More armed officers. New fences and walls. Transparent backpacks. Student ID badges. Staggered school dismissals.
Many of Palm Beach County’s public schools will be more guarded and fortified than ever when classes begin on Monday, the result of months of changes to assuage parents’ fears and comply with new state requirements after February’s school shooting in Parkland.
With new rules in place on some campuses, thousands of dollars in security upgrades on others and dozens of new police officers patrolling the halls, school district leaders hope the changes will help families feel safer and reduce the risk of violence, all without significant disruptions to campus life.
But they concede that at some schools change will be inevitable, from more arrests and less freedom of movement to longer waits to pick up kids after dismissal.
“Some things you’ll see right off; some things are more subtle, like additional cameras,” said Wanda Paul, the school district’s chief operating officer. “It’s probably going to take a little bit more time to get in to drop your child off.”
While high schools and middle schools already had police officers assigned to them, regular police presence will be a change for the district’s 106 elementary schools. It’s the result of a new state law requiring that a school-safety officer be assigned to each public school in Florida.
The school district’s police department has struggled to hire enough officers to comply with the requirement. Of 75 extra officer positions created to patrol all of the county’s elementary schools, officials said this week that they had filled only about 15 so far.
Officers to patrol elementary schools
To cover the shortfall in the meantime, the district has agreed to pay overtime costs for a rotating group of 54 officers from the sheriff’s office and 13 city police departments to patrol dozens of elementary schools.
Because those officers will be working overtime, they will be switching in and out constantly, meaning a school could have different officers on campus throughout a week.
That has led to “a few groans from elementary principals that they might have a different officer each day,” school board member Barbara McQuinn said at a board meeting last month.
District officials acknowledge that a shifting cast of officers is not ideal but say there was no way to hire enough full-time officers to staff all elementary schools by the start of the school year.
This summer, Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy turned down an offer from Sheriff Ric Bradshaw to staff 50 elementary schools with full-time deputies, saying that committing to yearlong stints would be too expensive and inflexible as the district worked to hire its own officers.
The district also decided against hiring armed security guards, a less-costly option that Broward County’s public schools and many charter schools are pursuing. The district is also hiring school monitors at all middle and high schools with more than 400 students. The monitors will patrol the grounds and help to ensure that only authorized people are on campus during the school day.
Paying law enforcement officers at overtime rates will not be cheap, costing the school as much as $81 an hour per officer. All told, the district expects to spend as much as $6.5 million throughout the year for the extra officers, in addition to the more than $20 million a year it spends on its own police department.
Changes popular with parents
Administrators hope to be able to reduce the district’s dependency on other departments as the year progresses. But they say they expect to take more than a year to fill all of their open officer positions.
No matter who patrols the elementary schools, administrators say to expect changes. Fennoy acknowledged this summer that more officers on campus will inevitably mean more arrests, although it remains to be seen how large the effect will be.
Mindful of the criticism of a sheriff deputy’s decision to take cover while the Parkland shooting unfolded, school district leaders said they worked this summer to make sure officers would know that, faced with a school shooter, they should not wait for backup before intervening.
“We’ve enhanced our training this past summer so that now our officers are trained to go after and neutralize a threat based solely on their own initiative and without waiting for anyone else to arrive,” said newly installed School District Police Chief Frank Kitzerow.
The move to place cops in every elementary school has been widely embraced by parents.
“If something does happen there or close by, the schools don’t have to wait for an officer to get there because there will be one there already,” said Ashley Glass, whose son will be a third-grader at Forest Hill Elementary this year.
ID badges, backpacks among changes
Some parents have gone further, saying they would prefer even more security measures, such as metal detectors. While the school district has ruled out metal detectors, police officers are hardly the only change coming to the schools.
Across the county, many schools are moving to require students to use clear or mesh backpacks, an effort to make it more difficult for students to conceal weapons. And most schools intend to more rigorously enforce requirements that students wear ID badges throughout the day.
School district officials say that they don’t know how many schools have adopted transparent-backpack requirements. This week The Palm Beach Post identified at least four schools that did so after Parkland, including Watson B. Duncan Middle and H.L. Watkins Middle in Palm Beach Gardens, Palm Springs Middle and Cholee Elementary in Greenacres, but it is likely that dozens more have done so.
At Jupiter Farms Elementary, teachers are being asked to carry bags of their own whenever they leave their classroom with students — bags that include, among other things, student rosters, crisis plans and Band-aids.
Many campuses are altering the way people enter and leave to reduce the risk of intruders. At Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Nikolas Cruz got into the school while students poured out the gates.
Upgrades to fortify campuses
The district is finishing up security upgrades at 18 elementary and middle schools around the county, including Wellington Landings Middle, Jupiter Farms Elementary and Bear Lakes Middle, with more planned this year. The upgrades range from extra cameras to new fences, gates and doors.
At Discovery Key Elementary south of Wellington, a new wall is being erected to ensure visitors to campus have to enter through the main office.
At Duncan Middle, new fences and doors mean the school now has a single point of entry for students and parents.
To make the end of school less hectic, Duncan Middle has also adopted a “staggered dismissal,” where students in some buildings leave a few minutes before others so the hallways aren’t flooded with more than 1,000 students at once.
“You don’t have that mass exodus,” Principal Phillip D’Amico said. “It’s just a much more fine-tuned dismissal, and I think it’s much safer.”
Security measures also will mean less freedom of movement on many campuses.
Not only are students expected to wear ID badges at all times, some schools like Duncan have adopted a “Ten/Ten” rule barring students from leaving their classroom for the first and last ten minutes of each class.
'Really quiet and empty'
The difference is likely to be palpable on some campuses.
At Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach, students say they are no longer allowed to spend study periods in the courtyard or the hallways, enveloping much of the campus in silence for most of the day.
“It’s really quiet and empty,” said Samantha Garboden, a 16-year-old incoming junior, “like there’s nobody in the halls besides teachers, and it almost feels like nobody’s at school.”
Samantha, who does news reports for the school’s television class, used to conduct impromptu interviews with students or teachers around campus but now says she has to schedule interviews days in advance.
She agreed that many of the changes are likely to boost safety but she said what made her feel safer than any policy change was a talk her history teacher gave soon after the Parkland shooting.
In it, Gardoden recalled, the teacher took pains to explain what steps she personally would take to protect her students in the case of a shooting. What she would do if an attacker were in the building. Where she would direct students to take shelter. How, if necessary, she would put her life on the line to protect them.
“That helped us all to feel reassured, and she asked us what else would help us feel safer,” Gardoden said. “It helped to reassure all of us that she does care.”
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New security measures in Palm Beach County public schools
- 54 officers from the sheriff’s office and 13 city police departments will help patrol dozens of elementary schools.
- 18 elementary and middle schools receive security upgrades, including extra cameras and new fences, gates and doors.
- School monitors will help officers to patrol most middle and high schools.