'Take care of the whole child': BDS officials talk school safety after DeSantis signs HB 1421
PANAMA CITY — In the wake of the Uvalde shooting May 24, Bay District School officials want to remind residents of their established safety protocols in place to protect students.
Bay District Schools held a press conference Tuesday afternoon to discuss school safety and active shooter protocols after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 1421.
DeSantis signed the bill earlier Tuesday morning, which aims to improve school safety in the state and build on recent legislation to implement the additional recommendations of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission to make schools safer and improve youth mental health.
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In the Freedom First Budget, Gov. Ron DeSantis also approved $140 million for mental health and $210 million for school safety, including school hardening grants and youth mental health awareness and assistance training.
Josh Balkom, BDS executive director of operations, said the district is excited to receive additional funding for protecting students and staff members, adding that it's their top priority to keep them safe.
"We're going to continue to ensure that our schools are secure and that we take care of the whole child, this is a multi-faceted situation when it comes to ensuring that our schools and our campuses are safe," Balkom said. "From the mental health aspect to hardening our school campuses, providing officers for each school campus and training our staff to be on the lookout for all things school-safety and safety-related."
Balkom said while he knows schools are not immune to threats, BDS is taking advantage of every resource available to make sure its students are safe.
Making schools safer
School Safety Coordinator Vernon Barth said Bay County offers a lot of tools and resources to make campuses safer.
One of the tools Barth highlighted was the district's opportunities to report threats anonymously, such as their Safe App and FortifyFlorida.
"(FortifyFlorida) is available to both parents, outsiders and people that can notify schools of concerns. Things that maybe the administrators don't always get to see every day," Barth said. "Maybe students are a little bit afraid of reporting something because of the repercussions from other students there that does happen, so this way we can hopefully get ahead of the game and try to stop things before it happens."
BDS officials said they are also going to encourage closing and locking doors, making sure teachers and staff are following simple safety procedures.
Barth said with the influx of funding, they will be increasing security on school campuses.
"Another good aspect of this is the funding will also help allow us to continue to add and increase both surveillance and safety cameras in our schools, as well as our access control measures, which allow us to kind of monitor and be able to determine who can get in and who can't get out of our schools," Barth said.
Metal detectors and bag searches will not be implemented at this time, but Barth said they are not off the table.
'It's (SROs') job to stop them'
One of the main ways BDS implements a safe environment is by having a school safety officer deployed at every BDS school campus.
BDS Chief of Police Doug Boortz said these officers are trained by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
"They're just like a police officer you see on the street, a trooper, any of those guys. They're trained by FDLE and we expand upon that training on a yearly basis," Boortz said. "Since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas incident, we have a variation to things that we have to do."
Throughout the summer, the officers work together and train with other law enforcement agencies to practice active shooter drills. Boortz said during a real situation, all agencies would be together, so they need to be prepared and know what their jobs are.
Boortz said they will modify their procedures and training after learning new information about the Uvalde shooting.
"We're going to be more adamant about making sure that the teachers and principals, they understand that locking their doors, make sure that somebody's valid to walk into a school, not just for any kind of reason," Boortz said. "These hardening-type things, we've got to really tighten down on them. ... Nobody wants to be in the news like that at all but unfortunately, we all learn from their mistakes."
From active shooter training to understanding mental health, Boortz said his officers are highly trained and have gotten to know these students. The officers also become familiar with parents and guardians who also may be concerned about their kids' safety.
"They're not just a police officer. They do various things for the school, but the main thing is ... I want to let everybody know is their job is for any immediate attack that is going to come into the school, anybody that is going to try to harm or do damage to the student staff or the property, that it's their job is to stop them," Boortz said.
Stepping into the role of police chief after Mike Jones retired earlier this year, Boortz said Jones paved the way for school safety in Bay County and is determined to continue on that legacy.
Emphasis on mental health services
The signing of HB 1421 also supports mental health services in schools. Dawn Capes, BDS director of the student wellness programs, said her team has been working hard to provide multiple resources with the BDS system.
The first resource she highlighted was the school counselors, adding officials have seen success with those employees.
"The school counselors in Bay District schools are pretty much everywhere and are available for short-term counseling for students," Capes said. "They're able to connect parents and students to appropriate resources. And they can also help really build that supportive climate and culture that's so important at each one of our schools."
She also touched on their Student Wellness Teams, which are groups of licensed mental health professionals deployed at every school.
"Every school benefits from those people who provide preventative and responsive support to students, so that can mean direct services like counseling, but also if we have a student who's escalated, it helps deescalate them so that they can reengage with the educational moment that they're having," Capes said.
Lastly, Capes discussed how HB 1421 emphasizes "Youth Mental Health First Aid," which offers mental health training to educators and offers them guidance on how to deal with youth during a crisis.
Currently, 95% of BDS administrations and instructional staff are Youth Mental Health First Aid certified, making 68% of BDS's total staff certified.
Barth said officials are grateful to see more resources and support for mental health in schools.
"We've had a lot of trouble since the hurricane and the pandemic," Barth said. "Students are going through a lot, people are going through a lot and this helps ensure that we can help provide those services and the money and resources needed to continue to help build on that.
This article originally appeared on The News Herald: Bay County Schools discuss safety protocols for active shooters