FORT WALTON BEACH — For the cost of an Xbox or a PlayStation, each public school student in Northwest Florida can improve his or her chances of avoiding becoming another victim in a school shootout.
The Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton County school systems have started "hardening" their schools. That includes demolition and construction of school entrances to improve security, installing surveillance cameras, redoing classrooms to ensure students remain out of sight from the hallways, and hiring more mental health professionals to help troubled students.
But ensuring compliance with the many school safety measures now required by law takes money.
When adding up state, local and sheriff’s office school safety funding for 2018-19, the Okaloosa County School District paid a grand total of $284 per pupil to safeguard its nearly 32,000 school children spread across 41 elementary, middle and high schools.
It cost Walton $416 per student for school safety measures for its enrollment of more than 9,800 at its 17 schools.
Meanwhile, Santa Rosa’s school system protects the nearly 28,500 children packing its 35 schools at a comparatively low price of $151 per student.
Charlie Morse, Walton County’s school safety specialist, spent a day recently looking at different types of fencing and shelters. He plans to fence off two more schools before the school year begins Aug. 12.
“Safety and security are our top priority,” Morse said. “We don’t want it to look like a correctional facility. We want it to look like a school.”
Okaloosa County schools budgeted about $4.2 million this past school year for safety-related projects, and plans to increase the funding even more in the coming year. For example, the district began renovating entrances to make them secure points of entry. Visitors must be buzzed into a lobby where they produce their ID and sign in. Only after those checks can they enter the school.
Assistant Superintendent Steve Horton said the school system plans to make those projects a priority.
“Our superintendent and School Board have established student and staff safety as a clear priority,” Horton said. “Everything else that can reasonably wait, will wait. The cost involved in securing our schools, while significant, is far less than the potential price paid by our students and employees if we did not.”
Preventing school shootings
It sounds like an impossible task, but in nearly 16 months Florida lawmakers have sprung into action to push school safety to the top of the education priorities for its 67 school districts.
The massacre of 17 students and staff and wounding of 17 others Feb. 14, 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland sparked outrage across the state and nation. About three weeks later, state legislators put together their first game plan to prevent future active shooters who dare to attack school children.
The Legislature then beefed up the law even more this year by adding recommendations from the 458-page Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission report. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the legislation into law May 8.
Lawmakers incorporated a controversial commission proposal to allow teachers for the first time in Florida history to carry weapons onto school campuses to protect children. They must earn certification from the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program run by their local sheriff’s offices.
The expanded law, among other things, also called for enhancing surveillance technology that allows school officials and law enforcement to get real-time access, granting school resource officers access to students’ educational and disciplinary records, renovating schools to make them more difficult to enter and requiring students to participate in active shooter drills.
Santa Rosa County Sheriff Bob Johnson said he and Superintendent of Schools Tim Wyrosdick have clicked since their two agencies started working together a year ago. For example, the sheriff provides the SROs and equipment while the School District gladly pays for their expertise.
“We’ve been together on the same page since day one,” Johnson said. “Some counties are still fighting over it.”
Wyrosdick said cooperation from Johnson has made doing the improved school safety measures easier than expected.
“I appreciate his work on this,” Wyrosdick said. “Defense is No. 1. It’s not just having guns, it is helping coordinate a safety crisis. It’s powerful how we can be better by working together.”
Florida lawmakers actually first allocated money for a Safe Schools Program back in 1983. They formalized the Florida Safe Schools Act in 1986. It funded school districts based solely on the juvenile crime index through 1993. It then went unfunded until 1997 when the Legislature rescinded the act.
Instead, in 1994 under the Safe Schools Appropriation fund, the Legislature began to give money for school safety through a formula based on each county's crime index and full-time equivalent enrollment. Each school district receives $62,660 minimum. The rest then gets spread out, with two-thirds based on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Crime Index and one-third based on each school district’s share of Florida’s overall unweighted student enrollment.
