- By Lulu Ramadan Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
BOCA RATON — With armed officers at every city school, the elimination of fire drills and ongoing strategic planning to harden schools, Boca Raton schools have made safety a top priority in the wake of the mass shooting just 10 miles away in Parkland.
Students, parents and local leaders say the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 dead has created a culture of fear in surrounding schools, and has prompted Palm Beach County school officials to respond to concerns with action.
The Palm Beach County School District has its own police force, but because of widespread demand for officers at every county school, the Boca Raton Police Department has placed some of its officers at city schools that don’t have armed school police officers, city and school district officials said Monday at the first meeting of the Boca Raton City Council since the shooting.
School board member Frank Barbieri, whose district includes Boca Raton and its suburbs, wants to permanently place armed officers at the entrance of every public school, Barbieri told the city council.
“We want an armed police officer at every one of our schools so the kids have a fighting chance,” Barbieri said. “I want to make sure there’s somebody there with a gun that’s trained to handle that situation so, God forbid, a shooter gets into one of our schools, the kids aren’t sitting ducks.”
Local schools also have stopped coordinating fire drills, held as practice evacuations for fire-related emergencies. Authorities say that during the Stoneman Douglas shooting, a fire drill was held in the morning. The fire alarm then went off again during the mid-afternoon shooting, baffling students and conflicting with lock-down protocol that prompts students and teachers to secure themselves in classrooms.
If a fire alarm goes off in Boca Raton schools, it will not be a drill, Barbieri said.
“We’re working on how we handle that in the future, so that a fire alarm doesn’t go off and children don’t come out and find somebody in their school shooting at them,” he said.
The school district also has “task forces” at all local public schools looking at ways to eliminate multiple access points and further secure buildings.
Barbieri wants to make it so students can only enter schools by scanning a school badge, he said.
But metal detectors at the doorways -- an addition some parents have urged the school district to take on -- isn’t ideal in Boca Raton, Barbieri added.
“Imagine you’re at the airport, imagine 3,500 people in line for the same plane, when they have three metal detectors there, it would take you hours,” he said. “We have 3,500 students at Boca High School.”
If a kid wants to bring a gun onto campus, Barbieri said, a metal detector won’t stop him or her.
The county’s southernmost city, Boca Raton is not only closest to Parkland in Palm Beach County, but also was the epicenter of county activism Wednesday, when at least 1,000 students marched from their Boca schools to City Hall in protest for gun reform.
Following suit of Stoneman Douglas student activists, Boca Raton students called for tighter restrictions on access to semi-automatic weapons, like the one used in the Parkland shooting, and better security at schools.
The topic of restricting access to guns has been a heated one for decades, often dividing along political party lines. But Boca Raton, a city with a Republican edge, was home to the largest student-led demonstration for gun-control in Palm Beach County last week.
Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie, a Republican in a nonpartisan seat, watched the City Hall protest from the sidelines Wednesday.
“They want change and it’s going to start with us,” Haynie said of the student protesters. She added that she supports expanding mental health programs and “sensible” access to automatic weapons.
Councilman Robert Weinroth, a Democrat, implored city officials not to limit focus on school security, because shootings can happen anywhere.
Instead, he called for change at the state level regarding the ability of local governments to place restrictions on where or when guns can be carried.
Florida prohibits cities from imposing their own gun control rules. Elected officials who do so can be fined and removed from office by the governor, “which is ridiculous,” Weinroth said.
Weinroth said he anticipates widespread change in response to the wave of student activism that has followed the deadly shooting.
“The changes that are going to come out are going to be a living memorial to the 17 that were lost,” he said.