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By Rich Pollack
The rush of calls came soon after word spread about the mass shooting in Parkland. Parents of children attending public and private schools throughout Palm Beach County wanted to be sure their children were safe. They also wanted to know that leaders at even the smallest schools were taking security seriously.
What they found is that the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School — just a few miles away from some South County schools — had pressed school leaders into action almost immediately and, more important, led to ongoing conversations and action to improve campus safety.
“Parkland has made everyone more aware,” said Carlos Barroso, director of marketing and communications at St. Andrew’s School in Boca Raton. “We’re going to be constantly looking at school security each and every month.”
Police Officers C. Smith and C. Fahey breach a classroom door during an ‘active-shooter’ exercise April 2 at Gulf Stream School.
ABOVE: Officer C. Hamori, the Gulf Stream Police Department’s certified training instructor, coaches Officers R. Batista and T. Sutton. BELOW: Sgt. J. Passeggiata subdues Lt. J. Haseley, who acted as the bad guy during the training drill. Haseley had been hiding behind the poster as other officers entered the room. No students were present during the drill as Gulf Stream School was on spring break. Photos by Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
At the Gulf Stream School, where officials have made changes to limit campus access, teachers and staff are being trained on how to react to a campus intruder, and additional measures such as cameras on campus are being evaluated.
“We’re doing all we can to enhance security and safety on campus,” said Head of School Joe Zaluski.
Knowing Gulf Stream School’s leadership is taking security very seriously has been reassuring to some parents. They appreciate what’s been done and feel assured that safety efforts will continue.
“They brought in security experts who do this for a living,” said Chiara Clark, president of the school’s parent auxiliary. “I think that’s the best course of action you could ask for.”
On a recent day when classes were not in session, Gulf Stream police officers were on campus for a drill on how to react to an intruder. Zaluski said he will bring them back in full gear so students can see what officers will look like in a volatile situation.
“One of our greatest assets is the healthy relationship we have with the Gulf Stream Police Department,” Zaluski said.
The goal of the drill, which included a scenario in which a lieutenant portrayed an active shooter, was to help officers become more familiar with the layout of the school and to remind them of the proper way to handle the situation, Gulf Stream Police Chief Edward Allen said.
“It gives us a bit more confidence, knowing police are willing to step in and engage if necessary,” Zaluski said.
More police at schools
Increased police visibility on campuses has been a common denominator among all schools. The Palm Beach County School District will put more officers on campus thanks to a $6.1 million allocation from the state, according to the district.
The school district, which has its own police force, has at least one officer assigned to each high school and middle school, and has officers assigned to work with more than one elementary school.
Thanks to the grant, the district will hire an additional 75 officers, pushing the total number of officer positions to 227, in addition to 10 members of the department’s command staff, according to the district.
Private schools such as the Gulf Stream School also are doing more.
At St. Andrew’s School, which has full-time security officers, officials decided the day after the Parkland shooting to hire off-duty Boca Raton police officers to patrol during the school day.
“It gives us another layer of security,” Barroso said. “It’s an investment we felt we needed to make.”
Oxbridge Academy near West Palm Beach has armed guards on campus during certain hours and unarmed security officers throughout the school day. Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office deputies contacted the school, for which the Sheriff’s Office is responsible, and asked to tour the 54-acre campus to learn the layout.
“We were delighted when they made the call to us,” said David Rosow, president of the school’s board of trustees.
Police also have been involved in helping St. Joseph’s Episcopal School in Boynton Beach enhance its security efforts. Earlier in the school year, law enforcement officers and a private security professional conducted a walk-through as the school began ramping up its security processes.
“We had plans to update drills and emergency procedures before Parkland occurred,” said Head of School Kyle Aubrey. “Once that tragic event happened, we, of course, held more discussions and went to the next level.”
One step the school is considering is fully fencing the property, which it shares with St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church.
Limiting campus access
County School District leaders are seeking outside experts’ recommendations for improvements. In a letter to parents sent at the end of February, then-Superintendent Robert Avossa said plans were in the works to have experts from large urban school districts across the country help with a safety and security analysis.
Gulf Stream School also brought in a private security firm, which conducted a safety audit during the school’s spring break.
“Any steps we take from here on out, we just want to make sure we’re doing the right thing,” Zaluski said.
At the advice of security professionals, Gulf Stream School further restricted access to the campus, limiting the times a gate on State Road A1A is open and restricting use of that gate to buses. All visitors and parents are now required to enter and exit through the front of the school, which has Gulf Stream police officers assisting with traffic control during drop-off and pickup times.
At Oxbridge, only one of four campus gates is open when classes are in session, and that gate can be monitored by one of the security guards.
St. Andrew’s School also limits access to just one gate when school is in session, with security guards screening visitors.
Most schools have made lock-down drills part of the routine for several years, and at some, including Oxbridge Academy, students have been instructed on where safe spots in a classroom are and where to run to outside the classroom in an emergency. Some schools have installed systems that allow them to lock classroom doors remotely.
Keeping parents informed
Communication was crucial between schools and parents in the days after the Parkland tragedy.
At St. Andrew’s, officials held a parent forum within a few days. At Gulf Stream School, a regularly scheduled parent auxiliary meeting turned into a discussion about safety.
“It was one of the most well- attended meetings we’ve had,” Zaluski said.
The shooting in Parkland has heightened school security awareness, as did the mass shootings at Sandy Hook in Newtown, Conn., in 2012 and Columbine in Colorado in 1999. Now local school leaders say it is critical to avoid complacency.
“My greatest fear is that everybody will relax six months from now,” Oxbridge’s Rosow said. Ú