Every Manatee County public school will have resource officers after more than a dozen threats were made to local schools and several students were arrested in the days since the massacre in Parkland, school board officials decided Friday.
The School Board of Manatee County met for about two hours Friday in an executive session to discuss safety and security. Citing Florida Statute 281.301, which exempts information about security systems from public record, the meeting was not open to the public.
“What we laid out in our executive session is a process of getting immediate additional resources on the school campus,” said Scott Hopes, chairman of the board.
Hopes said “nothing was off the table” as they looked at options to keep Manatee schools safe for students and staff. One thing that will be done now, he said, is adding 34 school resource officers in the county’s elementary, middle and high schools.
“We’re going to double the number of resource officers at our high schools, we are going to place full-time school resource officers at all of our schools,” Hopes said. “That is going into near-immediate effect.”
Getting more resource officers at the schools, especially those that do not currently have resource officers, as soon as possible has support from the sheriff’s office, Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Dave Bristow said.
“It’s something we’ll be working on,” Bristow said.
But it’s going to take some time. Personnel and the money to pay the deputies are just two of the things that must be addressed as they work to put someone in every school.
“We want to do it as soon as possible,” Bristow said, noting that it won’t get done by Monday.
The sheriff will, however, continue to have an increased presence at schools using patrol deputies in the area.
Bradenton police will also continue elevated patrols near schools, but getting more officers in the schools is also going to take some time, department spokesman Lt. Brian Theirs said.
“The Bradenton Police Department is already taking proactive steps to ensure our children and their parents feel safe when they go to school on Monday,” Theirs said. “Parents and children will see an increased presence of uniformed officers in and around the campuses and we will have undercover officers in various locations watching for anything suspicious. We will work collectively with the school board to request to accommodate school resource officer's in every school.”
It’s a move that will take planning and preparation by law enforcement.
“We have very large campuses and we felt, at the advice of sheriffs and police chiefs, that we needed to increase the number of school resource offices on our high school campuses,” Hopes said.
Hopes said the school board is prepared to allocate the necessary funding during its meeting next Tuesday.
In an announcement Friday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott said part of his new proposed action plan calls for a mandatory law enforcement officer in every public school and that it would provide $450 million to keep schools safe. Scott also proposed at least one law enforcement officer for every 1,000 students. The plan, he said, must be implemented by the start of the 2018-19 school year.
The school resource officers proposed for Manatee schools will be current employees of local law enforcement agencies, in line with Scott’s proposed action plan.
School District of Manatee County communications director Mike Barber said district officials are planning more meetings with other law enforcement agencies moving forward.
“Everything we’re doing this week is geared toward making sure our students and our staff are safe,” Barber said. “It’s been a period of extremely heightened anxiety — not only on students, but parents and school employees as well. But we’re looking forward to hopefully this calming down a little bit so we can move forward and do whatever measures we need to to make our schools safe.”
Increased school security
Parents should “expect a different level of security” on school campuses, according to Hopes. One policy pointed out was that unless a child is in a pre-kindergarten class, parents will not be able to walk them past the school entrance, Hopes said. Students older than pre-kindergarten will be escorted into class by school staff from that drop-off point.
“Bear with us. If you’re a pre-k parent, it’s my understanding from the superintendent that you will still be allowed to escort your child to the teacher,” Hopes said.
There was discussion about training teachers in observational skills so they can identify “what is not normal, so to arm them with knowledge and insight,” Hope said.
“There are things we can do now that does not have a significant cost,” Hopes said.
As part of increased security measures at schools, the school district sent out a recorded call to parents of middle and high school students Thursday night, telling them students could not bring backpacks to school Friday morning.
The call said the “extra stress surrounding our schools this week has had a taxing toll on school administrators and staff, as well as local law enforcement officials,” and asked all middle and high school students to leave their backpacks at home. Students who brought backpacks to school Friday were asked to drop them in a designated area until they left for the day. Barber said he has not been made aware of any issues with students bringing backpacks Friday.
Friday afternoon, the district said it was informing parents their children would be able to resume bringing backpacks to school starting on Monday.
“The emotional and physical strain of the past week was being felt by students, parents, school staff and law enforcement,” Superintendent Diana Greene said in a statement. “We hoped that by asking students not to bring backpacks that it would help calm down some of the anxieties in our schools. It seems to have helped because today has been relatively quiet.”
Scott’s plan also requires mandatory active shooter training that involves faculty and students. The Florida Department of Education and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement will also provide minimum school safety and security standards to all school districts in the state by July 1.
In their executive session Friday, Hopes said board members also discussed that a security technology expert offered to come in and do an evaluation, free of charge, to tell the district what they can do now with what they have.
Mental health resources
Another part of Scott’s plan includes $50 million in additional funding for mental health initiatives.
The Manatee school board will likely have another executive session soon to address the mental health safety and security components, Hopes said.
“We’ve already begun doing the assessment and inventory of both mental health resources and also psychology and therapists and counselors,” Hopes said.
Barber said schools have a department dedicated to counseling students that has provided teachers and staff with a list of questions to engage students in discussing issues like violence and security.
Hopes also noted there were additional resources in schools Friday to help with counseling students. He encouraged parents to reach out to schools so those resources can be provided to students if parents feel their children need them.
Also in attendance at the meeting were several law enforcement officials, a Centerstone of Florida representative, an IT contractor for security and defense solutions, a defense contractor, a construction provider and other school district representatives, Hopes said.