SHERIFF: County ‘ahead of the curve’ on school safety

Much has changed in St. Lucie County following the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., last year. Training, drills, equipment, staff – all areas of school safety have been reviewed. Protocols have been updated.

And, following the report of what exactly happened at the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, officials in St. Lucie County believe they are doing all they should to ensure the security and safety of both students and staff at all the county’s schools.

“We’re ahead of the curve,” Sheriff Ken Mascara said last week during a roundtable discussion of school safety.

Some of the recommendations made in the report were already being implemented at St. Lucie Public Schools, such as creating a consistent response protocol, increasing Code Red drills, implementing staff training.

What is new, though, is the level of seriousness law enforcement now bestows upon all threats – no matter from whom they originate.

“The one that you don’t (investigate),” said Schools Superintendent Wayne Gent … “is the one that will get you in trouble,” said Sheriff Mascara, finishing the sentence.

Capt. Brian Hester said during the roundtable that School Resource Deputies must now treat all threats as though they are credible and serious.

A threat coming from a first-grader mouthing off, threatening to hurt his teacher, would be treated the same as a troubled 17-year-old making the same claim.

“Dean before deputy,” Capt. Hester said is the SRD’s motto. “Our goal is not to arrest.” Instead, deputies endeavor to have schools handle discipline where appropriate.

As for the hypothetical first-grader, Sheriff Mascara said elementary-aged children just don’t understand the seriousness of their words. “They don’t know the havoc they cause,” he said, explaining that of the 131 threats recorded during the first semester, 40 percent (or 58 cases) came from elementary schools.

Both Mascara and Gent made a point of encouraging parents to discuss with their young students how their words can affect the school, and how threats are taken seriously.

Another component added to the tool box of school safety is increased awareness and support for mental health. The county has partnered with New Horizons, a mental health organization.

In the first semester alone, 85 people were placed in protective custody under the Baker Act. The Sheriff’s Office-provided numbers did not differentiate between students and faculty. Of those, 20 people at elementary schools were taken into protective custody, amounting to nearly a quarter of all Baker Acts.

Gent said the county is not unique in its volume of Baker Act cases, and called the matter a “national epidemic.”

The school district received $900,000 from the state to hire four or five psychologists and as many social workers to help address mental health challenges around the district. Gent said the mental health support staff float among all the school campuses to provide assistance as needed. “We’re grateful for funding,” Gent said, “but it’s inadequate.”

Sheriff Mascara concurred, explaining that the School Resource Deputy program costs the Sheriff’s Office $6 million. Of that, the school district covers $2 million and the County Commission covers about $3 million – leaving the Sheriff’s Office to cover the remainder.

“We’re in the deficit every year with this program,” Mascara said, “but it’s important for our schools. It’s important for our children.”

The state has approximately $52 million in funding for those school districts that opt into the Guardian program, which allows for trained, armed teachers. Gent said St. Lucie Public Schools has no interest in arming its teachers; the district asked the teachers’ union, which said no.

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