School safety measures recommended after districtwide security assessment


File photo: Isabella Franklin, 10, 5th grade, left, and her brother, Armelo, 7, 2nd grade, walk to their classrooms on the first day of school at Shady Hill Elementary in Ocala, Fla. on Wednesday, August 10, 2022. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.

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Posted September 22, 2022 | By Caroline Brauchler
caroline@ocalagazette.com

The Marion County school district is working to improve everything from fences and door buzzers to cameras and window tinting following a recent safety assessment of every school in the county conducted by a team from the state Office of Safe Schools.

Dennis McFatten, director of Safe Schools for the school district, made several recommendations Thursday to the School Board of Marion County on how the district should proceed with improving security measures after reviewing the findings from the annual assessment.

“What we want to do is complete fencing projects by the end of the 2022 calendar year, and we are on pace to do that,” McFatten said. “Once we complete the final fencing projects, what we want to do is go back and upgrade fencing. There may be some small minor repairs and additions that we have to do at every school over time.”

The Florida Safe Schools Assessment Tool is a platform used by the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) to identify safety controls, threats and vulnerabilities in schools and to assess physical site security in each school district. Staff from each school district must conduct the risk assessments and submit them to the FSSAT by Oct. 1 each year, then report the findings of completed assessments from each public and charter school to the DOE by Oct. 15.

The state also requires first responders to be present for public safety tours by the end of the school year, but McFatten said his Safe Schools team anticipates completing the public safety tour within the next semester.

In addition to security fencing, other “school-hardening” measures, or physical defenses, include door buzzers and cameras. The installation of door buzzers across all campuses is projected to be 80% complete and security camera installation is projected to be 86% complete by the end of the current school year.

“We want to use our resources to complete door buzzers and camera projects before the previously anticipated completion dates in our strategic plan,” he said. “We have some completion dates of 2025 or 2026, but we are very confident that we’ll be able to get those in prior to that.”

Additional recommended measures to ensure safety include electronic access control systems for entry points, anti-vehicle structures at school entrances, window tint for lower windows and entries and vestibule areas to limit access to other areas of school buildings as needed, according to the assessment.

“We have to improve radio transmission signals within the buildings,” McFatten said. “We know and we’ve talked about how radio signal and cell phone coverage is not always the best throughout the county…we’re working on that.”

The camera installation part of the strategic plan also includes more exterior cameras so that school staff can have broader surveillance of the entire area, he said.

The district is also searching for vendors to provide “Knox Boxes,” which allow law enforcement and first responders immediate access into campuses in an emergency.

Projects to install school-hardening measures have faced setbacks, including material shortages, due to supply chain issues and limited staff available to complete installations.

“We have limited staff to complete installations,” McFatten said. “We looked at a third-party vendor to come out and do it, but we saw that would make it no quicker and would cost double or possibly triple the cost of having it done in-house ourselves.”

While McFatten shared the security recommendations with the board, specific information about security concerns at individual schools will be kept confidential for the safety of students and staff.

McFatten said that while implementing these measures is a crucial step to ensuring school safety, security begins in the community outside of the classroom. He emphasized the importance of monitoring mental health and behavioral wellness, and that “If you see something, say something.”

“It is not just about physical school-hardening measures put in place,” he said. “[It’s about] being vigilant, seeing what’s going on around you and reporting it. That starts with students, staff and family.”