Spanish River High School Principal William Latson took to the morning announcements Thursday to assure students and warn that some privileges may soon go away in the name of safety.
But in short order his tough love dissolved into near tears — the cracking voice and long pauses of a principal who is also a parent who waited more than six hours to hear news of his son, a seventh-grader studying on the same property a lethal gunman strode not a day earlier.
“The bottom line is I need to keep you safe and I need to do things that the principal at Stoneman Douglas can’t do today and that is send all the kids home safe,” Latson said, his voice cracking.
The shooting that left 17 dead and more than a dozen injured at a high school just south of the county line Wednesday, had principals and administrators across the Palm Beach County School District focused on safety before the first bell Thursday.
While certain principals sent home emails or recorded robo-calls to parents, the district’s chief operating officer, Donald Fennoy, said work had begun to address a backlog of safety-related work orders that had been put off for a year or more because of budget woes.
“They’re moving on this right now,” Fennoy said at lunchtime Thursday.
In the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, Palm Beach County administrators tapped the Boca Raton and other local police departments to provide additional security at schools in the region. While the police presence was up, attendance, particularly in the southernmost schools, was down. The students are off Friday while teachers have a work day. School will be back in session Monday.
A Boynton Beach mom of two elementary students echoed other parents when she reported to The Palm Beach Post Extra Credit Facebook group that she kept her children home Thursday to shield them from chatter about increased police presence and shootings.
Principal Latson’s son also sat out school, staying with grandparents instead, he said.
Though Westglades Middle School opened for business, its neighbor, Stoneman Douglas — as the locals call it, remained a crime scene. “He doesn’t need to see that,” Latson said.
At the same time, Latson said he invited police to roam his campus to assess possible security risks in the way the school operates. Their observations will inform the changes he spoke of in his six-minute address to Spanish River students.
The message that followed the Pledge of Allegiance was unscripted, Latson said. The principal began by crediting his students for their history of responsible behavior but said some of their previously negotiated on-campus perks might have to be curbed.
While Latson hadn’t intended to describe his own pain, it just spilled out, he said.
“Yesterday, I spent six and a half hours at Stoneman Douglas because my son … he’s on the same campus. So he was right in the middle. The individual ran from Stoneman Douglas, went on to his campus and went off. So I‘m speaking as a parent knowing how I felt not having information about my child,” Latson said. “I don’t want that for your parents.”
He referenced changes that will soon allow administrators to directly message parents through apps on their cell phones, a tool he wished the Douglas High principal had Wednesday. Latson then signed off. “We will get through this. We will make some changes. I want you to have as normal a day as possible.”