Local districts review policies as students return to school

School leaders focus on procedures to ensure students' safety

CLAY COUNTY, Fla. – Many principals, students and teachers headed back to school Monday for the first time since the school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

The tragedy has many school districts around the country, including those in northeast Florida, reexamining their safety procedures and working to reassure those who work and learn at those schools every day.

Area districts say there's no immediate action to take right now, but at the moment, the focus is on reviewing the procedures they have in place and making sure they are doing everything they can to protect students.

Most area districts believed their measures are strong, but they want to take every step they can to make them even stronger.

"My children are at school this morning," Clay County Superintendent Charlie Van Zant said. "I hope the other 35,500 Clay County students are at school. That's where they should be. They're safe there today."

That was the message Van Zant wanted to get across to students, parents and teachers in his district: Schools are safe.

It began early Monday morning with a conference call with all 41 school principals.

"I just told them to do whatever they need to do to control their campus and make it feel safe to them, and if we need to go back and tweak any School Board policy or district procedure, we can do that at a later date," Van Zant said.

He said some teachers had concerns about badges and gates, but otherwise, there were no major changes -- a far cry from 2001, when districts conducted drills two years after the Columbine High School shooting.

Van Zant said each school has rehearsed a drill at least once this year, and he wants parents to know the schools' safety measures are strong.

"All our parents and guardians of students will receive a phone call from me later today outlining the steps that have been taken and reassuring them that everything's that can humanly possibly be done to ensure their students' safety is being done," Van Zant said.

Duval County students are out of school for winter break, but Superintendent Nikolai Vitti penned a letter on the district's website, saying the district is working to update its emergency response plan, which it will share with staff when school resumes in January.

Nearly every school district is taking a closer look at its policies.

"Because we have strong leadership in our schools and good policies and procedures is not an excuse not to review every one of them, and I'm in the process of doing that today," Van Zant said.

Clay County says it has not only been meeting internally, but also with the Clay County Sheriff's Office. The superintendent says the sheriff has promised to make everything it has at its disposal.

As far as adding more school resource officers, the superintendent says that is just one of many options the district will discuss going forward.

RELATED: School security discussed in St. Johns County

The St. Johns County School District will have more school resource officers at schools, as the district is trying to calm parents' and students' fears.

"I know everyone is worried after seeing that on television. It scares us," parent Dawn George said.

"During this week, the Sheriff's Office has actually brought more folks on for support, especially during the morning when you have big movements of students at arrival time and at dismissal at the end of the day," said Tim Forson, St. Johns County deputy superintendent of operations.

Deputies will be at all St. Johns County schools, not just middle and high schools.

"Unfortunately, it's the world we live in," Forson said. "It's nothing's foolproof, but you certainly want to do everything you can to provide safety and security for our schools."

For George, it's making a difference.

"But every time I drive up and see the police car out there, I get scared like, 'What's going on inside?'" she said. "But it's a little comforting to see them there."

That stepped up deputy presence started Friday, along with a fresh look at safety procedures. The superintendent met with all district principals, and Monday, those principals reviewed their schools' individual safety plan to see what is working and what needs to be improved.

Overall, the district says its safety measures are strong, but it never wants to become complacent.

"Over time as things go well, and they are going very well, you get a little relaxed about it, so it was a reminder to all of us to make sure we do all the things we need to do," Forson said.

Even though there are no major changes to the the safety policy right now, the district says thats not to say there won't be any. Officials say it takes time to evaluate the plans, and each school is different, so they may have different needs.

The same is true in Nassau County. Officials there say they are using these events to determine what, if anything, needs to be changed.