School, law enforcement focus on details to keep schools safe


Southeast / Virginia 12 Views


Even an ordinary custody dispute involving a student is enough to grab the attention of Alachua County school and law enforcement officials trying to ensure school safety and security.

And though that’s not a common situation officials face, it illustrates the steps officials take when trying to ensure schools are safe and secure.

Doors and gates can be locked, video surveillance in place and only one point of access provided to enter high schools, but building trusting relationships between school resource deputies and officers and school officials is probably the best way to stem the tide of school mass shootings, local law enforcement and school officials say.

"The best resource we have is when people see something and say something, and that happens when people trust our school resource deputies because they feel those deputies are part of their communities," said Lt. Jayson Levy, head of the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office Juvenile Relations Bureau and overseer of the school resource deputy division at ASO.

Levy used the example of a school resource deputy knowing about a custody dispute to show how important information is for officials to effectively do their jobs. He said school resource deputies and officers are deeply entrenched in the school communities they serve and have pretty good knowledge about who should be where and what should be happening on school campuses.

To help monitor what’s going on at schools, officials use surveillance cameras that are monitored in real time, said Everett Caudle, director of grants and special programs for the school system.

Law enforcement and school officials can monitor the cameras remotely and on campus, and the bigger high schools have the most cameras, about 20 to 25, Caudle said.

The cameras are placed at the entrances of all schools and other strategic locations, Caudle said.

The SRD supervisors with ASO have laptops that can access the cameras at each school, and GPD will soon have the same kind of access to the cameras, Caudle said.

Besides cameras, another tool officials use to make schools safe and secure is active shooter training  known as Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate, or ALICE, sessions, Levy said. Originally created by the federal Homeland Security Department, the training encourages school officials and students during active shooter situations to run and hide from a shooter first, then fight the shooter if all else fails. 

Law enforcement and school officials routinely evaluate how they can make facilities safer and more secure by conducting crime prevention through environmental design surveys that identify no-cost solutions to security issues at schools.

"Solutions may involve something as simple as cutting down shrubs to increase visibility, which is something a school custodian can do during a normal shift or put in a work order to have done," Levy said.

Allowing teachers and other school officials to carry guns is not a viable solution, officials in Alachua County say.

"That may be more damaging than helpful," said Gunnar Paulson, School Board chair. "Teachers are trained to teach not to shoot."

There is only one way in and out of most public high schools in Alachua County during school hours, and those areas are normally guarded by unarmed school personnel who check identification, use radios to contact school officials and direct visitors where to park.

Law enforcement officers are assigned to specific schools and spend their work hours at the school, and the larger high schools in the county — Buchholz, Eastside and Gainesville — along with the A. Quinn Jones Center, are assigned two officers.

Jones serves students in sixth through 12th grades.

Eileen Roy, an Alachua County School Board member with more than 20 years’ experience teaching on the high school level, said school districts need more money to improve the safety and security systems they have in place.

"We need more funding to pay for more guidance counselors who can help students at the high school level deal with the problems they are facing in and out of school," Roy said. "We need more counselors to have the time to simply talk with students."

She also said peer counseling groups supervised by trained mediators are needed to teach students conflict resolution skills.

ASO serves the schools in the unincorporated part of the county and in Archer, Hawthorne and Newberry. Alachua Police Department serves schools in Alachua, High Springs Police Department serves the school in High Springs and Gainesville Police Department serves schools in Gainesville.

School resource deputies and officers are paid with money from the state’s Safe Schools’ fund and their agencies. All middle and high schools have a law enforcement officer present throughout the day and some elementary schools have an officer on duty only part of the day, officials say.

Paulson said the School Board is committed by the next school year to finding the money to pay for a law enforcement officer to be at each elementary school throughout the duration of every school day.

The School District received $810,000 in Safe School funding this year, down from $970,000 a decade ago, said Jackie Johnson, School Board spokesman.

"In per student terms, our allocation has dropped from $35.43 per student to $28.05 per student," Johnson said. "That’s a decrease of more than 20 percent per student in the last 10 years."

In wake of the school shooting massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 students and school officials dead, there hasn’t been an increase in threats of violence at public schools in Alachua County, Caudle said.

However, law enforcement and school officials are taking more seriously any and all threats they find out about, Caudle said.

"I think all of our law enforcement partners have been pretty busy this past week because they are not letting anything slip by," Caudle said. "They are running down everything they come across, but I haven’t been made aware of any direct threats of violence targeting any of our schools."

Probably the last active shooter situation at a public school in Alachua County occurred in May 2011 at High Springs Community School when Robert Nodine, 63, was shot during a shootout with ASO Deputy Brian Phillips and High Springs Police Sgt. Charles Harper on a Wednesday after most students had left the campus because Wednesday is early dismissal day.