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School districts in Southwest Florida are withholding basic safety records that some other school districts in the Sunshine State have no issue releasing.
Even before the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, schools in Florida were required to complete a rigorous safety assessment. However, by keeping those records shielded from the public, it's unclear what school districts are doing to keep students safe and comply with state law.
School districts must complete the Florida Safe Schools Assessment Tool (FSSAT) annually. It's a 72-page document that asks districts if they're meeting best practices in areas ranging from school safety plans, emergency drills, and identifying potential violent behavior in students. Schools can respond with a yes, no or in progress and they can provide additional details in each section.
Chuck Hibbert is a consultant with National School Safety and Security Services. He traveled to a half-dozen schools since the Parkland shooting to help update and practice school safety protocols.
“As I look at this from a national perspective I have not seen anything better than this,” Hibbert said about FSSAT.
But Hibbert said with such a comprehensive document there are often gaps in what’s reported and what's done.
“I see too much rubber stamping,” Hibbert said. “What I’d be most interested in seeing is have they done those trainings and when and with whom?”
When requesting FSSATs from school districts in Southwest Florida - Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry, and DeSoto - none of them provided the documents citing the protection of certain security records. The first page of the document also states it "is classified as For Official Use Only, and may be protected from public disclosure."
Lee County School District’s new Director of Safety and Security, Rick Parfitt, explained why the document wouldn’t be released. Parfitt joined LCSD after years leading the safety department at Florida Southwestern State College and is President of the Florida chapter of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals.
“The architectural things, security policies, and things that relate to that, I think some of that really should not be out in public like that,” Parfitt said.
But after reading through FSSAT, Hibbert said he couldn’t identify anything that would pose a security threat if released.
Some Florida school districts agree with Hibbert. We were able to get five different complete FSSAT forms through a simple Google search.
When the most recent version of FSSAT was created in 2012, state law mandated that “annually each district school board must receive the self-assessment results at a publicly noticed district school board meeting to provide the public an opportunity to hear the district school board members discuss and take action on the report findings.”
The school board in Collier and Lee counties put approval of the FSSAT on the consent agenda.
"If a board member wanted to discuss anything that was in the report they could have pulled it from the consent agenda," said Greg Turchetta, with Collier County Public Schools.
No board members in Lee or Collier counties moved to discuss the document publicly.
“To be perfectly honest I flipped through it,” said Cathleen Morgan, Lee County School Board Chair. “If I have questions about what’s being done I ask those questions.”
When asked if in the future she would bring up questions about deficiencies in the FSSAT at school board meetings Morgan said “I’m not going to speak up publicly about shortfalls in our security. I will certainly bring those up to the superintendent.”
Members of the public can also request they move an item from the consent agenda for discussion, but because the document is not included, there is little information to go on.
The Florida Department of Education records suggest the Hendry County school board hasn’t approved the FSSAT since 2015.
“This is excellent, but man is it comprehensive, and it places a huge task on schools to comply with,” Hibbert said. “I mean the training alone that’s outlined here is amazing. I’m not saying it’s not being done because I don’t know.”
Parfitt said to his knowledge, the Lee County School District is meeting the best practices outlined in the FSSAT.
“I’m actually comfortable with what they’ve done, where we’re at,” Parfitt said. “Right now we’re working on changing a few things, looking at the target hardening, the single point of entry of schools.”
With his expertise in threat assessments, Parfitt said one of his other top priorities is developing a “threat assessment” and “threat assessment team” for every school. The threat assessment is a policy and protocol for how to identify and handle potentially dangerous situations or threats from current students or other people in the school community.
The threat assessment is part of the new requirement for school districts passed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act.
“The threat assessment is a new concept to the state, so it’s part of the new language,” Parfitt said.
Parfitt said Lee County does not currently have a threat assessment policy or threat assessment team in every school.
“Not as provided in the statute, not in that formalized fashion,” Parfitt said.
While the phrase “threat assessment” is not used in the FSSAT the concept is brought up again and again. Specific questions on the topic include:
- The district facilitates and encourages requests for assistance with students who exhibit early warning signs, or pose a threat of future violent behavior.
- The district provides timely access to a team of specialists trained in evaluating behavioral and academic concerns and provides school staff training regarding such support.Schools in the district have a Student Assistance Program/Team that provides assistance for students experiencing learning and/or behavioral difficulties.
In the FSSAT completed by Broward County Public Schools, each of those questions was answered by reference to the district’s threat assessment policy.
So does Lee County lag behind in not having a threat assessment policy?
“There are procedures in place here [but] I don’t think it’s identified as a threat assessment team policy. That’s what we will have,” Parfitt said. “But there have been policies and things in place to deal with behaviors conduct issues things like that.”
Collier County Public Schools has provided a policy for crisis and intervention response but has declined to release records detailing specific trainings and emergency drill records.
A Lee County School District employee said that protocols were in place, but the policy was being revised to comply with the new state law. They did not provide a copy of the policy, and we're still waiting for other records regarding training and emergency drills.
“I don’t want to be dramatic when I say this, but we put children at risk by not being up to date doing the training that we are required,” Hibbert said.
You would think that as common place school shootings have become in recent years that they would stay on top of any and all safety measures in regards to their schools.