LARGO — Only days after a high school student opened fire on classmates in a Seattle school, Pinellas County public school officials analyzed their own procedures for keeping students safe.
School board members on Tuesday discussed and said they’re satisfied with an audit of school security measures conducted by the district’s Office of Program Policy and Government Accountability, which gave schools high marks in every safety category. The district must submit its findings to state Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart within 30 days.
“Any time any tragedy happens we look at our policies and really evaluate if we’re prepared to handle those emergency situations,’’ said Clint Herbic, associate superintendent for operational services. “We have lots of preventive measures in place, and lots of eyes watching student safety , so we can feel confident in our current plans and practices.”
School shootings across the country have increased concerns about safety, particularly since the December 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. Rick Stelljes, head of the district’s police department, said parents of the county’s 101,500 public school students should know their children are safe.
“Our conversations involving heightened security in schools go back to the 1999 shootings at Columbine (High School in Colorado), and when Sandy Hook occurred there was definitely renewed conversations, not only in the school district but across the nation, on what is appropriate for our schools,” Stelljes said. “In Pinellas we’re very proud of the initiatives we’ve created here over the past few years.”
Last month, the school district returned 28 military surplus M16 assault rifles it purchased after the Sandy Hook shootings sparked conversations among legislators and school districts about putting more armed police in schools. Stelljes decided to returned the M16s, saying school police already were prepared for such “worst-case scenarios.”
While Pinellas focused on strengthening existing policies, Hillsborough County schools adopted a plan to eventually put officers in every elementary school, in addition to those already at middle and high schools, and Pasco County also has looked to hire more school resource officers.
Pinellas has beefed up security since 2007, when it began requiring all school visitors to show a valid identification and to pass through a quick background check. Last year, security cameras were installed in every elementary, middle and high school, and every police department in Pinellas was given access to monitor school perimeters.
School police added two Labrador retriever dogs this year that can sniff out firearms on campuses and at athletic events.
The school Firearms Detection K-9 teams share the dogs between school police and the St. Petersburg Police Department, an example of the increased collaboration with local municipalities.
A memorandum of understanding, signed by the seven police agencies that patrol Pinellas schools during the summer, discourages officers from arresting students for “petty acts of misconduct” and “non-violent misdemeanors”– instead discussing alternative punishments with school officials that could keep an arrest off a student’s record.
The agreement includes a detailed discipline matrix that should help ensure that bad behavior is handled the same way in every county school, and social workers, psychologists and guidance counselors assigned to every school enroll students in counseling and mentor services or an extra-curricular activity to consider and change their behavior.
In month-to-month comparisons, student arrest numbers in October were down 25 percent from last October, Superintendent Michael Grego said. From August to September, student arrests were down 40 percent from the same time in 2013.
School resource officers take “active shooter training” at least once a year, while other drills tackle everything from hostage situations and suicide attempts to mass shootings and working with plain-clothes police officers. School employees also took summer refresher courses on how to investigate and identify bullying, as well as how to help students who are repeatedly victimized, bullying-prevention specialist Joan Reubens said. School principals are creating emergency plans for their schools, in addition to district policies and procedures.
And if parents notice gaps in school security, such as unlocked gates or doors, they now may fill out an “off-site safety review” form on the school district website that is forwarded to authorities.