Seminole County superintendent discusses changes ahead of upcoming school year

News 6 anchor Justin Warmoth interviews Dr. Walt Griffin

SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. – Thousands of students across Central Florida go back to school Monday and while they were enjoying summer break, school districts across the state were busy making changes and improvements. 

Seminole County Superintendent Dr. Walt Griffin joined News 6 anchor Justin Warmoth on "The Weekly on ClickOrlando.com" to discuss what parents and students can expect to see this school year.

Read a portion of their one-on-one interview here:

Warmoth: "Let's start with school safety. Is there anything that parents need to know about going into the school year that will be different from last year?" 

Griffin: "I've learned a lot. I did student forums all last year, and of all the training I've been to and all of the adult meetings, I really think the student voice has had the most influence on me. We have spent a lot of our time talking about hardening our campuses with extra fencing, gates, locks -- all of the important things -- and we continue to be diligent in that area. But after spending time with the students, I've really been focusing on softening the campuses. Softening the campuses is really just making sure that every student has an adult on campus they really trust if they have something they're concerned about to talk to. Also, that we have mental health counselors available for students, for adults, or anyone who just wants someone to talk to. And we have resources available all the time for everybody." 

Warmoth: "Are schools safer now than ever before?" 

Griffin: "I think we have more things in place than ever before. When I was a student, we didn't worry about things like this. I think the awareness, certainly the hardening of the campuses, and I'm very fortunate to have a long-term, great relationship with our sheriff's department. I actually have a captain and two lieutenants in my own building who give me daily updates with things that are happening in the neighborhood, around the county, around the state -- whatever I need to know. But it's really making sure every day you address any issue that comes up. We have to be really, really careful to make sure that all of our students feel safe, feel comfortable and have someone to talk to." 

Warmoth: "What is like being a superintendent in 2019 when we're so focused on school security?" 

Griffin: "It's challenging. Every single day we go through and make sure we have everything in place that we possibly can. The safety of our students is and has always been our top priority. It's safety, relationships and then achievements."

Warmoth: "The Department of Education has this new portal -- a school safety portal. Can you explain what that is and how it will be used in Seminole County?" 

Griffin: "It will help us, as students are enrolling, to see if there's anything that we need to be aware of. One of the great benefits for the state of Florida is that we're rapidly improving how we communicate with each other. If a student needs some additional assistance or moves from county x to county y, we're aware." 

Warmoth: "And who has access to that?" 

Griffin: "Our counselors and administrators." 

Warmoth: "Is the goal of this portal essentially to stop something bad from happening before it could happen?" 

Griffin: "I guess at the most extreme. For us, it's to make sure that if a student had been receiving some services, that they continue to receive those services." 

Warmoth: "Got it. What message would you like to send parents ahead of this school year regarding school safety?" 

Griffin: "I think one of the greatest challenges I had last year were parents and community members, who were really meaning well, find something that they were concerned about in terms of school safety. Like if a back gate was broken or they're concerned about something on campus, but instead of just picking up the phone and calling the school administration or resource officer, they put it on their social media thinking they're being helpful. Well, good people and bad people are watching social media. I would ask them to please work directly with us over the phone any way that they possibly can. I don't want (that) information out there. We always have things to improve and we will address every single concern that we get, but we have to be made aware of it." 

Warmoth: "There's something new from the state this year and it's sort of last minute, right? Can you explain what the state would like to see when it comes to mental health education?" 

Griffin: "We're going to have five to six hours of mental health training for our students. We already had bits and pieces of it in place and this will formalize it. It's really making sure that students know what to do in the event of some crisis in their life or friend's life, who to report to, what to do, how to handle it. I think the most important message is that they aren't alone and that they're not the only ones having problems and there's help." 

Warmoth: "Is this comparable to maybe sex education or something along those lines?"

Griffin: "It's a separate unit. And regardless of the requirement, it's the type of thing you don't just teach in a five-hour block, but you follow up throughout the year. As we learn new things, we share those things with the students." 

Warmoth: "Sixth graders to seniors in high school, right? Obviously the content will be a little different from a sixth grader and a senior in high school, so that's something that will be adjusted as they get older, right?" 

Griffin: "Absolutely." 

Warmoth: "Do you think this is a good idea?" 

Griffin: "I do. We've been advocates of mental health awareness for several years now. We were probably the first district on board to have school resource officers who have always done training with our elementary students and middle school training. I think it's all about awareness." 

Warmoth: "One thing that has really become an epidemic is teen vaping. How is Seminole County working to address that and having the kids, if they get caught, face disciplinary action?" 

Griffin: "First and foremost, I just did a student forum on vaping about three weeks ago, and I completely agree with them that most students don't understand the real dangers of vaping. They think it's a positive alternative to smoking. They don't understand the dangers that they're doing to their bodies. Education is paramount. In addition to education for students, adults need more education too. I met with the American Heart Association last week to try and see what materials they have and see what we're going to roll out as a state." 

Warmoth: "And it's hard to focus if they're addicted to nicotine -- their minds are always on the device. Maybe they're going to the bathroom and doing it in there. Is that something you can control?" 

Griffin: "Yes, we actually are doing a pilot program right now. We have vape sensors that seem to be working and we'll be putting more of those around our schools."

Warmoth: "So basically they walk into a bathroom and it sets off something?" 

Griffin: "Very much like a smoke detector, but it's a little extra sensitive to pick up the vape." 

Warmoth: "What is the one thing you're looking forward to the most this school year? Is that hard to answer?"

Griffin: "It is, it is. I want students to be happy. I want teachers to enjoy their work. I think I'd be thrilled if everybody enjoyed coming to work every day as much as I do. You have to love what you do and find your passion. And I just hope that our students really enjoy school." 

You can watch "The Weekly" Sundays at 8 a.m. on News 6. 

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