our District’s Safe Schools team. The Commission’s
recommendations are included along with those we have already received
from other security experts including our own local law enforcement who
know the needs of our schools well.

Certainly, the primary barrier to faster improvement in school security is
funding. However, one of the challenges we have discovered is that each of
our schools has such a unique and specific set of security needs that
upgrading cannot be generalized across all of our schools.

While the comments by the Pinellas County Sheriff appear to reflect
frustration at the speed of security improvements, in Hernando County, we
have never waivered in our regard for improving campus security and
continue to marshall all available resources toward that effort.

It was inaccurate and unfortunate that all school districts were painted with the same negative broad brush. Pasco County Schools began working to meet the requirements of SB 7026 immediately after it was passed. We began planning our school safety guard program in April, hired the SSGs, started training them June 4, 2018, and had them all in place (and armed) before the first day of the 2018-2019 school year. We prioritized and brought in every school principal to begin completing the very detailed and lengthy school safety assessment tool in June, then charged them with thoughtfully assessing and compiling information with school staff and law enforcement in just a few weeks. We took our assessments seriously, and all were completed and submitted by the deadline.

In 2017, Pasco Schools partnered with the Pasco Sheriff's Office to introduce a new Active Threat Plan (ATP), which was implemented with the start of the 2017-2018 school year. The ATP is a proactive, options-based response strategy, not a one-size-fits-all approach, that can be used in the face of an active shooter or other violent threat. The ATP aligns with best practices for K-12 education and is recommended by U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Department of Education, FBI, and Federal Emergency Management Agency. Staff and students are taught about response options that can be used to increase the odds of survival, which are based on the nature of the threat and tailored to the individual school. The options in the ATP include plans for self-evacuation, communication and alerts, lockdown and barricade, and countering as a last resort of self-defense.

The concept of "hard corners" as it is referred to in the MSD Commission findings suggests that every school classroom in the state have a delineated and identifiable corner where students aren't likely to be seen by an intruder from the outside. If an active threat emerges that is external to the classroom, children would be quickly clustered into the "hard corners" and out of the line of sight of anyone looking in from the outside (in classrooms where the design allows for such a space to be created).

Conceptually, this is supposed to translate into the "shooter" moving on to victims he or she can see. Historically, an active shooter desires to inflict as much harm to as many people as possible in just a few minutes (less than 5) in most cases. During the Parkland tragedy, Cruz only shot people within his line of sight, and he never entered any classrooms. This has not been the case in every active shooter case. There have been many cases throughout history in which a shooter has entered classrooms, sometimes by force, and attacked victims inside. This is why adding a "hard corner" to Pasco classrooms as yet another option to our exiting options based plan makes the most sense.

We believe the “hard corner” protocol as it is referred to in the MSD Report is another valid option among several, that based on the situation and design of the space is a viable one for potentially saving lives. Late in 2018 we began conversation and planning about adapting the commission’s recommendations of “hard corners” as another option in our Active Threat Plan. We have already begun meeting with planners for new construction and remodels, and are working on existing schools. We do not want to hastily demark “hard corners” without consulting law enforcement and school stakeholders. We want to be deliberate and cautious when labeling these locations as “safe areas.” All the strategies in the current ATP and the “hard corner concept” are designed to mitigate harm – not prevent it. A “hard corner” or “safe area” is only as safe as the design and construction that the physical space allows.

Pasco Schools places student safety at the very top of our priorities, and we are reviewing the MSD recommendations and assessing how we can make improvements to our existing plans. We reside in continuous process improvement mode when it comes to student safety and emergency action plans.

These thoughts are in addition to the locked door directive, the new locks and cameras on order, the SSG program we stood up, the Mental Health grant, and the at-risk youth initiative that the PSO and Pasco Schools have embarked upon since Parkland.

Pinellas County Schools had numerous safety measures in place prior to the tragedy at Parkland. The school district continues to work closely with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office to establish or strengthen safety practices recommended in the Parkland Commission’s report. Many of the safety recommendations were already in place in Pinellas County Schools. Additionally, the district is in full compliance with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, including the requirements to have armed guards in place at every school, designate safe areas of classrooms and conduct threat assessments and provide mental health screening and services. Pinellas is grateful to Sheriff Gualtieri and his staff for the insight and assistance they have given us to implement the requirements of the act.

In response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, Polk County Public Schools took the initiative to implement the School Safety Guardian program and placed either an armed law enforcement officer or guardian in each of our schools.

In a continuous effort to protect our students and staff members, we currently have a total of 48 School Resource Officers/Deputies and 97 School Guardians assigned to schools across the district. All of our elementary schools, learning centers, technical colleges and adult schools have a School Safety Guardian. Middle and high schools have a school resource officer (SRO) from a local law enforcement agency.

Polk County Public Schools is also in the process of implementing hardened corners throughout the district.

We have reviewed the commission’s report and continue to explore options to see what other recommendations should be implemented in our district.

I can assure that our district has complied with the State statutes (mandates) related to safety & security for our facilities and school campuses. We are continually looking to refine and enhance our approach to school safety and security, and will always take into account recommendations from credible, subject-matter experts as well as assess the best practices of other school districts.