Here's how the new school safety director plans to protect Florida students

New technology, security measures among campus improvements

SUNRISE, Fla. – As members of a state commission watched an animated timeline earlier this month, showing how the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School unfolded, Damien Kelly sat in the spectator gallery alongside fellow law enforcement officers and victims' family members.

Kelly is the very first director of the Office of Safe Schools, a new division within Florida's Department of Education that was created in response to the February school shooting.

At the time of the attack, which left 17 students and staff members dead, Kelly was still working as an agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

His last assignment with FDLE was investigating law enforcement's response to the Parkland school shooting.  

"What I saw there, I can never unsee," Kelly told News 6. "And that's what sort of pushed me into accepting this role."

In the seven months since Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart appointed Kelly as director of the new office, the former Memphis police officer has traveled the state, meeting with law enforcement officials, school administrators and other safety experts.

"I get asked the question all the time, 'What's the one thing that we can do that's going to stop the next school shooting?' And there's no easy answer to that because there isn't any one thing," Kelly said.  "It's going to be a combination of everything that was given to us in this bill."

The bill he referred to is the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, a wide-ranging piece of legislation signed by Gov. Rick Scott three weeks after the shooting that established the Office of Safe Schools and made provisions for arming school personnel, improving campus security and funding mental health programs.

“The three areas that we concentrate on are prevention, intervention and emergency preparedness planning,” Kelly said.  “The bulk of my time so far has been dealing with law enforcement to develop plans in the event of an active shooter on one of our campuses.”

Under the new law, every school district is required to designate an administrator to serve as a School Safety Specialist who is responsible for tasks such as assessing security risks, overseeing safety policies and providing training for mental health and active shooter situations.

"They are the go-to person in the districts that I deal with on a daily and weekly basis," said Kelly, who describes the School Safety Specialist position as one of the most important aspects of the new state law.  "I think these are the men and women who are going to be instrumental in seeing that our schools are safe places for students and educators."

In his new role, Kelly has been working with school districts to ensure they conducted security risk assessments this summer that were required by the new law. 

Although most districts complied with the requirement, at least eight missed the state-mandated deadline, state education officials said.

"I can tell you those numbers would be a lot higher if it weren't for (Kelly's) above and beyond work," said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, a member of the commission investigating the Parkland school shooting.

The Office of Safe Schools "shall serve as a central repository for best practices, training standards and compliance oversight in all matters regarding school safety and security," according to the state law that created it.

Since being named director, Kelly has personally visited with administrators from more than 40 school districts, in part to see firsthand what has been done since the Parkland shooting to improve campus security.

"A lot of schools over the summertime took on a lot of construction projects, (creating) a single point of entry, repairing fences, putting fences up where they didn't exist before. There have been a lot of video enhancement projects," Kelly said. "The most amazing thing for me is that nobody has just sat back and took the attitude that this could never happen in our district or in our school. They've all been very proactive."

While touring Seminole High School and Longwood Elementary in mid-August, Kelly discovered that Seminole County Public Schools has placed classroom numbers on exterior windows.

"When law enforcement arrives they can tell right away this is Classroom A-3 and that's where I need to get to," Kelly said.

In Tallahassee, Kelly's team has been reviewing technology to monitor social media for potential threats of violence against schools and students.

The Office of Safe Schools also helped with the rollout of FortifyFL, a new mobile app that allows students to anonymously report suspicious activity.

"I think it's very important that students buy into their own safety on campus," Kelly said.

About the Author: