The Wellington Chamber of Commerce hosted its annual installation luncheon on Wednesday, March 28 at the International Polo Club Palm Beach.
Aside from the installation of the chamber’s 2018-19 board of directors, attendees also heard from keynote speakers School Board Member Marcia Andrews and Palm Beach County School District Chief of Police Lawrence Leon on the topic of school safety.
The new board members included President Roxanne Stein, President-Elect/Treasurer Stuart Hack, Vice President Lisa Banionis, Secretary Kathryn Walton, Chamber Counsel Dermot Mac Mahon and Board Member Kevin Shapiro. They were officially sworn in by Wellington Vice Mayor John McGovern.
“It is a privilege to be the president of the chamber,” Stein said. “Finding a place like Wellington and being able to call it my home is really important, and I think we need to continue to work together to make the community even better. I think when we have strong and successful businesses, we have better communities.”
Tymon Cook was presented with the chamber’s new Ambassador of the Year Award. Cook was honored for his active participation in the chamber throughout the 2017-18 year.
In the aftermath of the deadly school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, the luncheon’s speakers had a lot of information to provide about safety at Palm Beach County schools.
Andrews, a longtime resident of the western communities who worked in several Palm Beach County schools before her election to the school board, began by acknowledging how deeply the Parkland shooting has affected her views on school safety and her everyday life as part of the school board.
“The events in Parkland have touched us and forced us to have a difficult conversation,” she said. “Feb. 14 was a sad day in America, and, the truth is that we are having too many sad days. Children cannot learn if they do not feel safe. Everyone needs to come together to discuss how we can keep our children safe. Schools were once considered the place where children could feel safe, and that is not the case right now.”
Andrews went on to discuss the ways in which the school board is beginning to analyze every possible problem schools may face. Andrews zeroed in on the fact that many Wellington schools do not have a single point of entry or fences surrounding the perimeters of schools. The design layouts and construction of Wellington’s older schools is, according to Andrews, a priority on the list of problems.
“Florida schools are built to withstand hurricanes, not assault rifles,” she said. “We must rethink everything that we thought we knew about our schools, [such as] our schools’ construction, especially older schools like Wellington Elementary, Wellington Landings and Wellington High, which were built differently.”
Along with the physical construction of schools, Andrews emphasized the importance of preparing teachers, staff and students to react in the case of a “code red” emergency. “Teacher emergency training, emergency drills and safety protocols, we have to rethink it all,” Andrews said. “We have to start all over again so that our students feel safe.”
Andrews recognized and honored the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who went to Tallahassee to discuss school safety in public schools. Andrews attributes the extra funding added to the budget to the work of those students, and explained that, because of the increase in funding, there will be more armed police officers present in public schools.
“We welcome the extra funds from the governor. We have money this year thanks to the Parkland students who went to Tallahassee,” Andrews said. “Our students know what has to happen, and they will not tolerate not having safe schools. This generation is changing the world.”
Within the past month, Andrews has been making visits to Wellington schools hoping to note the more pressing issues in order to report to the school district and aid in making positive changes happen quicker.
“We know we are not where we need to be at this point in time, but we are working on it,” she said. “Unfortunately, tragedy had to happen for us to do the right thing, but we can’t allow this to happen again. At a community, school board and police level, we have a lot of work to do.”
Andrews went on to add that the Palm Beach County School Board will not participate in arming teachers. This is something that was reinforced by Chief Leon.
“Teachers come to teach,” Leon said. “Trained police officers will be present [in schools] so that teachers do not have to be armed.”
Leon, who has overseen the Palm Beach County School District police officers since 2012, shared his experience going to Tallahassee to speak to representatives about the importance of the Palm Beach County School District. “It was a battle for me. We were almost left out of [the state’s] funding. It was important for them to understand that this department is one out of five school districts in the state to have its own police department,” Leon said.
Leon explained that, with additional state funding, the department is looking to hire 75 new school officers by August. He added that all school district police officers undergo 160 hours of training throughout the summer, which includes training in active shooting, so that they are properly prepared to work in schools.
“There is a lot of work to be done,” Leon said.