Old St. Johns County school buildings need some safety upgrades

Tuesday workshop examines school safety options, including building changes

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – Updates to older buildings and improvements to school grounds, like protective fencing, are just a few of the safety improvements St. Johns County has in the works for its public schools. 

The St. Johns County School Board's workshop Tuesday morning became a school safety review session as the district’s superintendent and five board members work to ensure a mass shooting like the Parkland massacre that killed 17 adults and children can't happen in their county.

Safety experts within the district spoke about current safety measures in place at schools and what is being added and considered following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting on Feb. 14.

An emergency operations plan, a district crisis management team, safety teams, training and drills, upkeep of facilities and the district’s partnership with the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office were just a few of the safety topics discussed.

The district building is more than 100 years old, and many of the school buildings in the historic area are also older. The board wants to make sure those older schools are all up to date with new technology and safety features. 

One issue is entry points. Some of those older buildings have more than one place to enter, which can cause difficulties for safety, so the district is working to convert all the buildings to single-point entries.

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The district is also making fencing improvements to some buildings to better secure school property and is looking for ways to improve safety with portables classrooms.

Active shooter response training will be conducted March 29 at Creekside High School for the Sheriff’s Office, as well as any district staff who want to watch or even participate.

Officials said that more than 20 years ago, school leaders didn't have to have sensitive conversations about safety from mass shootings. Because of that, officials are paying extra attention to those older facilities.

Superintendent Tim Forson said each high school has at least 100 cameras on campus, and school officials decide where, when and by whom those cameras are monitored. 

Paul Abbatinozzi, senior director for school services, said the culture needs to continue to shift.

"We need to continue to embed those leadership conversations at our schools with principals and the students in creating a climate and culture where people report things," Abbatinozzi said. "Our faculty report things to our administrators. Our students report things to our teachers. The 'See something, say something' style climate."

Other safety measures he said the district is adding or improving upon include working relationships with local law enforcement agencies and making sure any buzzer system at a school is being properly utilized.

The idea of arming teachers in schools never came up in Tuesday's meeting.

Student suggestions

Forson's Student Advisory Council met Monday with officers and deputies from St. Augustine, St. Augustine Beach and St. Johns County and worked to answer one question: What would remove the fear of not feeling safe in your school environment?

The students offered a range of ideas for safety changes and mental health improvements, including making guidance counselors more accessible and adding counselors whose focus isn't just on college guidance, but on behavior and mental health.

They also suggested assigning student mentors or coaches for students who need help and guidance with mental health support.

They want to see their lockdown drills updated to include active shooter situations and for there to be more drills, and they suggested that part of adding resource officers to campuses should include the school's parking attendant patrolling and securing the campus during the school day.

They also support creating single-point entries for all schools and want ways to barricade a door, if necessary.

Parent suggestions

Dozens of parents who attended the School Board workshop shared ideas for school assemblies on safety and creating a text alert system for school threats.

WATCH: Parents share school safety ideas

They suggested having a color coding system that would distinguish the threat alerts between rumors and ones of more concern.

They said assemblies broken up by grade could be helpful, too, because instead of students talking among themselves, they could be having meaningful conversations about safety with school leaders.

Parents also said safety drills need to be improved and conducted more often, no matter the age of the students.

About the Authors:

Lifetime Floridian anchors weekends and reports weekdays on issues in Nassau and Baker counties and beyond.