With the start of the school year on Monday, parents of Manatee County students can expect to see the heightened security measures implemented at the end of the last school year in the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that killed 14 students and three staff members.
And more changes are coming.
Manatee County schools, like many in the state and country, were plagued with threats of violence in the days and weeks that followed the Parkland shooting. Less than a month later, new legislation was enacted in Florida creating tougher gun restrictions and increasing school security, including the requirement that all elementary, middle and high schools have armed security on campus.
Despite initially setting out to use sworn law enforcement officers in schools, the Manatee County School District ultimately decided to use armed school guardians under the law’s Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, named after the Stoneman Douglas assistant football coach who died while protecting students from the gunfire. Some campuses will continue to have sworn lawmen serving as school resource officers.
The school district has hired all but one of the 40 guardians it plans to, of which 20 have been undergoing the required training. But they will not be in place on school campuses until the start of the second week of school. Until all the needed guardians are in place, those schools in need will be using off-duty sheriff’s office deputies or Bradenton and Palmetto police officers.
“Parents shouldn’t see a big change from the end of last year,” school district spokesman Michael Barber said Friday. “We will be implementing new strategies and security measures at each school during the course of the first month.”
“Additional measures include additional surveillance cameras and building entry procedures,” Barber added.
Charter schools will also be using guardians, and have requested off-duty deputies or officers in the interim.
Local law enforcement say they are ready for the start of the new school year, after a summer of additional training.
Lt. Joel Perez, who supervises the sheriff’s office school resource officers, says his unit takes safety seriously and wants parents to know the officers have undergone extensive training in dealing with threats to schools and active shooter situations. They also attended the Florida Association of School Resource Officers annual conference this summer that heavily focused on safety.
Perez reminds parents that the start of the school year is a good time to have a conversation about safety with their children, and remind them of the importance of reporting suspicious incidents.
“They should be telling them, ‘If you see something, say something.’” Perez said. “It’s better to report something that is not factual than to not report something and something happens.”
About two years ago, Perez said one middle school student at a Manatee school failed to report when a friend got mad and said he was going to bring a knife to school and stab him. The following day, the other student did bring a knife to school.
With school starting Monday, Perez also asked all drivers to be more cautious while driving and to remember to slow down in school zones and not to pass school buses that are stopped.
As it has done in the past, the sheriff’s office and police departments intend to have a strong presence on and around school campuses during the first week of school.
“You will see a strong presence of uniformed officer on campus and around school as students get adjusted,” Bradenton Police Lt. Brian Thiers said Thursday.
At Manatee Elementary School , Bradenton police will be testing out a pilot program with two part-time officers splitting the school resource officer position. One of the officers is retired from the New York State Police and the other is a retired from the Bradenton Police Department. By using part-time officers, the city can better afford the cost of assigning a sworn officer to the school.
“The benefit is you get a sworn officer who has an ability to make arrests,” Thiers said. “That’s a huge. A guardian can’t detain someone.”
The Palmetto Police Department had all its officers, including detectives, undergo training on all the school campuses in the city this summer, according to Chief of Police Scott Tyler. The officers became familiar with each campus and practiced clearing those schools in case of emergency.
“They are ready to get back to school and take care of their campuses,” Tyler said.