The Parkland school shooting — one of the deadliest in U.S. history — brought the issue back to the forefront. The accused killer, Nikolas Cruz, pulled the fire alarm before he allegedly gunned down the 17 students and staff with an AR-15.
Ray Sansom is vice president of the Radar Group, which handles many of the troubled students in Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton County school systems. He said keeping a dialogue up with school district leaders is paramount.
"If we have a breakdown in communication, we could have a Nikolas Cruz in our area," Sansom said.
The state Department of Education helps offset school safety needs. It provides $161.9 million in Safe Schools Allocation and $69.2 million in Mental Health Assistance.
In addition, DeSantis issued an executive order to allow sheriff’s offices to apply for more than $57 million in unallocated money under the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, named in honor of a heroic victim in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting.
The Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton school systems already have put the available state funding to use. Higher-than-usual education budgets has meant school districts have made hardly any budget cuts to fund much-needed security.
That allows school districts to renovate existing schools to enhance safety. It's something Okaloosa is doing, Superintendent of Schools Marcus Chambers said.
"Five or 10 years ago, teachers were coming to school to teach; principals were coming to school to lead," Chambers said. "It's sad that we are dealing with this issue."
The Okaloosa County School District spent roughly $9 million total on school safety. It included $4.24 million for safety-related construction.
Additionally, the district shared the nearly $2.4 million cost with the Sheriff’s Office for school resource officers who guard each school, doling out $672,320. The Florida Department of Education appropriated an additional $1.4 million to Okaloosa schools from its safe school funds and mental health assistance money.
Santa Rosa County School District spent nearly $4.3 million on school safety. The school system bears the full price of about $2.4 million for 36 full-time school resource officers. In all, it paid $3.2 million total, while the DOE covered $1.1 million in additional safety costs.
Meanwhile, the Walton County School District put about $1.7 million into school safety. It included $1.1 million from the School District general funds and $541,247 from DOE sources. The Sheriff’s Office also chipped in $2.4 million, primarily to post armed school resource officers at each school.
Plus, some schools' parents and teachers conduct fundraisers to help improve their children's safety.
Walton County Superintendent Russell Hughes said he finds the need for more school safety troubling.
"As public servants, we are concerned about our communities devaluing life," Hughes said. "We want to make a positive impact on the citizenship, character and lifestyles of our parents and children."
Kids love their resource officers
Maj. Doug Bringmans oversees school safety for the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office. He points out that SROs, like most others statewide, must complete a hefty dose of training. His permanent officers must undergo four months of field training, 80 hours of training on the school environment, 30 hours on juvenile justice, 16 hours on crisis intervention, a 1-on-1 course with training on how to handle an active shooter and regular firearms practice.
“Teachers first and foremost have to teach, and that’s hard enough for them,” Bringmans said.
A School Resource Program Agreement between the Santa Rosa County agencies calls for the School District to reimburse the Sheriff’s Office for the deputies it provides to guard schools and the children in them.
Much like deals in Okaloosa and Walton, the agreement calls for 36 full-time school resource officers, one K-9 handler and animal, two sergeant SROs and one lieutenant SRO. At schools not assigned a full-time SRO, the Sheriff’s Office provides off-duty deputies.
However, Bringmans said only four schools in Santa Rosa lack a permanent SRO. However, he said those spots will be filled before the new school year. Okaloosa and Walton school systems also have school resource officers, sometimes two, manning each of its schools.
Like Florida, school resource officers can carry weapons in schools in about 30 states and Washington, D.C. Florida also has company when it comes to arming school employees. They can possess firearms in at least eight other states after they complete training.
Bringmans, a gentle giant, said it’s the children who make the job of being a school resource officer worthwhile. He recalled one school where the student body proudly bore stickers on their chests that looked like a sheriff’s badge to show their SRO how much they treasured him watching over them day-in and day-out.
“I don’t think we have had a single school where the kids said, ‘No, we don’t like our school resource officer,’ " Bringmans said. "Kids love their resource officers.”