'To avoid another Parkland,' Central Florida schools finalizing security plans
'There's going to be another school shooting,' Volusia County sheriff says
ORLANDO, Fla. – Many Central Florida school districts are still finalizing school security plans ahead of the 2018-2019 school year. Some district officials said they are sticking with what they already had in place, while others are increasing their security measures because of the school shooting in Parkland where 17 students and faculty were killed in February.
In March, Volusia County Schools joined the county sheriff in taking a zero tolerance stance calling for the arrest of anyone caught making a threat to harm students and staff on campus. Authorities arrested more than 30 students during the last part of the 2017-2018 school year.
Sheriff Mike Chitwood said the plan is to do the same for the 2018-2019 school year.
"If you stand up in the classroom and threaten to shoot your teacher or a school employee or a fellow student, you are going to be arrested. Case closed," Chitwood said.
Chitwood said there were several lessons law enforcement learned last school year; however the biggest lesson was that arresting students did not stop the threats from coming.
"I would have bet my life when we made the arrests and started publishing names, it would stop," Chitwood said. "It didn't. It picked up."
Despite that, Chitwood said he will continue to make arrests in the hopes that doing so will help get the arrested students the help they need through programs like teen court, diversion and mental health counseling.
"The bottom line is I need to prevent any type of violence from happening on our campuses," Chitwood said. "And the only way to do that is to make an arrest."
This summer, News 6 learned that dozens of students who were arrested in Volusia County were either put on probation or entered into a diversion program. State Attorney RJ Larizza confirmed six of the cases presented to the state attorneys by the Sheriff's Office were dismissed.
Now that the new Guardian Program is set to start in Volusia County Schools, Chitwood said they will, hopefully, be able to identify students with mental health and anger issues, keep an eye on them and share that information should the student change schools.
"All that information should follow them to the next school counselor, school administration, school resource officer, so that we are able to monitor and make sure these kids get the help that they need, and avoid a meltdown and avoid another Parkland," Chitwood said.
Another thing Chitwood said students might start seeing are drones on campus patrolling people coming and going.
However, Chitwood said adults need to start listening to students about what's happening at their schools and make them part of the solution.
"(Students) are truly the ones who know what's going on and who the internal threat could be," Chitwood said. "There's going to be another school shooting, it's going to happen. They are looking at how many people they can kill so they can surpass the last mass shooter."
Chitwood said the Sheriff's Office has an intelligence unit and the tools tasked to find social media threats in the area, and soon, parents and students will see more schools using new technology to make campuses safer.
Volusia County Schools officials said they will focus on mental health and wellness and have signed an agreement with Sandy Hook to promise to bring several programs to their schools.
"We also are in the process of hiring guardians for our elementary schools and will have an armed officer, deputy or guardian on every campus next year," said Nancy Wait, with Volusia County Schools. "In addition, we have hired social-emotional learning teachers who will be housed at our middle schools, our most vulnerable group of students, to help them learn how to deal with their emotions, feelings, anger in a more productive way."
Wait said they will also be relying on parents, students and others to monitor social media and to share information with the district.
Other Central Florida schools also have plans in place to meet the new requirements under the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Safety Act signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott after the Feb. 14 shooting.
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"There will be some harsher consequences," said Darren Norris, the new school safety specialist at Sumter County Schools.
With his 30 years of law enforcement experience, Norris has had more than his fair share of practice dealing with school threats.
Norris said two years ago, while he was serving at the Sumter County Sheriff's Office, he investigated a school threat where two middle school students were arrested and pleaded guilty to threatening to shoot their fellow students. As a result, he plans to take all school threats seriously.
"No. 1, if you see something, say something -- that's the big message," said Norris. "If it's reported, it will be investigated. And if charges can be made, they'll be arrested."
Norris said school officials are exploring social media-monitoring options and plan to have something in place before the start of the school year.
"You can't miss out on what's being said on social media. Because if you are monitoring the software appropriately and a threat gets posted at 2 in the morning that you wouldn't find out about until school starts, that's too late," said Norris. "You need to find out about it at 2 in the morning so you can do what you need to do."
Norris said the most important part of the new School Safety Act is the mental health component.
"You can harden the schools, but until you deal with the larger problem of mental health, that becomes an issue," said Norris. "So in Sumter, we have a plan to deal with this long-term."
Lake County Schools officials said they will take mental health into account as part of their security plan. While they will be taking a zero tolerance stance for school threats, this year they will also mandate referrals to mental health services. The difference between last year and this year is mandating referrals to mental health services for evaluation or treatment.
"Students committing these offenses are considered as violent or disruptive and may be assigned to an alternative educational program or referred for mental health services," according to the Florida statute.
"Any student who is determined to have made a threat or false report ... involving school or school personnel's property, school transportation, or a school-sponsored activity will be expelled, with or without continuing educational services, from the student's regular school for a period of not less than one full year and referred for criminal prosecution and mental health services for evaluation."
Lake County Schools communications officer Sherri Owens said part of the training for Lake County school resource officers this summer was focused on building relationships with students and making sure they feel comfortable reporting concerns, including threats they may see on social media. She said they are working to keep the lines of communication open with students and are working closely with law enforcement to keep abreast in that area.
Flagler County Schools will be using something called Social Sentinel, which scans millions of public posts on social media, looking for potential threats.
Middle and high school students will have to have a visible ID badge on them while on campus.
Seminole County Schools officials said they will also be monitoring social media for school-related threats, but have made no changes to their discipline process post Parkland. Last school year, they had 98 school-related threats reported, and not one was found to be credible.
In the Marion County School District, officials said they will monitor social media with law enforcement, school administration and community partners, but their most valuable tool is face-to-face interaction between students and adults.
Jason Geary, with Polk County Public Schools, said all threats are thoroughly and properly investigated by law enforcement and appropriate criminal charges are applied as warranted. Geary said this has been their approach before the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and will continue to be their approach in the upcoming school year.
Geary said students' discipline is handled in accordance with the student code of conduct, which covers possible consequences like suspensions or expulsions.
The Polk County Sheriff's Office also created a special video message for students and staff to inform them about the "run, hide and fight" response to threats like active shooter situations. The video is shared with all middle and high school students, and they will view the video again this year as well.
As for social media threats, the district is currently researching technology that will help monitor social media for possible threats.
"We have a district-wide 'see something say something' awareness campaign," Geary said. "In addition, information related to Crime Stoppers is disseminated in all schools so faculty and students can anonymously report information related to crimes, threats, and suspicious activity occurring in and around our schools for investigation by law enforcement."
Orange County Public Schools officials said they are currently in compliance with the new law and anticipate adding officers to school campuses. However, Lorena Arias, with OCPS, said the number of new officers is unknown at this time. She confirmed an outside security consultant conducted an update to the security risk assessment and the district will have threat assessment teams identified by the Sept. 1 deadline.
As of last week, Osceola County is one of the counties still hiring for school resource officers. The Osceola County Sheriff's Office said it is still actively looking to fill six open positions to make sure schools are fully covered.
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