By M. Dennis Taylor
Lots of resources are on the way for school safety — that was the message at a joint meeting of the Wellington Education Committee and Public Safety Committee on Wednesday, March 28.
Some 45 audience members, many of them elected officials and school administrators, were on hand at the Wellington Community Center for what Wellington Assistant Village Manager Jim Barnes described as a meeting to address issues in common with both committees. “This will be a jumping off point for a future community-wide meeting that will benefit by having the information gathered in this meeting,” he said. “We may not be able to answer all the questions [tonight], but they will be addressed in the forum.”
Barnes stressed that the meeting had been scheduled to discuss bullying, student altercations on and off campus, and school safety, with the focus on traffic issues. After the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting on Feb. 14, the meeting was rescheduled with the added agenda item of the larger issue of school safety after Parkland.
Education Committee Chair John Webber said the issue was to provide safety. “We want to make schools as safe as possible and as safe as practical,” he said.
Palm Beach County School District Police Chief Lawrence Leon said that prior to this recent shooting, the department had trained more than 1,200 school administrators with every school working toward safety improvements. “We’ve always been ahead,” Leon said.
He explained that the school police work closely in a collaborative effort with Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and the principals of the schools to develop confidential crisis plans. “Our partnership with the PBSO is phenomenal,” Leon said. “Our relationship has never been stronger.”
Leon said the department is hiring 75 new officers and that an armed resource officer will be in place in every school; some will have more than one.
“We have a huge recruitment and retention team looking for new officers. It is a huge effort to hire 75 new people,” he said, adding that competition for new officers is intense. “Salary is difficult when competing with other cities or the PBSO. It’s a challenge.”
Bullet resistant outer doors and windows are being installed. “Nothing is bullet proof, unless you armor it,” said Leon, who said that some 200 projects will be handled over the summer for school maintenance and upgrades.
Leon also described a new app that will be available in the next few days that allows students to notify school police of issues and puts them in direct contact with the department. It is part of the “See Something; Say Something” campaign.
He pointed out that safety begins at home. “Look in the child’s backpack and see what they are taking to school,” Leon said.
Ron Herman, chair of the Public Safety Committee, asked about drills in the schools, and Leon described the 10 fire drills per year and one each of lockdown and evacuation drills.
School Board Member Marcia Andrews said that changes must be made now. “We can’t wait, we have to put things in place now,” she said. “We still have a list of things that need to be done… It is a slow process.”
She said that the superintendent has said that additional resources will be made available to help make schools safer immediately.
Andrews pointed out that some schools in Wellington are fairly old, built before the era of single entry points and hardened security. She also added that it was decided, “we will not be asking our teachers to carry firearms in our schools.”
Department of Safe Schools Director June Eassa said that the school district has a robust mental health program and school counselors that will be augmented by $3.9 million from the state for the district. There will be a mental health counselor for each school or at least mental health triage on every campus.
State Rep. Matt Willhite (D-District 86) said that 20 percent of the schools don’t have a police officer at them. “Elementary schools are soft targets,” he said, advocating contracting with a police department to get officers immediately. “Use a portion of the $7 million [coming from the state] to get officers in the schools tomorrow… It’s our job to put safety first.”
Willhite said that $400 million statewide has been approved by the governor, “although he hasn’t signed the check yet” for school safety, mental health, rebuilding Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and building a memorial. The money will take time to get dispersed. “Recurring money is the key,” he said. “We can never fund schools enough.”
Dr. Veronica McCue, a member of Wellington’s Senior Advisory Committee, pointed out that state law mandates that schools are used as designated polling places.
“We are going to open our doors and invite non-vetted people in while students are in class,” she said, asking that action be taken to prevent this for the next election.
Willhite said that he will sponsor legislation in the next session to keep students out of school on polling days.