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School massacre close to home forces new reckoning on campus safety

As the nation struggled last week to process the latest school shooting, Doug Markwardt’s thoughts turned to something seemingly different: the day he came face to face with a sports-utility vehicle in a high school courtyard.

As an assistant principal at Spanish River High School, Markwardt watched in horror in October as a confused driver careened into the courtyard of the 2,300-student Boca Raton school, veering along sidewalks before ramming the veteran educator off a golf cart.

No one had a gun, and no students were hurt. But the encounter brought home a long-standing concern for Markwardt: After years of countywide investments in school security, his campus and many others were still open and vulnerable.

“I used to tell people, ‘Look, it’s just a matter of time,’” said Markwardt, who retired in November.

Across Palm Beach County, public school educators and parents were quietly making similar assessments of their campuses in the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. While school officials work to assure residents about the schools’ safety, many privately worry about security gaps.

Those concerns range from open campuses to over-extended school police officers and whether or not to reopen the age-old debate about metal detectors on campus. School board members have scheduled a closed-door meeting Wednesday to discuss security plans.

With an influx of money from a sales tax hike, Palm Beach County’s public schools are planning to spend more than $30 million over the next decade on security upgrades at more than 180 campuses, including cameras, alarms and card-access systems.

A chunk of the money will also go to “facility hardening measures,” including new fences to better enclose campuses.

And $10 million in similar security measures are underway this year at schools across the county.

New schools, ‘fewer vulnerabilities’

Spanish River High is one of several schools with open campuses designed before a string of school mass shootings and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks prompted school builders to re-think how campuses are laid out.

For more than a decade, the district has worked to build schools with a “single point of entry,” meaning the campus interior is generally accessible only through a single main entrance.

“The single point of entry is the ideal situation,” said Mike Burke, the district’s chief financial officer. “You can control the traffic and you have fewer vulnerabilities.”

At schools with more traditional designs, a person who gets into the parking lot often can have access to the entire campus.

“In this day and age, you should only have one point of access to a school,” Markwardt said, “and there should be somebody at that entrance every single minute.”

Markwardt and other educators on campus had long made that point about Spanish River, which has access points on both sides of the campus. All day long, Markwardt said, students come and go, workers show up, deliveries arrive.

The problem was compounded, a teacher said, during a stretch of several weeks at the beginning of the school year when no police aides were guarding the gates.

“All the time, there’s parents there just coming on campus,” Craig Matthews, a teacher at Spanish River, told The Palm Beach Post in an interview last fall. “The kids come and go as they please. There was a parent at my door one morning, waiting to talk to me.”

Markwardt said the situation came to a head when the SUV drove through campus, over sidewalks and onto the courtyard.

The driver was an elderly woman who appeared disoriented and thought she was on a road. Fearing she would strike a student, Markwardt sped after her in a golf cart, only to be bumped by the vehicle and knocked to the ground. He escaped serious injury but said he underwent weeks of physical therapy afterward.

William Latson, the school’s principal, dismissed the SUV issue as an isolated incident. He said he had worked to better secure the campus since then, hiring new police aides to supervise the gates.

But Latson — who last week promised students “some changes” on campus — said it would be wrong to over-secure a school.

“People will take any little thing and blow it out of portion,” he said. “Schools aren’t prisons. We want them to be inviting. We’re not going to lock it down so (parents) can’t get access to their children.”

What about metal detectors?

Latson’s concerns about overzealous efforts to secure schools are a common refrain as schools mull new measures.

Schools “don’t have 10-foot walls,” said Justin Katz, president of the county teachers union. “They have fences but they aren’t made to keep people out who are intent on getting in.”

The questions about school image, psychological effects and cost come into play in the debate over metal detectors. For years, many municipal and community leaders have pushed the school district to put them in place.

Following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut in December 2012, the mayors of Boynton Beach, Riviera Beach, Lake Park and Mangonia Park called for them on all campuses.

Those calls were rejected by district leaders, who said metal detectors would be costly and largely ineffective. Instead, the district agreed in 2013 to hire more police aides to patrol certain schools.

But calls to reconsider may emerge as parents and students deal with a mass school shooting just miles south of the county line.

James Wagner, a mechanical engineer and the father of three Dwyer High School students, said that he and several other parents recently started pushing for metal detectors at the Palm Beach Gardens school after loaded guns were discovered on campus.

But he said that the principal and a school administrator rejected the suggestion, saying it would be too costly. When Wagner and some other parents offered to raise the money themselves, they were rebuffed again.

“It’d certainly be nice if we lived in a society where we didn’t have to worry about this,” he said, “but we honestly do. It sucks.”

Some call for more school cops

In a recent interview, Palm Beach County School District Police Chief Lawrence Leon said metal detectors are cost-prohibitive because of the amount of work involved.

“You have to man them, keep up the maintenance, the cost,” he said. “It becomes very difficult.”

The number of officers patrolling the schools is another point of contention that is receiving new attention. The district says each middle and high school has at least one officer permanently assigned. Other officers split time between several elementary schools.

During a board meeting Wednesday, just moments after word of the Parkland shooting started circulating, board member Frank Barbieri called for more police resources on the school district’s roughly 180 campuses, saying, “We need more police officers; they need more equipment.”

Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa seemed to agree, saying that “now may be the time to go to the community and say ‘It’s time for every school to have a police officer.’” No formal plans have been made, but the issue is expected to come up during the board’s closed meeting Wednesday.

As educators acknowledge that it’s impossible to completely remove the risk of gun violence from campus, plans to secure the schools further lead to difficult tradeoffs.

“It puts the district in a difficult position with the budget strained as it is,” Katz said. “Increasing security should not be a decision made at the expense of educating kids.”

Markwardt, the retired Spanish River assistant principal, said he doubted the shooting would prompt any significant new measures. He said that the talk of increasing security is cyclical, and that after the panic subsides few changes ever come to pass.

“This always happens right after we have one of these tragedies,” he said. “Everyone is going to put their head up and say, ‘We need safety and security.’ And as time goes on, that money will be appropriated for something else, and it will disappear.”

Palm Beach Post staff writers Olivia Hitchcock and Sonja Isger contributed to this story.

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