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5 years after Parkland, Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission assesses where school districts stand with safety

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri spoke about the Guardian Program and pointed out flaws in the implementation of the Alyssa's Alert law.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission, which formed after the Parkland school shooting that left 17 people dead, met Tuesday to assess the implementation of several school programs and laws.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri led the discussion as the commission heard from several speakers including Sylvia Ifft, deputy director of emergency management for the Florida Department of Education. 

During the meeting, Gualtieri pushed for more districts to implement the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program. This program was one of the recommendations coming out of the initial report from the commission. 

This report found that having guardians in schools is the best way to ensure highly trained personnel are in place to respond immediately in the event of a school shooting. 

Guardians are armed personnel who are either school employees, who volunteer to serve in addition to official job duties, or personnel hired for the specific purpose of serving as a school guardian. These Guardians must complete 144 hours of training and pass psychological and drug screenings.

In 2019, the Legislature expanded the program to include Class D and G licensed security guards as well as district or charter school employees who volunteer to participate. 

Since the program was enacted, only 45 out of 67 school districts participate in the program. According to the FDOE's website, about 1,300 staff serve as guardians in schools. 

So where do Bay Area schools stand on school guardians?

FDOE's site says Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota are among the counties participating in the Guardian Program. 

Citrus County Schools says they have had 14 people go through the guardian training. Manatee County schools has had 50 people go through the training.

Hernando Schools told us that the school district has a full-time School Resource Officer (SRO) at all school campuses and a guardian at each one of the five high schools. 

"To be clear, we have no intentions of replacing the SROs with guardians," Superintendent John Stratton said. "These are new staff who will be an addition to our current school safety initiatives." 

However, during the 2022-23 school year, the district plans to add guardians at middle and K-8 schools with large enrollment. "We can afford to add these highly-trained and qualified guardians at our schools because of the support and trust of our community," said Stratton. "It remains our priority to keep our schools safe."

Pinellas County Schools says the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office is responsible for training guardians and providing the annual update training to meet any statutory changes. The district has had School Safety Officers (SSO) in elementary schools since August 2018.

Charter schools typically use Guardians. The training for both is the same.

That was the same response from Sarasota Schools, which said public schools have SRO’s. Charter schools have guardians.

State funds are granted to participating sheriff's offices to cover guardian screening and training costs. Guardians receive a one-time $500 stipend for serving in the program. 

Another topic of discussion in Tuesday's meeting was Alyssa's Alert and its implementation in school districts.

This law requires all Florida public schools, including charters, to implement a mobile panic alert system capable of connecting diverse emergency service technologies to ensure real-time coordination between multiple first responder agencies. 

Essentially, teachers and school staff would have an app on their phones that allowed them to push a button in the case of an active assailant on campus. The app is able to track location and by pressing the button, the staff is able to directly alert 911 that help is needed. Police would be automatically dispatched and everyone on campus with the app would be alerted. 

Alyssa's Alert was meant to be implemented by the 2021-22 school year; however, not every district has it fully in place. 

“As we sit here today now two weeks out from school starting we cannot say with 100% certainty that every district has implemented Alyssa’s Alert so that if you push the button... it is going to the 911 center," Gualtieri said in the meeting Tuesday. "We don’t know that for sure.”

There's apparently been a gap in integration where the app's button doesn't reach 911 in every district. Without this integration, when someone presses the button, only people on campus are alerted. 

Ifft, with the FDOE, said additional testing is being done over the next few weeks to test the effectiveness of the alert systems across Florida school districts. 

Gualtieri expressed frustration over this. 

"With the state spending 8 million bucks on this, and the law saying that it had to be done by the end of the school year that just passed, I mean why are we now at that we don’t know," Gualtieri asked Ifft.

She said it's been a process with a lot more testing needed than was anticipated. 

As the start of school is quickly approaching in the Bay Area, where do school districts stand with Alyssa's Alert?

Bay Area schools started installing panic alarms even before the law.

10 Tampa Bay reached out to surrounding districts about their schools' alert systems.

Hillsborough County Public Schools said it was 100 percent compliant two years ago, ahead of many other districts across both the state and country.

The district uses the Centegix CrisisAlert system, which empowers every teacher and staff member to call for help in an emergency. It uses ID badges that trigger school-wide lockdowns immediately with audio and visual notifications. It also alerts first responders and provides the location where the alert was triggered as well as alerts every student and staff member on campus.

The Pinellas County School District said it has been in full compliance with Alyssa's Alert since December. The district began rolling out its system and training staff who chose to have the app on their phone in November. More training will take place for staff who decide to have the alert system app on their phone for this upcoming school year. 

Sarasota County Schools first implemented a district-wide emergency alert system back in Fall 2019 to comply with Alyssa’s Law. The district said it has remained compliant ever since, and currently uses the Raptor Emergency Management Suite and Re-unification system.

Polk County Public Schools said it is in full compliance with the law as well. 

This story will be updated as 10 Tampa Bay hears back from more school districts. 

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