The tragic shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last February emphasizes the need for adequate school security. To its credit, Florida moved quickly in the months following the shooting to find a solution.
On March 9, 2018, less than a month after the shootings, the state legislature and governor enacted the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act. This legislation was aimed at preventing future school massacres and it provides broad – but controversial –requirements for all public schools in the state.
New Law Involves Police Input to Improve School Safety and Emergency Response
One of the potential advantages of the law is that it requires the Florida Department of Education to create a new Office of Safe Schools. This office is charged with creating school security policies and conducting school threat assessments and emergency plans. For these policies, assessments and plans to be effective, they must utilize the local police department or sheriff’s office in both emergency response planning and target hardening.
Target hardening involves taking steps to reduce the risk of becoming victimized. At schools, this work includes building modifications and steps such as locking the doors of classrooms while class is in session.
There are two major concerns with this law in terms of student safety. One involves the lack of access control. Across Florida, many schools lack an adequate barrier, such as a fencing system, that would prevent someone intent on doing harm from gaining access to school grounds.
Without adequate access controls, schools cannot fully prevent a perpetrator from entering school facilities. While some schools require that classroom doors be kept locked, a critical danger exists if a lack of access control allows a perpetrator to gain access to the campus before, during or after the school day.
Credentialing and Salaries of New School Security Guards Are Inadequate
The second major concern as Florida public schools are about to begin the new school year is how will they meet the School Public Safety Act’s requirement of recruiting and hiring required school safety specialists. This requirement has been met with substantial opposition.
For example, Broward County, where Stoneman Douglas is located, needs to hire at least 80 armed school security guards. School board members have raised a valid concern regarding the credentialing of armed security guards in public schools.
Qualifications for this job require only two years of military or law enforcement service, with a starting pay of only $25,000 to $33,000 a year. In contrast, the starting annual salary for Broward County police officers can be as high as $57,000.
The concern is that school security guards are being recruited at a substantially lower salary than police officers within the same community. But the security guards have the same full-time responsibility as the police to carry a firearm on campus to protect everyone.
Furthermore, school board officials say the job description enables school administrators to assign additional duties to these security officers. That raises the question of how much of their time will be spent adequately providing security on campus.
Other public school systems in Florida are not immune to this problem. The solution, while costly, is to incorporate school security with the traditional School Resource Officer program. This program is already in place in many schools, especially middle and high schools. The traditional School Resource Officer program involves sworn officers who are assigned to the specialized unit, based on their experience and merit.
The tragic events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have highlighted the importance of school security and proactive measures need to be implemented to prevent this type of tragedy from occurring again. School security is an important step and should be complemented with encouraging parents and caregivers to communicate with school officials when behaviors are observed that may indicate a threat.
About the Author: Dr. Jarrod Sadulski has been with the Coast Guard since 1997. His expertise includes infrastructure security, maritime security, homeland security, contraband interdiction and intelligence gathering. He has also received commendations from the Coast Guard. Currently, Jarrod is a supervisor in the Reserve Program and provides leadership to Reserve members who conduct homeland security, search and rescue, and law enforcement missions. To contact the author, please email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.