Sheriff Tom Knight offers recommendation about hiring of retired veterans and first responders to supplement school resource officers on campuses
The Sarasota County School District is asking members of the public to offer comments and suggestions regarding school safety and security in the wake of the 17 deaths at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Feb. 14.
Tracey Long Beeker, the district’s new director of communications and public relations, made the announcement on Sunday, Feb. 18, noting an “upcoming school safety task force meeting with Governor Rick Scott on Tuesday in Tallahassee.”
Sarasota County School Board Chair Bridget Ziegler and Booker High School Principal Rachel Shelley were expected to be among state school leaders attending the Feb. 20 session with Scott, Beeker pointed out.
Anyone who would like to comment on ways to improve the school district’s safety and security may write to the Sarasota County School Board at firstname.lastname@example.org, Beeker pointed out in her announcement.
Comments will be accepted through Feb. 28, she added.
On Feb. 20 — two days after Beeker’s announcement — Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight offered a potential solution to campus security issues: implementing a program that puts retired law enforcement officers and military veterans on Sarasota County campuses.
They would be contracted through the school district, he pointed out in a news release, but “our agency [would] be made available to put them through the proper training.”
He noted, “Many of these veterans have basic training, have managed major incidents and have knowledge of weaponry and tactics. More often than not, these retirees are looking for a way to care for the children in their community and this program is a sustainable solution.”
Knight added that he had spoken with Sarasota County Schools Superintendent Schools Todd Bowden, who agreed “this can be a win-win for everyone.”
“We have been looking at opportunities over the last two years to help school officials develop a practical and achievable safety plan for the district,” Knight explained in the release.
The Sheriff’s Office would provide specialized training for the program on such topics as firearms, defensive tactics and active shooter scenarios, the release said. “Selection and hiring would be facilitated through Sarasota County Schools and as such, adoption of the program would be specific to each campus.”
The security would supplement the Sheriff’s Office School Resource Program and allow for retired first responders to stay actively engaged in their communities, the release pointed out.
School resource deputies are made available to every middle and high school in Sarasota County, the release explained; they “provide an added level of security and presence to those campuses. Each School Resource Deputy (SRD) goes through more than 100 hours of annual training on topics including cyber bullying, gangs, campus safety, active shooter scenarios, and more,” the release said. “All law enforcement members of the Sheriff’s Office are also trained in crisis intervention and de-escalation techniques.”
Comprising nearly 1,000 members, the Sheriff’s Office “has been nationally recognized for its school resource program and specialized training,” the release pointed out.
“This is not an overnight solution,” Knight said of his recommendation for the new program with retirees, “but it’s a good place to start.”
To make the program possible, he continued, the state would need to amend Florida Statute 790, which deals with concealed weapons on school campuses. “If our lawmakers are willing to make the proper changes for the safety of Florida students, I will support their decision and stand ready to take action,” Knight added.
All threats taken seriously
On Feb. 18, as the school district was announcing its request for recommendations about improving security, it also was dealing with the potential of a threat involving Riverview High School.
Shortly after 7 p.m. that day, Kaitlyn Perez, community affairs director for the Sheriff’s Office, issued a news release, explaining that on the evening of Saturday, Feb. 17, the Sheriff’s Office Public Safety Communications Center “received an anonymous report concerning an unnamed student who reportedly attends Riverview High School. There is no specific threat that has been articulated,” Perez continued, “only a concern involving the unnamed student’s past behavior and inappropriate comments.”
She added that the Sheriff’s Office “takes all reports — those received online, over the phone and in person — very seriously. We will continue to work with local officials, including those at Sarasota County Schools, to ensure the safety of those in our community.”
Just two weeks earlier, Perez reported that on the morning of Tuesday, Jan. 30, the Sheriff’s Office responded to “a suspicious incident involving a Riverview High School student.” The investigation,” she continued, “revealed the student took a photo using a social media application” and used “threatening language related to the high school.”
