School district beefs up security
Published: Wednesday, August 14, 2013 at 5:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 14, 2013 at 5:30 p.m.
Over the summer, Alachua County worked to make sure its public schools were safer for everyone.
The district ramped up security measures, due in part to the December massacre of 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Security cameras have been installed at the front entrance of every public school. Some of the larger campuses have additional cameras.
The total cost of the project came to $67,000, said Alachua County Public Schools spokeswoman Jackie Johnson.
The district also invested in a computer software system called Raptor that scans government-issued IDs, such as driver's licenses, through a database of sex offenders.
A few schools had installed Raptor in the past couple of years, Johnson said, but after Sandy Hook, the district decided to increase security at every school.
Every visitor to an Alachua County public school, plus the district office in the Kirby-Smith Center, will be asked for a valid ID and checked through the Raptor system at every visit.
"It's essentially a visitor screening process," Johnson said.
The computer system also prints a badge with the visitor's name, so in an emergency it's easier for school staff to identify who isn't supposed to be on campus, she said.
A security measure that went into place nearly immediately after the Sandy Hook massacre was the placement of school resource officers in elementary schools.
Before January 2013, deputies from the Gainesville Police Department and Alachua County Sheriff's Office were placed in each middle and high school in the district.
After the mass shooting on Dec. 14, the School Board, GPD and ASO worked quickly to place officers in the elementary schools as well.
The cost of putting school resource officers in elementary schools came to about $315,000, Johnson said.
The Sheriff's Office had to disband a unit dedicated to monitoring traffic in order to move 12 additional deputies into schools.
GPD contributed 11 officers to the elementary schools within Gainesville city limits.
ASO spokesman Lt. Todd Kelly said sometimes with those types of decisions, there can be grumbling among the ranks if everyone does not agree with the sheriff. But moving deputies from monitoring traffic to protecting children, Kelly said, seemed to have unanimous approval.
"It was worth making some sacrifices internally to make that happen," he said.
GPD spokesman Officer Ben Tobias said there have been no critical situations in any of the elementary schools since the school resource officers arrived in January.
But they're there for more than just protection, Kelly said.
Whereas in high schools officers might be on the lookout for drugs, underage drinking or fights, in elementary schools they focus on basic safety.
The elementary school officers are hand-picked for their personalities and skills and receive special training for dealing with smaller children, he said. They act as a liaison between students, teachers and parents and law enforcement.
Officers also work to make students comfortable enough to voice their concerns to law enforcement, if necessary.
School resource officers spend time introducing themselves to the students and getting to know them.
Kelly said at Newberry Elementary, he has seen students high-fiving and hugging their "Deputy Bob" in the halls.
"It's a lot more of a friendly approach than one might expect from law enforcement," Kelly said. "I think they're getting a lot more out of it."
The next step, Tobias said, is tightening the physical security of schools and providing officers with training to recognize mental health issues in younger students.
Although violent or active-shooter situations are rare for Alachua County's school resource officers, they still get plenty of training.
While the schools have been out for the summer, officers have participated emergency drills on a firing range with a simulated school room, Tobias said.
They practice diffusing the situation so that "if the unthinkable comes to Gainesville, we're going to be ready for it," he wrote in an email. "We don't want our officers to be forming a plan when they are already in the middle of a critical incident. Under extreme stress, you revert to your training, and we are giving our officers the tools to handle any situation."
Erin Jester is a Gainesville Sun writer.
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