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School safety, security, reviewed

By Staff | Aug 5, 2020

When it comes to campus safety, School Resource Officers in the schools is the way to go as is implementing preventative measures for mental health, a majority of the members of the Lee County School Board members agreed Tuesday.

Discussion at the morning meeting included SROs, the Guardian Program, Alyssa’s Law (panic alarms), hurricane preparedness and additional training and projects.

– SROs and the Guardian Program

Safety and Security Director Rick Parfitt said they still have two pending agreements for SROs with agencies, but the Lee County Sheriff’s Office is ready to go. Due to budgetary problems, the Fort Myers Police Department may not be able to fulfill that agreement, which means the district will go back to using the Lee County Sheriff’s Office on the schools, he said.

“The only real changes with the interlocal agreements with agencies is we have refined some language,” Parfitt said, adding that is mainly for staffing, so they have a School Resource Officer at the school during the day.

The district has decided to add a second SRO to high schools. Last year the district began using two officers at most of the high schools, which were also among the bigger high schools in the district.

“Our plan is to add a second SRO to all of the high schools, so that would be four in Cape Coral and two in the city of Fort Myers,” Parfitt said.

In addition, Gateway High School, Lehigh Senior High School due to portables and Bonita Springs High School reaching capacity also will receive another officer.

“We decided last year that the School Resource Officer is the best plan for us,” he said.

As a school approaches 2,000 students or more, a second SRO in middle and high school would be added.

School Guardians, who would be school district employees, or are hired for the specific purpose of serving as a school guardian, were also discussed. Each guardian must complete training and background requirements and receive certification by a sheriff.

The school board has to approve implementation of a guardian program and the Sheriff’s Office has to establish the program.

The guardians would have no authority to act in any law enforcement capacity, Parfitt explained, adding that they would be an armed guard.

The state would pay for the training and a one-time $500 stipend for each person certified as a guardian.

Superintendent Dr. Greg Adkins said the district’s cost, roughly, for an SRO is $50,000. If they were to provide a guardian with a salary in the neighborhood of $35,000 plus benefits and training, it is about a comparable amount of money from a district perspective, he added.

“That’s the one thing that people need to understand. Right now we have a cost share with our partners, which is why I am so appreciative of the counties, cities and municipalities that partner with us because they provide the other half of that funding,” Adkins said. “The overall cost of an SRO might be in the neighborhood of $100,000, but the cost to the district is half of that.”

Lee County Sheriff’s Office Chief John Holloway said if the board decides to pursue a Guardian Program, the Sheriff’s Office will take the steps necessary to facilitate that through the Public Service Academy.

“We will train and certify those individuals,” Holloway said.

He said the Sheriff Carmine Marceno believes if the board chooses to pursue a Guardian Program it would be in addition to SROs.

“We would be very concerned if a school were to lose an SRO and substitute a guardian because of the limitations that have been indicated,” Holloway said. “I think it is important to understand that the payment that the Sheriff Office receives does not cover a lot of the cost of the SRO program. We lose money on almost every SRO.”

Because the Sheriff’s Office is committed to the safety of the schools, they absorb that lost and find a way to pay for those things, he added.

“It doesn’t cover the infrastructure necessary to maintain the SRO program. It doesn’t cover the commanders, the lieutenants, the narcotics and bomb dogs, but at the end, the safety of our children is the upmost priority, so the sheriff is subsidizing that. I say those words to make it clear that we are very proud of our SRO program. We will work with you in any way we can to keep the children safe,” Holloway said.

Holloway said they like the idea of the guardian program and they see it as a supplement of the SRO program, not a replacement. He said having SROs and guardians work together would be a way to increase the safety in school.

“Our SRO program is second to none in the nation. It has a lot of consequential benefits that serves everyone in the community very well,” Holloway said. “The Guardian Program is a different, limited focus. We don’t expect students to approach guardians and ask questions.”

They are an armed intervention whose role would be to be there in case of an attack.

“It puts another trained firearm between the children and a bad guy,” Holloway said.

The two roles, a SRO officer and a guardian are very distinct. Guardians have a very limited, but important role, he said.

Parfitt said the district would be better served to dedicate funding to the prevention aspect, such as additional mental health support. For this reason, they are looking at violence prevention in the school setting.

There was a great deal of conversation from Board Member Melissa Giovannelli regarding funding for the Guardian Program, which earlier in the discussion it was said that the governor had vetoed funding.

“My question is would there be any objections to seeking the information and seeing what we would actually be provided? It would be contingent upon the funding from the state. Is anyone opposed to that,” she asked, adding that it would be a hybrid model to enhance the SRO program.

Adkins said if they were able to avail themselves to additional funding for a guardian program that it could potentially be a win-win that would allow them to put an additional level of security. But, he said, the only additional funding for the Guardian Program is the $500 supplement.

There were only two board members interested in pursuing the Guardian Program, Board Member Gwyn Gittens and Giovanneli.

Both Board Members Chris Patricca and Cathleen O’Daniel Morgan said they could not vote on something where there is no cost analysis associated with it.

“It is not fair to ask us to vote on a hypothetical,” Patricca said.

Board Chair Mary Fischer said she believes if they had funding it would be better invested, and the outcome would be stronger, if they continued to present their restorative practices, intervention programs and mental health programs.

“I think it is really important for us to remember an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Fischer said. “If we are building those relationships and the kids feel vested and like they belong, they will be less likely to bring a weapon to school. I think with our increase of mental health professionals and our redirection with student service staff to work more with that we would be more likely to identify kids at risk and give them the intervention and services that they need.”

Fischer said at this point she will continue to support the intervention programs, mental health programs and their fully vested school resource officers who have that full entire, ongoing training.

“The guardian is the school personnel, I just think it muddies the water at this point,” she said.

– Alyssa’s Law

Parfitt said the Alyssa’s Law, which calls for panic alarms, does not go into effect until the next school year. The statue states that all public schools shall implement a mobile panic alert system capable of connecting diverse emergency services technology to ensure real-time coordination between multiple first responder agencies.

“Our panic alarms have to go to 911,” Parfitt said, adding the district is looking at many different platforms, one of which is a mobile app. Right now the RFP is a state recommended product.

“A mobile app would require employees to download an app on their personal phone and that app would have to be voluntarily downloaded. That app would have to be updated,” he explained, adding that an app would require personnel to have their phones with them.

Parfitt said they another option would be to purchase a card or a pendant system, which would be more costly.

– Hurricane Preparedness

Parfitt said the hurricane preparedness guide has been updated and includes 14 schools acting as hurricane shelters. The county has provided the district with some virtual training on hurricane preparedness and managers training to include pandemic parameters.

“Some of the things we have talked about, as best possible, is we are going to limit the number of people per space, which doesn’t always happen,” he said.

Part of the plan includes designating certain areas of the shelter for those who come up with COVID-19 symptoms. They would be in segregated areas of the schools.

Trailers have been assembled and will have equipment delivered to schools before a hurricane takes place, which includes such items as a pallet of hand sanitizers.

They have added five way radio transmissions, window replacements and generator repairs to the shelters, Parfitt said.

– Other trainings and projects

With additional grant funding from I Love You The Guys Foundation, they were able to touch upon the Standard Response Protocol and Standard Reunification Method, which includes standardized language in an emergency or crisis.

Another area includes grid mapping of schools, which was completed with CRG.

The nice thing about the maps is every school has access to them and they are gridded and locations are identified on each map for utility areas, Parfitt said.

Any type of emergency responder has the ability to describe where to go in a situation by identifying the rooms, cafeteria, so when an officer or medic is responding they will be able to give them directions instantaneously to where they are located.