Now that schools have been in session for a few weeks, families, teachers and even traffic patterns are settling into a routine. But not all schools have the same challenges, and with the goal of increasing safety specifically in high schools, some locations have been testing metal detectors.
The Royal Palm Beach Education Advisory Board received an update on security issues from School District Police Chief Sarah Mooney at a meeting Monday, Sept. 11.
“The school district’s mission and vision have to do with, obviously, having security and safety on all of our school campuses and facilities,” Mooney said. “We are committed to community engagement, so we like to get out and about, not only in the schools, but out into the community when they have school-sponsored events. We like to take the approach that school safety is everyone’s responsibility.”
She went on to describe some of the structures in place throughout the county, including having an armed security person on every campus. Currently, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office is providing assistance since staffing levels cannot cover every site yet, but the intent is to have a school district police officer at every campus by the end of this school year.
“A security measure in Alyssa’s Law is that emergency alert button. We go with Centegix, which is basically this emergency key card that everyone in the district has. A staff member could hit that button three times, and it will alert certain responders on the campus to let them know that there is something going on that they could use an extra set of eyes or extra set of hands to come help deal with a problem,” Mooney said.
There were some growing pains with false alarms when the cards were first implemented last year, but that has been improving.
The school police have added 60 new marked vehicles to its fleet and began a metal detector pilot program at Palm Beach Gardens High School, Seminole Ridge High School, Palm Beach Lakes High School and John I. Leonard High School. Because schools are set up with a single point of entry on all campuses, the detectors were placed at these four schools upon entry.
“This was something brought to us by our constituents, and the board wanted us to do a project to see whether or not it would be feasible. We had the opportunity over the summer to learn how the equipment works and learn what we think would be the best practices so that we could start on the first day of school,” Mooney said. “As expected, there were delays on the first days of schools, but the kids have gotten trained up on what the expectation is and how you walk in and what things are going to set them off.”
Mooney made it clear that the detectors are not as sensitive as a Transportation Security Agency line at the airport, but that items such as laptops must be handed over to staff before students can pass through without setting off the system. When asked about where these detectors would be installed, she was very straightforward.
“They do have the funding in place to expand to all the high schools throughout the county,” Mooney said. “It’s just a matter of working through the logistics, but the goal is to go district wide at least in the high schools, and then expand from there. It’s an almost by the end of the year goal. It’s a matter of supply chain and how quickly we can get the equipment here.”
Mooney also said that she would be presenting the test results to the school board soon, and installation does require the board’s final approval first.
Another important program to support students comes on the mental health side. School District Chief of Equity and Wellness Keith Oswald provided details on how the school district’s referendum supported the creation of a whole new department to address mental health concerns.
“Mentally healthy students are going to do better in school and be ready academically. School shootings, and then with the pandemic, the increase of mental health referrals has gone up dramatically here in Palm Beach County,” Oswald said. “Prior to 2018, what you typically had on a school campus was your school counselors and your school psychologist. Well, that’s changed. We have a lot more resources.”
Some of those programs include mental health and behavioral health professionals at each campus, a crisis assessment team and more targeted professional development, in addition to school psychologists and counselors.
“Youth mental health first aid is a training for employees and community members that really train them as someone who is not a mental health professional on the signs and symptoms, and how to get someone the help that may need it,” Oswald said. “Last year, we had 91 percent of our staff and school-based employees trained in this.”
There are now 170 new school behavioral health professionals, one in each school, along with 10 agencies at 115 schools providing direct support. Students now receive up to 12 free counseling sessions on site.
Also at the meeting, Western Academy Charter School staff members were present to share updates on the A-rated school, which recently received a 15-year renewal on their charter contract. Principal Tsiri Miller is in her 13th year at the school, which is in its 21st year.
“We have been A-rated since 2006. We serve kindergarten through eighth grade. Right now, we have 645 students enrolled. We are a free public school, and we are top-rated in RPB,” she said. “In the latest district report, 100 percent of our students who graduated, whether in fifth grade or eighth grade, went on to graduate from high school.”
The school moved to a larger facility and is looking to expand enrollment to 785 by the 2025-26 school year. Miller also provided a snapshot of recent test scores compared to the rest of the district and state, all of which were above average for both elementary and middle school.
Western Academy staff credited this success to their innovative class model, which uses clusters, looping and stations. In elementary school, clusters of students are looped with the same teacher for three years and have breakout stations three times a week dedicated to different subjects. The middle school has both a regular and STEAM academy program available for students.
Enrollment is available by entering the lottery system on the Western Academy web site at www.westernacademycharter.com.