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Q&A: Bob Gualtieri, Commission Still Reshaping School Security After Parkland

Aug 14, 2019

South Florida is heading back to school. Palm Beach County students started classes on Monday. Broward and Monroe Counties start Wednesday, and students in Miami-Dade go back Aug. 19.

Safety and security are still on the minds of teachers, parents, students and state officials at this start to the second school year since the Parkland shooting. Several school districts in the state — most of which are in South Florida — were found over the summer to still not be in compliance with state safety laws.

The state's Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission originally met to investigate the school shooting. However, it now meets to fine-tune recommendations to try and make Florida schools safer.

Its August meeting begins Wednesday morning at the BB&T Center in Sunrise.

Commissioners are expected to discuss what they want their next report for the state to include. Their first statewide report recommended new technology and school hardening measures as well as creating Code Red and emergency policies.

Wednesday, the commission is also expected to get updates on several items it’s been following for months, like the latest with Broward County’s 911 system upgrade, and which schools in South Florida districts have still not complied with state security requirements, including a mandate for a police officer or armed guardian on every public school campus. 

Commissioners will also discuss potentially revising schools’ requirements to have monthly active shooter drills. And they will get another chance to question Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie on Thursday morning.

WLRN spoke with the chair of the statewide commission, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, about what safety looks like going back to school this year and what still needs to be done.

WLRN: From the start of school last year, to the start of the new school year this year, what are some of the biggest changes to school safety?

GUALTIERI: Hopefully the biggest changes are compliance. One of the biggest problems we saw, and I think one of the frustrations we saw, through last school year was the provisions not being complied with, not being implemented. So we've been working. I suggested to the legislature this year that they not engage in any bold new initiatives. Let's get in place, effectively, what we've already started.

The state enacted a new Florida School Safety Portal in time for back-to-school this year. It provides multiple state agencies with real-time access to information about a reported or an identified threat. Why did the MSD Public Safety Commission recommend that the state do this?

I think that this is a work in progress. I don't think it's really taken it, quite frankly, to that level is a way you described it, but it's not as robust as what I would hope it would be.

There needs to be one-stop shopping: The whole goal on why the commission recommends this, is that there needs to be a way to avoid, it as it's been phrased so many times, not connecting the dots. Those dots need to be connected.

You've got a plethora, really, of information sources that are out there — a plethora of databases — and in order to do a comprehensive background check on somebody it's just much more effective, much more efficient, the more one stop shopping you can do. So that's really all this is.

Some people got a different idea about it. I think some people got concerned about it, needlessly, because they saw it as this big, massive conglomeration of individuals information in affecting privacy. It's really just a more simplified way to query what's already out there, so we don't miss anything.

In your opinion, what are the biggest school security flaws that Florida schools still need to address?

The basics. You have to be able to identify the threat. You have to be able to communicate that threat to others, and then others have to have the knowledge to react to it. So it's identify, communicate, react — and we need to stress those core concepts.

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What about the possible psychological impacts of children seeing increased police presence at their schools?

It's a reality of the times we live in. And it's unfortunate and it's sad, but it's necessary. Just like drills are necessary. And when people say, 'Well, I don't think that's a good idea to do these drills you might traumatize the kids,' Well, if you don't do the drills, the kids are not going to know what to do.

I understand what people are concerned about, but it has to be done. We need to talk to the kids. They need to be age appropriate responses, and they need to be done in a very sensitive way, but we have to do it and there has to be an increased law enforcement presence and a deterrent presence.

Are there any ways for law enforcement officers to make that easier for kids?

Sure. And we do. One of the important things is to explain to them, in a very detailed way, what we're doing and why we're doing it. Communication is paramount and key to putting them at ease the best we can, and to let them know that we're doing this for them.

You were recently elected president of the Florida Sheriffs Association. What are you hoping to accomplish regarding issues around school security?

It's so hard to say this. It really is, but the truth is — it has to be just accepted — that this is going to happen again. The question is when and where. But the most important question is, is what are we doing differently to drive a different outcome than what happened to Stoneman Douglas? Because what happened there is not acceptable. So in order to do that, we have to effect change. And to get people to understand that change is hard but change is necessary. And to do it with a sense of urgency.

We have to do things in a different way to mitigate the harm.