School Safety is our Top Priority

A Message from Superintendent Chambers

Safer, stronger schools are the top priority for the Okaloosa County School District. The tragic events at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, remind us that we must be ever vigilant in taking the necessary steps to keep our children and staff out of harm’s way. No words can express the heartbreak we feel for those families and their community. Each time such a tragedy occurs, it’s natural for all to be grieving the senseless loss of life while at the same time asking honest questions about the safety measures in our own schools. While the following actions are not exhaustive, they form the basic structure of the Okaloosa County School District’s school safety and security protocols.

School safety plans are continually reviewed, revised, and reemphasized.

To answer some of these questions, we want the families and citizens of Okaloosa County to know how we’ve strengthened our safety protocols by adding additional security layers and ensuring we will continue to do so. Our schools' final single point of entry and perimeter security projects will be complete by the start of school in the fall of 2022, years ahead of schedule, thanks to the voter-approved one-half cent sales tax revenue. In addition, our safety technology has been significantly enhanced in recent years. For example, innovations within our radio and voice communications enable an immediate lockdown enacted anywhere or by anyone in the building. So whether a Physical Education Teacher outside sees something suspicious or an administrator in the front parking lot at the beginning of the day detects a developing situation, staff in various locations can alert the building to potential threats. Time is of the essence when it comes to school safety.

Lockdown protocols and processes are routinely practiced in all schools to ensure preparation for any potential security breach. Classroom doors remain locked throughout the school day. Our outer doors are also secured, and additional layers of perimeter fencing are in place. Those details are essential because an active assailant is likely to pass by a locked door or gate. Extra layers of perimeter fencing discourage or delay those seeking to enter our schools without checking in through the front office, giving responders time to counter the situation.

School safety hardening efforts became a top priority for Governor Ron DeSantis in the aftermath of the 2018 Parkland, Florida school shooting. When he assumed office in 2019, the Governor issued executive orders calling for the Florida Department of Education and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to use appropriated funds for resources to identify and neutralize threats in schools. DeSantis’s school hardening measures were fully supported by former Sheriff Larry Ashley of the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO). Through our partnership with OCSO, every school has at least one School Resource Officer (SRO). Additionally, our high schools have two SROs on campus. These highly-trained law enforcement officers support district and school comprehensive safety plans and are prepared to respond to situations at a moment’s notice. Our SROs know seconds matter. In addition to their role as first responders, SROs act as liaisons between the school and outside agencies and reinforce positive behaviors through relationship building. We greatly appreciate Sheriff Eric Aiden, who continues the tradition of an unwavering commitment to Okaloosa’s schools. The OCSO SRO program is renowned and has been selected twice in the past five years as the best in the state by the Florida Association of School Resource Officers. We are fortunate to have a program of this caliber as part of the team!

As extra layers of safety, our district implemented the Aaron Feis Guardian Program three years ago, which provides other armed personnel on campus who are highly trained to respond to an active assailant. Our camera systems have been updated and are now directly linked to the Sheriff’s Office Emergency Operations Center to allow real-time access to any school in a crisis. In addition, the Safer Watch App, recently highlighted by local media, enables any employee to create a direct 911 link from their device and gives them the ability to communicate through voice, text, or video, whichever is called for by the situation. This app allows immediate reporting of an active assailant. When seconds count, the initial response to an active security breach cannot be delayed due to incomplete information.

Proper school safety initiatives involve both response and prevention.

All of the above (and more) are in place to respond to an active assailant. But that only tells half of the story. How we work to prevent tragedies like those that occurred at Robb Elementary and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School is equally as important as how we respond to an event once it has begun. Proper school safety protocols involve both response and prevention.

To this effect, we’ve expanded the school district’s Office of Safe Schools by adding personnel with expertise in communications and threat assessment as well as those knowledgeable in school hardening measures. Each school in our district has a Threat Assessment Team that, at a minimum, consists of a school administrator and persons with expertise in counseling, law enforcement, mental health, and instruction. This team meets regularly throughout the school year to support students, which could involve a mental health referral, a safety plan, or some other intervention. In addition, we have doubled the number of mental health counselors in our schools since 2018-2019 and will be adding two more this summer for a total of 21 going into the next school year. Providing students and families with appropriate support in the form of mental health services is a critical piece of our prevention plan. Emerging from a global pandemic is not without its residual effects; therefore, the Okaloosa County School District is committed to assisting students in adjusting and thriving despite adversity. We love our students and want to provide them every opportunity for enrichment: the more avenues we offer, the better for increased student and school safety.

Current school-provided mental health and safety intervention efforts include Child Safety Matters training in elementary schools. This training involves helping students identify safe adults for the purpose of reporting potential harm to themselves or others. In secondary schools, all students receive mental health aid training through Suite 360. The modules in this online program provide five hours of mental health instruction as required by the Florida Department of Education. As part of First Lady Casey DeSantis’s Hope for Healing campaign, students' mental health aid instruction includes processes for seeking help for anyone in emotional distress. The district has also added Hope Squad, a peer-to-peer suicide awareness, and prevention program, to provide an additional layer of aid and comfort. It is currently in all secondary schools and will be expanded to include the elementary schools next year. And as always, we will continue to support appropriate relationship building, enhance student engagement, and work diligently to create a positive school climate where everyone is a valued member of the OCSD Family.

If you see something, say something!

Of all these necessary layers of security, nothing is more important than the people of this community: students, parents, school staff, and citizens, who make it a part of their responsibilities to look out for each other, to be aware of what they see and hear, and to tell someone if something doesn’t seem right. Timely bystander reporting can make all of the difference. Studies conducted by the U.S. Secret Service found that those who make targets of schools left behind behavioral evidence such as a history of depression, anger, isolation, and changes in appearance. Many perpetrators told other people about their intentions. Whether a disturbing message is heard at school, read on social media, or relayed by a friend outside of school, it is crucial to alert school officials as quickly as possible. Time equals safety. So tell a teacher, tell the SRO, tell your principal. Tell someone!

One way to notify law enforcement and school officials is by downloading and using the FortifyFL App. This app allows anyone to relay information about a situation of concern. If desired, images and text can be submitted anonymously by skipping the name and contact information. In other districts, we’ve seen instances where ignored communications provided clues that could have prevented loss of life, and fear of reporting should not keep vital information from reaching the proper authorities. School safety is our collective responsibility, and we cannot do it without our community. Please consider adding this app today!

As Superintendent of Okaloosa’s schools, maintaining a safe and supportive environment for our students, school staff, and visitors remains my top priority. Ultimately, student learning is at the core of who we are and what we do, but that mission will fail unless we first meet the safety and security needs of all those under our care. Our schools have been historically safe places, but we know maintaining that tradition will require ongoing efforts and our pledge for continuous improvement.

Thank you!

The OCSD Family would like to take this opportunity to thank our community, students, and staff for the roles they play in school security. Thank you to our teachers who keep their doors locked throughout the school day and adhere to school-safety protocols. Thank you to our bus drivers who monitor student talk and behaviors en route to school and home. Thank you to our counselors who make informed decisions regarding students' emotional and educational needs. And last but not least, thank you to students and parents who come forward to report potentially threatening situations. Thank you! Thank you to all the many people, departments, and community partners working together to create and maintain the safest school environments possible. Your dedication and support are essential. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you!

Marcus D. Chambers
Superintendent of Schools