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Superintendent Chambers: School safety is our top priority in Okaloosa County

Safer, stronger schools are the top priority for the Okaloosa County School District. The tragic events at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, remind us that we must be ever vigilant in taking the necessary steps to keep our children and staff out of harm’s way.

No words can express the heartbreak we feel for those families and their community. Each time such a tragedy occurs, it’s natural for all to be grieving the senseless loss of life while at the same time asking honest questions about the safety measures in our own schools.

While the following actions are not exhaustive, they form the basic structure of the School District’s school safety and security protocols.

School safety plans are continually reviewed, revised and re-emphasized.

To answer some of these questions, we want the families and citizens of Okaloosa County to know how we’ve strengthened our safety protocols by adding additional security layers and ensuring we will continue to do so. Our schools' final single point of entry and perimeter security projects will be complete by the start of school in the fall of 2022, years ahead of schedule, thanks to the voter-approved one-half-cent sales tax revenue.

In addition, our safety technology has been significantly enhanced in recent years. For example, innovations within our radio and voice communications enable an immediate lockdown enacted anywhere or by anyone in the building. So whether a physical education teacher outside sees something suspicious or an administrator in the front parking lot at the beginning of the day detects a developing situation, staff in various locations can alert the building to potential threats. Time is of the essence when it comes to school safety.

Lockdown protocols and processes are routinely practiced in all schools to ensure preparation for any potential security breach. Classroom doors remain locked throughout the school day. Our outer doors are also secured, and additional layers of perimeter fencing are in place. Those details are essential because an active assailant is likely to pass by a locked door or gate. Extra layers of perimeter fencing discourage or delay those seeking to enter our schools without checking in through the front office, giving responders time to counter the situation.

School safety hardening efforts became a top priority for Gov. Ron DeSantis in the aftermath of the 2018 Parkland school shooting. When he assumed office in 2019, the governor issued executive orders calling for the Florida Department of Education and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to use appropriated funds for resources to identify and neutralize threats in schools.
DeSantis’ school hardening measures were fully supported by former Sheriff Larry Ashley of the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO). Through our partnership with OCSO, every school has at least one school resource officer (SRO). Additionally, our high schools have two SROs on campus. These highly-trained law enforcement officers support district and school comprehensive safety plans and are prepared to respond to situations at a moment’s notice. Our SROs know seconds matter.

In addition to their role as first responders, SROs act as liaisons between the school and outside agencies and reinforce positive behaviors through relationship building. We greatly appreciate Sheriff Eric Aiden, who continues the tradition of an unwavering commitment to Okaloosa’s schools. The OCSO SRO program is renowned and has been selected twice in the past five years as the best in the state by the Florida Association of School Resource Officers. We are fortunate to have a program of this caliber as part of the team!

As extra layers of safety, our district implemented the Aaron Feis Guardian Program three years ago, which provides other armed personnel on campus who are highly trained to respond to an active assailant. Our camera systems have been updated and are now directly linked to the Sheriff’s Office Emergency Operations Center to allow real-time access to any school in a crisis.

In addition, the Safer Watch App, recently highlighted by local media, enables any employee to create a direct 911 link from their device and gives them the ability to communicate through voice, text or video, whichever is called for by the situation. This app allows immediate reporting of an active assailant. When seconds count, the initial response to an active security breach cannot be delayed due to incomplete information.

All of the above (and more) are in place to respond to an active assailant. But that only tells half of the story. How we work to prevent tragedies like those that occurred at Robb Elementary and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School is equally as important as how we respond to an event once it has begun. Proper school safety protocols involve both response and prevention.