Melissa McKinlay Leads Student School Safety Roundtable

Palm Beach County Mayor Melissa McKinlay.

Palm Beach County Mayor Melissa McKinlay, joined by West Palm Beach City Commissioner Cory Neering, hosted a two-hour student roundtable on school safety on Wednesday, Feb. 28 at the Palm Beach County Main Library.

The event was held in light of the uproar of student activism that resulted from the deadly school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Wednesday, Feb. 14.

About 40 students and parents from different parts of the county attended the event with many school-safety-related questions and concerns to share with the elected officials in attendance.

McKinlay encouraged the questions and concerns, explaining that she wanted to hear from students to find out what they feel is missing from their schools and what they feel could be done better in order to make them feel safe and secure in their school buildings.

McKinlay opened the dialogue by first explaining that, in terms of gun control and regulation, local governments in Florida are pre-empted by the Florida Legislature from taking unilateral action.

While all regulations on the issue must come out of Tallahassee, local governments serve as an important portal between local residents and legislative officials.

McKinlay also explained the importance of hearing from students and their parents, as local government and the Palm Beach County School District do, ultimately, have a large role in the implementation of safety procedures and protocol in all county schools.

“We are here to listen,” McKinlay said. “We can certainly use our voices as local elected leaders to talk to our fellow elected leaders in Tallahassee and Washington.”

The feedback from students and parents centered on a few key topics: upgrading entrances to schools, classrooms and bathrooms; improving school guidance and mental health resources for students; encouraging schoolwide conversations on safety and mental health; and ensuring the presence of at least one police officer at every school in the county.

Andrea Migo, a concerned parent from Wellington, brought up the issue of how easily accessible some students are while they are in school.

“I have a daughter in kindergarten in Equestrian Trails and a big concern [of mine] is that a lot of elementary schools have their playgrounds in the front of the school, which is very accessible to anyone,” Migo said. “Equestrian Trails is one of those schools, so I reached out to the school board to see if these playgrounds can be relocated.”

McKinlay, whose children went to Equestrian Trails, noted that a daycare facility, which had similar concerns regarding a playground placed in the front of its building, recently relocated its playground and added landscaping in front of it in order to make it less accessible.

Conversation moved on to the possible different ways that school entry could be hardened. Students from the Dreyfoos School of the Arts, Forest Hill High School, the Renaissance Charter School at Summit and American Heritage School discussed different security ideas, such as implementing single point entries by keeping only one entry to schools open throughout the day, upgrading technology to enter buildings and placing latches on classroom doors that would allow teachers to bolt doors shut.

“So many lives would be saved,” Renaissance student Tanisha Pierre said about her idea of implanting a door contraption on classroom doors. “Yes, there would be a big cost toward it, but I feel that lives are worth more than the cost of something like this.”

Several students also brought up the lack of resources in schools when it comes to counseling and mental health. After some discussion, it was explained that school counselors do not specialize in mental counseling, as their job is mainly to guide students through the course of their education-based issues.

Some students expressed the feeling that they, and a good number of their peers, feel misunderstood when they attend school counseling, which brought forth a conversation of the necessity of psychiatric health professionals in schools, as well as that of educational guidance counselors.

Other students also expressed their desire to encourage open conversation about mental health resources and access in their schools, as many troubled children don’t know where to go to for help.

McKinlay encouraged students to seek aid whenever they need to, explaining that if any student doesn’t know where to turn to for help, any school, police, fire or government official could help them find the assistance they need.

Having police officers present at all schools was another point discussed by students. With the discussion of police officers, though, came the discussion of available funding.

“We are one of the few counties who have our own police force,” School Board Member Erica Whitfield said. “That being said, we don’t have enough of them. Ideally, we would have one at every elementary school and at least three at every high school, but our main issue is cost.”

In actuality, a majority of the ideas, issues and concerns brought forth by the students who attended the event were underlined with the topic of funding. Despite the reoccurring discussed issue of cost, though, McKinlay promised to take the notes she took of the students’ ideas with her to Washington, D.C., within the next few weeks, in order to advocate for students and eventually aid in enhancing school safety.