School district amps up school security

File photo: Dennis McFatten, the School District’s Safe Schools coordinator, speaks during the Marion County School Board workshop in Ocala on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.

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Posted May 10, 2023 | By Lauren Morrish

The Marion County School Board gave Director of Safe Schools, Dennis McFatten, its full support in an April 20 work session to move forward with changing the employment status of three district employees to become sworn law enforcement.

Under the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Act an officer must be at every school in the district and in the case of Marion County- the district is under contract for officers to provide security at schools from Marion County Sheriff’s Office, Belleview Police Department and Ocala Police Department.

The Florida Legislature passed the act following the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in the Broward County School District.

The officers from the MCSO and BPD, OPD cost the district approximately $4.5 million annually.

The safe schools department, a division under Marion County Public Schools, acts as the district’s law enforcement agency. The department’s main focus is to take preventive measures for student and faculty safety- which swells to more than 50,000 people on any given school day. Five personnel are included under the authority of Marion County’s school district. One of them being McFatten, who is the only instated sworn officer so far. The other four staff are security specialists, but one is already an acting guardian protector for the schools.

Last month, McFatten asked the school district to consider allowing the other three specialists, all with law enforcement certifications, to become sworn officers.

“This is simply the four people that’s in the safe school’s department who has the ability to be sworn and armed so that when they are on any of our school’s campuses, if something happens, they can respond,” said McFatten.  “And right now, currently they are not in that position, they’re not able to do that.”

McFatten proposed two recommendations that would add a supplemental layer of safety to schools countywide; restoring sworn status to the current Safe Schools’ staff members which would allow them protection capabilities over students, staff, and visitors in school-designated regions, and properly equipping them to combat threats of an active assailant.

Sworn status would enable staff to aid School Resource Officers in the event of a risk and cover security in their absence. Essentially it releases authority to protect themselves and citizens in proximity in and beyond the educational setting, during board meetings and work sessions.

Without sworn status, the officers are left with the option to run, flee, evacuate, or lock the door.

McFatten said the law enforcement backgrounds of the Safe Schools staff security specialists have, “nearly 100 years of experience between those four people, and currently all hold law enforcement certifications under the state purview.”

He said hiring these specialists as officers under sworn status enables their certification to continue.

“They have the experience, they have the knowledge, and the desire to take on this role to assist with the protection of our students, staff, and visitors,” McFatten said.

Procuring the sworn status of the rest of his department would be beneficial to school safety, especially considering staff members’ familiarity with campus allowing them easy navigation for a timely response in an emergency, he told the district.

“Since they’re on these campuses every day, they do the threat assessments, they know the SROs, they know the school staff, they will be better equipped to respond to the actual shooting than a patrol deputy who may not know anything about the school,” said McFatten.

Along with sworn status applications and benefits, the safe schools department also requires each school to conduct the Florida Safe Schools Assessment Tool annually. This tool breaks down every school in the county by individually assessing risk levels to determine security needs.

“Every school is unique in the structure and how it’s made up, so we get the opportunity to really get to know each and every one of our schools,” McFatten said.

During the April 20 work session, McFatten said the 2023-2024 assessments should be available soon. They have now been released and members of Safe Schools, law enforcement, fire officials, and school administration countywide, will join forces to complete them before the deadline of Oct. 1. The assessment is exempt from public records because it contains information outlining the school’s security.

To resolve safety deficiencies the assessment reveals, schools install and upgrade hardening measures, or physical defenses, such as fencing, door buzzers, and cameras.

McFatten, as previously reported in a Sept. 2022 Gazette story, said hardening measures such as door buzzers would be at 80% and security cameras would be at 86% by the end of this school year. He said funds for these measures are insufficient and the department is conscious of spending so it can get, “the best bang for the buck.”

According to a district spokesperson three schools in the county are currently undergoing door buzzer and camera installation, and when completed the safety department will be on track for the upcoming school year. Safety precautions will still be inserted continuously as security is an ongoing discussion for Marion County Public Schools.

Non-physical security aid by the department includes Fortify Florida, which is a platform for anyone on or visiting campus to report suspicious activity if viewed. Distributed district devices have this tip option installed for students to use.

The board responded positively to the safety department’s provisions and addressed the sworn status reinstatement recommendation for consensus.

“I feel like it’s important as your superintendent to ensure that we are doing everything we can to equip our staff to ensure that we have a safe working and learning environment, for all,” said Marion County Public Schools Superintendent Diane Gullett.

Gullett also told the school board members that she spoke about the staffing changes with Marion County Sheriff, Billy Woods, and he had expressed support for the arrangements.

“I am in full support of this plan as presented,” said school board member Sarah James. “I think it’s beyond necessary and I’m grateful that as a board we are getting this opportunity to make this happen.”

Vice-Chair Nancy Thrower said: “minutes don’t count anymore, it’s seconds in terms of responding.” Tragedies are swift and she is thankful for this partnership with members of law enforcement that step up and safeguard, she said.

“That makes me feel even more confident that we are going to continue to problem-solve this life-or-death issue together, and there’s every good reason in my mind to do this,” said Thrower.

Chair Allison Campbell requested, in the session, school safety officer job descriptions be revised by McFatten before status approval.

Since then, Safe Schools staff is now examining the job descriptions for a final review by the executive cabinet members to then be placed on the board’s agenda for approval.


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