February 20, 2019
“Within one week after the February 14, 2018, horrific school shooting at Marjory Stoneman High School, we were reviewing and ramping up safety measures at all of our schools. We didn’t need to wait on legislative bills to know that anything can happen on any school campus, and we had better be as prepared as possible,” says Superintendent of Wakulla County Schools Bobby Pearce.
Just two weeks after the shooting, Superintendent Pearce and Wakulla County Sheriff Jared Miller collaborated to add 6 new School Resource Officers so that every public school in the district had a trained, armed SRO on site. Today the total is 10 SROs, one at each school, including Wakulla Pre-K, Wakulla Institute for alternative programs, and COAST Independent Charter School. Wakulla High School has two SROs.
Both the Wakulla County School Board and the Wakulla Sheriff’s Office collaborated to fund the SROs for the three months following the Parkland shooting, even though the Sheriff’s Office has no requirement to put their funds towards schools.
A recent round-table review of the past year and discussion of additional plans for student safety included Superintendent Pearce, Wakulla County Schools Safety and Risk Manager Jim Griner, and Wakulla County Sheriff’s Office Undersheriff Billy Jones.
Rounding out the discussion was input from Belinda McElroy, Mental Health Services Coordinator for Wakulla County public school students. Her position was created under Student Services in the months following the Parkland shooting.
Says Superintendent Pearce, “We know that a huge portion of school safety is identifying students who are struggling with mental health issues. And once identified, what services can we offer? Mrs. McElroy brings a wealth of experience and organizational skills in coordinating with outside mental health agencies and providing mental health and suicide prevention awareness training to our faculties.”
Now every school has access to mental health service providers. In addition, two full-time licensed clinical social workers have been added district-wide to help students referred to them by school faculties, administrators, and parents.
The Wakulla County School Board and the Wakulla County Sheriff’s Office work on having a supportive relationship. “When it comes to the safety of our children, we are all in this together,” says Undersheriff Jones. He has been involved with the School Resource Officer program for the past 14 years and now oversees it.
Sheriff Jared Miller notes, “The safety of Wakulla County’s children is paramount. Our students, teachers, and parents need to know that the Wakulla County Sheriff’s Office and the schools are doing everything possible to keep them safe. We continue to enjoy a good collaborative effort in this measure with Superintendent Pearce and the school system and will continue to be at the forefront in safety and security within our schools.”
Adds Griner, “Even before the Parkland shooting, we have worked closely with the Wakulla County Sheriff’s Office. When a student is on either the WCSB or the WCSO radar, we contact each other and share information that could be crucial to averting a crisis.”
Griner’s background in the military, then with a career in law enforcement including as a School Resource Officer and rise to Captain, adds to the positive collaboration efforts of the WCSB and the WCSO. Undersheriff Jones and Griner are in touch several times a day and join forces to avert potential problems.
For the 2018-2019 school year, Griner secured $450,000 of the state Safe Schools money and it is devoted to continuing funding the 10 SRO positions.
The School Board also approved funds to split the cost with the Sheriff’s Office for purchasing Assault Prevention Back Packs for all SROs. In addition, the School Board funded one new patrol vehicle so that all SROs are in standard patrol vehicles.
Although not required to put any money toward school safety, the Wakulla County Sheriff’s Office also funds summer training for the SROs and practice on “Active Shooter on Campus” scenarios at the vacated former Sopchoppy Elementary School during Spring Breaks and summers.
Also, the new “Social Sentinel Monitoring System” tracks inflammatory or potentially harmful information posted on social media. It was purchased by the Wakulla County school system through their affiliation with PAEC, the Panhandle Area Education Consortium of small and rural districts who pool their resources.
Posts are monitored by 3 people designated from WCSB and 3 people from the WCSO. Information is shared and intervention is planned through the two agencies’ collaboration.
Some ongoing school safety measures that have been in place for years are getting overhauled such as replacing outdated surveillance cameras on campuses and at the schools’ perimeters.
Other safety measures added to Wakulla County schools since February 14, 2018, include a single entry system at all schools, where there is only one way in for parents and designees, plus vendors and others, to enter the schools.
Says Griner, “The ‘Single Point of Entry’ is working well at all of our schools. Of course, Wakulla High School, and all high schools, are tough to cover with the student parking lots and sports fields making many ways to get on campus. That’s why we have one SRO devoted to roving the WHS campus in a utility vehicle. He or she is constantly stopping to survey incoming adult traffic and to monitor students who come and go during the school day.”
Concludes Superintendent Pearce, “No one goes into education to worry about student safety. But after a few years of working with students, most of us realize that you can’t teach a child who is scared or worried or depressed. So while we hope there is never another school shooting incident anywhere, it is our duty to make our children and faculties feel safe at our schools and make our parents feel secure that their children are treated as though each one of them was our own while they are under our care.”