Perez added, “In an abundance of caution, law enforcement resources were made available Tuesday morning at Riverview High School while school officials put students on a limited lockdown.”
The student in question was located and interviewed by detectives, Perez reported.
Riverview has the highest enrollment of all the district’s high schools, district records show. The mandatory five-day student count, conducted on Aug. 23, 2017, showed a total of 2,592 students, compared to 2,369 at North Port High, 2,160 at Sarasota High, 2,177 at Venice High and 562 at Suncoast Polytechnical High School in Sarasota.
Students, parents, and community members should remember to always contact law enforcement if they see or hear something suspicious, the Sheriff’s Office news release added. The Sheriff’s Office may be reached via its non-emergency line at 941-316-1201 or by email at email@example.com. Members of the public also may submit anonymous tips via Crime Stoppers of Sarasota County by dialing 941-366-TIPS or visiting www.SarasotaCrimeStoppers.com.
Another cause for alarm arose on the evening of Feb. 21. Genevieve Judge, the public information officer for the Sarasota Police Department, issued a statement on Feb. 22, saying that “screenshots of a Facebook post indicating there would be a shooting at ‘SHS’ were heavily circulated throughout the City of Sarasota” on Feb. 21. She stressed, “This is NOT a local threat. Sarasota Police received the social media posts and began an investigation immediately. It was determined the social media posts originated from a Facebook account in Springfield, Ohio.”
Judge added, “The Sarasota Police Department has been in direct contact with the Springfield Police Division in Ohio. The ‘SHS’ referred to was NOT Sarasota High School. There are no threats against Sarasota High School or to any students or faculty.”
Judge also emphasized, “The Sarasota Police Department and Sarasota County Schools appreciate the faculty and students reporting this social media post immediately. The Sarasota Police Department takes each and every threat against our city and schools seriously.
“If you see something suspicious, please call 911 or the Sarasota Police Department at 941-316-1199.”
The Sheriff’s Office’s Feb. 18 news release pointed out that has received “several reports related to schools throughout Sarasota County” in the aftermath of the Parkland shootings. Most of them included general information and tips about particular students and campuses, the release noted. However, “none of the information received has articulated a credible threat to any school in our community,” the release said. “Officials believe the steady increase in information is due to a heightened awareness following the Parkland incident,” the release added, as the shootings “garnered international media attention.”
“Officials are using this opportunity to educate students and parents about safety practices and how to best communicate with law enforcement,” the release continued. Every report the Sheriff’s Office receives “is fully investigated and when it pertains to Sarasota County Schools, is communicated to school officials,” the release stressed.
Helping students cope with the Parkland tragedy
On Feb. 15, the day after the Parkland shootings, Beeker of the Sarasota County Schools issued a news release saying,
“The district is taking important steps to ensure the continued safety and security of our students and staff, as well as counseling for those who need support.”
Earlier that day, the release continued, Superintendent Bowden spoke with Sheriff Knight and the chiefs of police of Sarasota, Venice and North Port.
“We are working with law enforcement and the district’s Operations Communications Center to have an increased presence and visibility in and around our schools,” the release said. “In addition, our [school resource officers] will have a more visible and vigilant presence on campus. Also, our principals and assistant principals have been sent a list of steps to take to maintain a safe and secure environment at our schools; this is in addition to their security training and development already in place.”
The release stressed, “The well-being of our students is paramount to all we do. Over the coming weeks our Director of Safety and Security will convene a meeting with local law enforcement to review protocol, learn from [the Parkland] experience and make necessary adjustment to our practices to ensure the safety and security of our students and staff.”
The release also noted that parents looking for guidance on how to speak to their children about security may use tips posted to the district’s website and Facebook page.
One item subsequently posted on the website, from the National Association of School Psychologists, is titled Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parent and Teachers.
At the top of that list is the advice, “Reassure children that they are safe.” No. 2 is “Make time to talk.”
The fourth item is “Review safety procedures,” which includes the recommendation, “Help children identify at least one adult at school and in the community to whom they go if they feel threatened or at risk.”