Marcus Chambers: School safety is top priority in Okaloosa County

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Safer and stronger schools are the Okaloosa County School District’s top priority. The tragic events at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas remind us that we must always be vigilant and take the necessary steps to protect our children and staff.

No words can express the sorrow we feel for these families and their community. Whenever such a tragedy occurs, it is natural for all to mourn the senseless loss of life while asking honest questions about the safety measures in our own schools.

Although the following actions are not exhaustive, they form the basic structure of school district safety and security protocols.

School safety plans are continually reviewed, revised and reaffirmed.

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To answer some of these questions, we want Okaloosa County families and citizens to know how we have strengthened our safety protocols by adding additional layers of security and ensuring that we continue to do so. Our schools’ remaining single entry point and perimeter security projects will be completed by the start of the school year in fall 2022, years ahead of schedule, thanks to sales tax revenue of half a -cent approved by voters.

In addition, our security technology has been significantly improved in recent years. For example, innovations in our radio and voice communications allow for immediate lockdown from anywhere or by anyone in the building. So whether a physical education teacher outside sees something suspicious or an administrator in the front parking lot detects a developing situation early in the day, staff in various locations can alert the building to potential threats. . Time is of the essence when it comes to school safety.

Lockdown protocols and processes are routinely practiced across all schools to ensure preparedness for any potential security breaches. Classroom doors remain locked throughout the school day. Our exterior gates are also secure and additional layers of perimeter fencing are in place. These details are critical as an active attacker is likely to pass through a locked door or gate. Additional layers of perimeter fencing discourage or delay those seeking to enter our schools without reporting to reception, giving responders time to counter the situation.

School safety efforts became a top priority for Governor Ron DeSantis following the 2018 Parkland school shooting. When he took office in 2019, the governor issued executive orders calling on the Florida Department of Education and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to use appropriate funds for resources to identify and neutralize threats in schools.

DeSantis’ school-toughening measures were fully supported by former sheriff Larry Ashley of the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO). Through our partnership with OCSO, each school has at least one School Resource Officer (SRO). In addition, our secondary schools have two SROs on campus. These highly trained law enforcement officers support comprehensive district and school safety plans and are ready to respond to situations at a moment’s notice. Our SROs know that seconds count.

In addition to their role as first responders, SROs act as liaisons between the school and outside agencies and reinforce positive behaviors through relationship building. We greatly appreciate Sheriff Eric Aiden, who continues the tradition of unwavering commitment to Okaloosa schools. The OCSO SRO program is renowned and has been selected twice in the past five years as the best in the state by the Florida School Resource Officers Association. We are lucky to have a program of this caliber within the team!

As additional layers of security, our district implemented the Aaron Feis Guardian program three years ago, which provides other armed staff members on campus who are highly trained to respond to an active assailant. Our camera systems have been updated and now link directly to the Sheriff’s Office Emergency Operations Center to allow real-time access to any school in crisis.

In addition, the Safer Watch app, recently highlighted by local media, allows any employee to create a direct 911 link from their device and gives them the option of communicating by voice, text or video, depending on the situation. . This application makes it possible to immediately report an active aggressor. When seconds count, the initial response to an active security breach cannot be delayed due to incomplete information.

All of the above (and more) is in place to respond to an active attacker. But that only tells half the story. How we work to prevent tragedies like those that happened at Robb Elementary School and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School is just as important as how we respond to an event once it has started. . Proper school safety protocols involve both response and prevention.

To that end, we’ve expanded the school district’s Office of School Safety by adding staff who specialize in communications and threat assessment, as well as people knowledgeable in school hardening measures. Each school in our district has a threat assessment team that, at a minimum, consists of a school administrator and people with expertise in counselling, law enforcement, mental health, and education. This team meets regularly throughout the school year to support students, which may involve a mental health referral, safety plan, or other intervention.

In addition, we have doubled the number of mental health counselors in our schools since 2018-2019 and will add two more this summer for a total of 21 for the next school year. Providing students and families with appropriate support in the form of mental health services is an essential part of our prevention plan. Coming out of a global pandemic is not without residual effects. Therefore, the Okaloosa County School District is committed to helping students adapt and thrive in the face of adversity. We love our students and want to provide them with every opportunity for enrichment: the more opportunities we provide, the better it is for increased student and school safety.

Current mental health and safety intervention efforts provided by schools include Child Safety Matters training in elementary schools. This training involves helping students identify safe adults for the purpose of reporting potential harm to themselves or others. In high schools, all students receive mental health counseling training through Suite 360. The modules in this online program provide five hours of mental health instruction, as required by the Florida Department of Education.

As part of First Lady Casey DeSantis’ Hope for Healing campaign, the Student Mental Health Instruction includes processes for seeking help from anyone in emotional distress. The district also added Hope Squad, a peer-to-peer suicide awareness and prevention program, to provide an extra layer of help and comfort. It is currently in all secondary schools and will be expanded to include elementary schools next year.

And as always, we will continue to support the building of appropriate relationships, build student engagement, and work diligently to create a positive school climate in which everyone is a valued member of the OCSD family.

If you see something, say something!

Of all these necessary layers of security, nothing is more important than the people of this community: students, parents, school staff and citizens who are part of their responsibilities to look out for each other, to be aware of what ‘they see and hear and tell someone if something doesn’t seem right. A timely report can make all the difference.

Studies by the US Secret Service have found that those who target schools leave behind behavioral evidence such as a history of depression, anger, isolation and changes in appearance. Many abusers have told others about their intentions. Whether a disturbing message is heard at school, read on social networks or relayed by a friend outside of school, it is crucial to alert school officials as soon as possible. Time is synonymous with security. So tell a teacher, tell the SRO, tell your principal. Tell someone!

One way to notify law enforcement and school officials is to download and use the FortifyFL app. This application allows anyone to relay information about a concerning situation. If desired, images and text can be submitted anonymously skipping name and contact details. In other districts, we have seen instances where ignored communications provided clues that could have prevented death, and fear of reporting should not prevent vital information from reaching the proper authorities. School safety is our collective responsibility, and we cannot do it without our community. Please consider adding this app today!

As Okaloosa Schools Superintendent, maintaining a safe and supportive environment for our students, school staff and visitors remains my top priority. Ultimately, student learning is at the heart of who we are and what we do, but that mission will fail if we don’t first meet the safety and security needs of everyone we care for. . Our schools have always been safe places, but we know that maintaining this tradition will take continued effort and our commitment to continuous improvement.

The OCSD family would like to take this opportunity to thank our community, students and staff for the role they play in keeping the school safe. Thank you to our teachers who keep their doors locked throughout the school day and adhere to school safety protocols. Thank you to our bus drivers who monitor students’ conversations and behavior en route to school and home. Thank you to our counselors who make informed decisions about the emotional and educational needs of students. And finally, thank you to the students and parents who come forward to report potentially threatening situations. Thanks!

Thank you to all of the many individuals, departments and community partners who work together to create and maintain the safest school environments possible. Your dedication and support are essential. From the bottom of my heart, thank you!

Marcus D. Chambers

superintendent of schools

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