At 11 a.m. Thursday, Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly and School Superintendent Jim Tager will hold a joint press conference at Buddy Taylor Elementary School to talk about student safety and security in the district’s schools.
The joint appearance underscores the priority the district and the sheriff are placing on school safety and to brief the public on what’s likely to be ahead in terms of visible and some not-so-visible security improvements, pending more clarity on what the Legislature will pay for and what local governments, including the County Commission and the School Board, are willing to pay for. The joint appearance will also follow a closed-door meeting the school board will hold on security at 1 p.m. Tuesday at the Government Services Building (a meeting the board is not required to publicly notice or advertise, as it must its open meetings.)
Tager and Staly will not discuss the details of school safety procedures: those have been discussed but will remain undisclosed. But they will discuss several points on Thursday. Those will include the “hardening” of school campuses with more security infrastructure; preventive measures that will be undertaken and that will involve the introduction of new awareness and training or drilling for students and personnel, including a “see something-say something” curriculum, and new safety procedures; and, of particular interest to the community, the subject of additional school resource deputies for campuses and a discussion about arming teachers or other personnel on campus.
Tager and Staly are united on those issues, and they reflect what a majority of school board members believe as well.
The issues come down to this: Yes to more deputies, no to arming teachers or other school personnel.
Staly and Tager have discussed extending the school deputy program to every school, including the county’s charter and public schools. “The superintendent and I are on the same page,” Staly said. “I think we’re going to recommend that we’d like to see a school resource deputy in every school in Flagler County, including the private schools, we can’t leave them out.” Staly included the district’s two charter schools in the equation as well—Palm Harbor Academy and Imagine School at Town Center. (A student threatened to shoot a teacher and a student at Imagine last week, triggering an investigation: the student said he was joking.)
That would mean doubling the current corps of six school deputies and a supervisor to 15, at a cost of $1.9 million. Staly considers it “feasible” if the cost is split 50-50 between the sheriff and the district, and if the Legislature comes through with recurring money for deputies. The expanded program would then allow for expanding drug education at the elementary level, gang-resistance education in middle schools, and contending with the much larger populations of the two high schools, Staly said, which he compared to small cities with city problems such as domestic violence issues that can spill over to campus.
“As sheriff I’m not worried so much that a terrorist will arrive in Flagler County and do something,” Staly said, “I’m more concerned about a lone wolf and what that trigger point will be. That’s what keeps me up at night and why we take all those threats to schools so seriously,” however expensive the cost of investigating every threat. Staly cited the number of Baker Acts (the involuntary, temporary detention at psychiatric facilities of individuals threatening harm to themselves or others) as an indication of the mental health issues in the community, and the nature of that potential lone wolf.
Just before 6:30 this evening, the Florida Senate passed a sweeping school-security measure that included a provision allowing for the arming of teachers.
But one thing is clear among Flagler County school officials: there is very little appetite, if any, to arm teachers or school personnel.
School board members, the superintendent, the principal of the county’s largest school, faculty and students all agree, as does the sheriff: teachers are there to teach. It would be unfair and likely ineffective or unsafe to arm them and burden them with the protection of students and others. That job belongs to school resource officers.
“My personal opinion is the people on campus that should have a weapon would be an SRD or a police officer who’s been through the academy,” Tager said in an interview late last week. “I wouldn’t support anything beyond that, in my personal opinion. I believe it’s a place of learning, and I could see a scenario where it could fall apart going that route.” He cited potential cases of mistaken identity caused by the chaos of an incident, for example, that could lead to the worst endings. “We’re educational institutions and our main focus is learning,” he said. “Teachers are educators. That’s why they went in the profession. If you need to have a police presence on your campus it should be a police officer and or a deputy, period.”
That tracks closely with the sheriff’s view. Staly is not opposed to school personnel being armed under certain circumstances. “However I think it should be the option of the teacher and the administration with concurrence from the superintendent and the district’s school board,” Staly said. “With that said I truly think that their job is to educate our kids and leave the security and the safety to the trained professionals, in my case, the Sheriff’s Office. But to just say to a teacher, ‘OK you can carry a gun,’ is I think the simplistic way out. You have to have significant training, psychologicals, a lot of the stuff we put our deputies through, and let’s face it, teachers want to be educators, they don’t want to be defenders. And my daughter is a teacher. I hear both versions. Here I am a sheriff and I have a daughter who teaches elementary school in Seminole. I think she’d rather just teach and not be concerned about school security. She has enough issues to deal with.”
