Parkland safety commission coming to end, concern for students continues

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The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission sunsets next year.

The state’s schools are safer since bullets ripped through Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that fateful Valentine’s Day in 2018, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, the commission charged with examining that disaster heard Monday.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, chairman of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, expressed a belief at the group’s meeting that more oversight on school safety is needed, beyond the MSD commission’s duties sunsetting next year.

The commission, created by the legislative act in 2018, was charged with examining and remedying the systemic and specific failures that resulted in 17 dead and another 17 injured at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Gualtieri recalled how the reunification of surviving students and their parents had been “a mess” in the hours after the shooting. But when legislation died that would have required schools across the state to formulate a plan for reuniting students and parents after a mass casualty event, so did Broward County’s efforts to avoid another wrenching scene like the one that happened as some parents waited into the next day to learn what happened to their child.

In anticipation of his presentation at Monday’s meeting, Gualtieri called the Broward School District last month and found the district had no reunification plan in place, he said.

“To say that’s unacceptable is an understatement,” he said. “It’s mind-boggling.”

The Broward County School District did formulate a reunification plan after his phone call, Gualtieri said.

“What all of this tells me is there has to be ongoing oversight to provide the right amount of accountability,” Gualtieri continued. “If this commission didn’t exist, if I didn’t make that call in August, would they have a reunification policy today? No. It would be sitting in a drawer someplace.

“Doing business this way … What message does that send to the parents of the kids in Broward County Schools?” he asked rhetorically.

The commission also got an update on Alyssa’s Law, named for 14-year-old Alyssa Alhadeff, who was one of 17 people who died in the Parkland shooting. The legislation set aside money for silent panic alarms to be on cell phones in every public school building to alert police and fire to emergencies.

The effort was supposed to be in place at the start of this year.

Sylvia Ifft, deputy director of emergency management at the Florida Department of Education, said about half the state’s school buildings were online with it when she took a survey in July.

“We heard one situation where there was an intruder on campus and Alyssa’s alert was activated,” she said. “Guardian [the armed person on campus] was notified, guardian responded, campuses went on lockdown, the students in the area were evacuated, everything went according to plan. So, this is working.”

What’s not working so well, though, is that within one county, there are multiple providers that make it more difficult for county 911 system workers, who now have to be trained on multiple systems, creating more room for error.

Max Schachter, a commission member whose son, Alex Schachter, was killed at the school, said there are five different systems used by schools in Miami-Dade County and six in Palm Beach County. Added to that, it hasn’t been widely accepted by some staff where training on the cell phone app is not mandatory.

“In Broward County, we have 18% of the teachers that have downloaded the app on their phone,” said Schachter, who runs Safe Schools for Alex, a nonprofit that aims to provide the best safety practices to parents, school districts and law enforcement.

State Department of Education officials said the law was written so that charter schools are able to pick their own vendor, regardless of which one the public school district picks.

The commission will reconvene again Tuesday at the BB&T Center to wrap up its first in-person session since the pandemic began.

Anne Geggis is a South Florida journalist who began her career in Vermont and has worked at the Sun-Sentinel, the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Gainesville Sun covering government issues, health and education. She was a member of the Sun-Sentinel team that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Parkland high school shooting. You can reach her on Twitter @AnneBoca or by emailing anne@floridapolitics.com.

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