When it comes to school safety, a 1999 Colorado tragedy was the catalyst for new standards and practices.
“Columbine changed schools,” said Assistant Superintendent for Business, Duane McFarland, of the incident during which 12 students and one teacher were killed.
Since that event the nation has witnessed additional shootings at several schools and campuses. Safety remains a main concern for parents.
This begs the question: How safe are Gulf County schools?
“Besides educating successful students, school safety is priority number one,” assured Superintendent Jim Norton. “You take your kids to school and you expect to get them back safe.”
Stacy Strickland, School Resource Officer since 2005 for both the Port St. Joe elementary and high school said, “I keep the kids safe. I’m out there. I’m walking the halls. I’m keeping an eye on things.”
Though stationed in the center of the high school which provides easy access to all common areas, he notes that he can be on the elementary campus in less than five minutes. The schools are networked by a communication system and Strickland carries a walkie-talkie on his hip and a cell phone is his pocket ensuring that he can always be reached in the event of emergency.
Deputy Donna Huggins is the SRO for Wewahitchka schools and provides the same services for northern Gulf County.
“The School Resource Officers aren’t just employees, they’re truly a part of the school family,” said Norton.
Strickland is head coach of the Port St. Joe Junior High baseball team and travels with different organizations and athletic teams when they go on trips outside of school hours.
In addition to having a trained officer on campus, the Gulf County elementary schools in Port St. Joe and Wewahitchka take security measures one step further and close a series of metal gates around the entrances after the first bell rings.
These gates force visitors to enter the building via the office where they must check in and receive a visitor’s pass. It’s only after obtaining the proper credentials that they will be allowed to pass through a second door and enter the school. Teachers are trained and encouraged to keep an eye out for strangers and approach anyone that they don’t recognize.
There are 70 cameras throughout the Port St. Joe high school that cover the parking lot, hallways, and common areas. Strickland said that these eyes in the sky are not to violate student privacy, but to ensure that administration can trace the source of a problem and respond immediately.
In any emergency situation the first five minutes are critical and a lot can happen before people react. Each classroom in Gulf County schools is required to have a classroom emergency procedure guide. These flyers are required to be in plain sight and readily available in a time of need.
This tabbed, easy to use guide provides emergency instructions for hazardous materials spills, weapons on school grounds, lost or missing children, assaults, bomb threats, fires, severe weather and hostage situations.
While the staff is well-prepared, administrators keep the students ready using mock drills scheduled periodically throughout the year. Monthly fire drills and bi-annual tornado and lockdown drills keep protocols fresh in the minds of the children.
During the last school board meeting Norton mentioned that school administrators are working with Gulf County Sherriff Mike Harrison to incorporate additional drills into practice, especially those dealing with live threats. They hope to have these exercises in place soon.
“We live in a part of the country where we respect the Second Amendment and respect a lifestyle where students are also hunters,” Norton said, “but if someone pulls a gun in a threatening manner, our SROs will do anything necessary to protect the children.”
Since reaction time is so important, teachers are given full autonomy to make judgment calls with each situation that arises.
The school is tied into the Emergency Operations Center and Strickland has undergone extensive training to ensure that he’s ready for anything.
“SWAT teams have practiced drills inside the high school on weekends,” said Strickland. “It’s so important that they’re familiar with layout in case something happens.”
Norton feels confident that Gulf County schools are ready to handle any situations that may arise but is always looking for new ways to utilize the security resources they have.
“You plan for the worst,” said Norton, “but you always hope for the best”