Four officers sworn in to bolster safety at Marion County educational facilities

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Posted October 13, 2023 | By Lauren Morrish

School safety in Marion County took a big step forward recently when four officers were sworn in as members of the Marion County Public Schools Safe Schools Department.

In a ceremony held on Sept. 19, Superintendent Diane Gullett swore in Police Chief Dennis McFatten, who then swore in officers Cynthia Barnes, Corey Taylor, and Kenny Singletary.

The event was more than ceremonial, however. As McFatten noted, as the only sworn officer in the department, he alone had been authorized to use weapons in the possible event of an attack; the other recently sworn officers had been approved only to direct people to safety–run and hide.

McFatten said sworn status for the officers means they now will be armed and can be more effective if a school shooter is on campus, at board meetings or at work sessions.

“This is what’s best for students, so I fully support it,” he said.

Combined, these officers represent over 89 years of law enforcement experience. McFatten has served more than 30 years in the Army, the Florida Department of Corrections, Marion County Sheriff’s Office and the district’s police department. Barnes and Taylor both have over 20 years of service with the Ocala Police Department. Singletary has spent more than 11 years with the Florida Department of Corrections, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, and school district police department.

The MCPS, Marion County Public Schools Safe Schools department was created as a result of several school shootings nationwide, starting with the April 20, 1999 massacre at Columbine High School. MCPS spokesperson Kevin Christian said during the recent ceremony, “That day changed public education in our country forever in countless ways, including right here in Marion County Public Schools.”

In the years that followed, there have been active assailant attacks around the country including in 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and Marion County’s own Forest High School.

“To better protect students, staff, and campus visitors, school security catapulted to the top of the priority list for the district,” Christian said.

McFatten began coordinating the local Safe Schools initiative here in February 2017, recruiting a clerk specialist and Safe Schools investigator to improve protection tools. Funds have been added to Safe Schools for preventive measures to secure campuses and to hire four School Security Specialist positions, Christian said.

In accordance with state statute, under the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Act, MCPS has contracts with MCSO, OPD and the Belleview Police Department to station school resource officers at every school within the county.

To elevate school safety further, in March 2019, the school board created the Marion County School Board Police Department. Several Safe Schools specialists were transitioned to become the school district’s first law enforcement officers, with McFatten appointed police chief.

The MCPS Police Department oversees 29 elementary schools, eight middle schools, eight high schools, and two combination schools. The officers also guard one adult technical education center, an early learning academy, an exceptional education center, and several district offices.

Two personnel and a Threat Management coordinator are state-mandated to be positioned in every school district in the county.

McFatten listed the chain of operation in a district emergency. If an assailant breaches an Ocala school campus, the Ocala Police Department would command protection protocols. In “unincorporated areas,” the Marion County Sheriff’s Office would manage. He said there is no divide in responsibilities as long as the best course of action for the students is considered.

“In any event, our local law enforcement agencies are a unified juvenile unit and will assist and provide resources and manpower at any school in Marion County,” McFatten said. “The Marion County School Board Police Department will be the liaison agency between local, state, and federal agencies and Marion County Public Schools to ensure there are no barriers that would hinder a quick and efficient law enforcement response.”

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