TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Arming school employees, expanding background checks and revamping the Baker Act law to keep guns from people experiencing mental-health issues were among measures law-enforcement leaders from across the state discussed Tuesday as they look for ways to prevent future school massacres.
The workshop, closed to the public but shown on the state’s Florida Channel, was one of three similar meetings quickly organized by Gov. Rick Scott’s office in response to the mass shooting last week at Broward County’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 people dead.
Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson, the president of the Florida Sheriffs Association, said it’s not the job of law-enforcement leaders to tell educators how to teach. But it is the responsibility of law enforcement to advocate security to state lawmakers and local government officials.
“This is our business, and we know it,” Adkinson said. “If you don’t stand up, if we don’t tell these folks what are good security-based decisions, then shame on us. At the end of the day, we have to make security-based decisions, made on professional judgment … and if they choose not to accept it, then that is on them.”
Sheriffs and police chiefs, whose ideas will be packaged and presented to Scott for potential action, bluntly talked of the need to increase funding to expand the number of school-resource officers, along with revamping how emergency drills are conducted.
Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco noted that fire alarm drills have been conducted in his county the same way since 1958, while campuses are now designed in vast expanses using multiple buildings.
At the same time, as school districts struggle with funding, not every school is equipped with an armed resource office. Nocco noted that Pasco County has 92 public and charter schools and 37 resource officers.
“They’re dealing with little cities, they’re the police chief, the sheriff,” Nocco said. “There are drugs that go on, threats of violence, batteries, suicides. There is a thin line between a suicide threat and a homicidal suspect.”
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd talked of expanding his “Sentinel Program,” which enables authorized and trained employees at the private Southeastern University in Lakeland to carry concealed firearms to respond to assailants on campus as a last step.
“The only thing worse than having a shootout on a campus is not being able to stop a shooter on campus,” Judd said.
Coconut Creek Police Chief Albert “Butch” Arenal said not every district may be open to the idea of arming educational staff, but people are clamoring for improved school safety immediately.
“I know that the public, I feel personally, is not going to tolerate anything less than security for their school now,” Arenal said. “I’m not talking long-term solutions, or legislative solutions, but tomorrow. We are faced in South Florida with parents, families, that feel that they’re not properly protected.”
The workshops -- the others were focused on education and mental health -- were held at locations away from the Capitol, where students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were speaking out for gun-control legislation.
Adkinson talked of “gaping loopholes” in the Baker Act, noting that law enforcement can’t take guns away from people who makes threats of violence and after being released from mental health facilities are able to purchase firearms.
Adkinson suggested a “cool-down” period on people who are involuntarily committed under the Baker Act. He called it “next to madness” that if weapons have been seized from people, they must be returned 24 hours after the people are released from mental health facilities.
Israel Reyes, a former Miami-Dade County circuit judge, said he is “surprised” the state hasn’t had more incidents with the current law.
Law enforcement officials also expressed confidence that state laws can be crafted so that mental-health records can be added to a database used for background checks without violating a federal law that protects people’s medical records and other personal health information.
Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old charged in last week’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, had mental-health issues.
Scott has called for FBI Director Christopher Wray to resign after the federal agency acknowledged protocols were not followed when it received a tip in January about Cruz potentially posing a threat.
Meanwhile, state social workers and mental-health investigators from the Department of Children and Families deemed Cruz, who admitted cutting himself and planning to purchase a gun in Snapchat posts, a “low” threat to harm himself or others in late 2016.
In early 2017, Cruz, then 18, legally purchased an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, which was used in the Parkland school shooting.
Also, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office has recorded dozens of calls about Cruz, who faced numerous school disciplinary actions and emergency counseling before he left the high school without graduating.
Cruz, who as young as age 4 was identified as developmentally delayed, was diagnosed with depression and was taking medication for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to the Department of Children and Families.