Tager, who takes a methodical approach to any decision, discussed the issue with Staly, heard from others in the community and from faculty and staff members ahead of the Tuesday closed-door session.
Florida law allows closed meetings of government boards as long as the discussion is strictly limited to “the security systems for any property owned by or leased to” the school board, including any information “relating directly to” buildings’ security systems. Board members may not discuss policy or make decisions. They’re not even having Staly join them, as they interpret the law to mean that only they, the superintendent and certain school district employees may be in the room. So even the discussion about guns on campus must be limited to how that pertains to such things as safety plans, evacuations, tactical issues should a school be breached by an active shooter, and so on. Put more concretely, the question of who specifically may be armed may not be discussed openly, but the policy direction as to whether to have additional armed personnel, in general, must be discussed openly.
The closed-door session will be followed by an open, 3 p.m. workshop. Security is not on that agenda. But that doesn’t keep any single board member from bringing up the topic for discussion at the end of the meeting. At least three board members—Chairman Trevor Tucker, Andy Dance and Colleen Conklin—see the matter of guns almost in exact alignment with Tager.
Renewed discussions about arming teachers were fueled by the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, which left 14 students and three adults dead, and an enthusiastic call two weeks ago by President Trump to give teachers “a little bit of a bonus” to carry guns. The Florida Legislature, now in its session’s waning days, is close to adopting a school-security bill that would give local school boards authority to decide whether to arm certain civilians. Initial proposals had focused on faculty, though by Saturday one proposal extended the possibility to support personnel. House Speaker Richard Corcoran supports the proposal for arming school personnel. Gov. Rick Scott does not.
Tucker isn’t entirely opposed to having teachers armed, but might as well be: he says he’d agree to it only if they were trained cops who’ve gone through the same rigorous training as cops have, and to essentially be “deputized.” But even then, he says, “teachers are there to teach, that’s my take on it. Why should we put it on their back, they already have to do so much that you have to put it on them to defend the school. That doesn’t seem right.”
Flagler County doesn’t have to wait for the Legislature to have permission to arm additional people on campus. But if it did so under current law, Tucker said, it would have to create its own school district police force, as Duval and Palm Beach do. “Is it cost effective? No,” Tucker said. Just as adding metal detectors in schools would not be cost-effective, he said, even though he sees it as a good idea. But metal detectors means delays to get in the school, it means potentially having to lengthen the school day, and would mean having to have additional security personnel at the metal detectors.
Dusty Sims is the principal at Flagler Palm Coast High School. He might as well be its mayor: between the school’s more-than-2,500 students, its 137 teachers and an equal number of support personnel, the school’s population is about that of Bunnell. “We work really hard every day to create a positive culture in our school and I believe that when you put weapons on teachers, that sends a culture that’s not going to be pleasant. We talk about what are the expectations of kids when they walk in a classroom for learning. When they walk in and see a teacher with a weapon on their hip or in their pocket I don’t believe that creates an expectation of learning, it probably creates an expectation of fear, so I would definitely not support that issue. But I do support looking at more SROs, the one SRO per 1,000 students I believe is important. I don’t think that’s necessarily a life-saving device, but maybe a repellant as much as anything. Unless the SRO is right there where they breached the point of entry, I don’t know how much impact they have. But just the knowledge of having those folks on campus is important, and also for the relationships that we’ve seen our SROs build with our kids within our schools has been extremely impactful.”
Sims said there’s also a limit to the hardening of schools, which he considers students’ “home away from home,” he said. “When we start to put up bars, when we start to put in metal detectors, when we start to put police guards everywhere, that’s not home. That’s not a family atmosphere. That’s not an atmosphere that we welcome kids to. If we go to that, we’re going to see students come to school in militant places that are unbecoming to education.”
Andy Dance, the school board member, changed the theme of his latest town hall meeting in western Flagler last week in view of the new concerns about security. “I told them at the early stages of my research that I really didn’t want teachers to have that responsibility, be armed and have that additional responsibility of being trained,” Dance said. “It’s an undue burden to put on teachers. That, and I don’t know how many of them would step up to do that kind of training.”
To Board member Colleen Conklin, the notion of arming teachers is an unstudied, “knee-jerk reaction.”
“Nobody has looked into the data,” Conklin said. “And when you have folks often say those who want to take guns away are coming at it with an emotional argument: well, my goodness, putting guns in the hands of a teacher seems to me a very emotional reaction without having any homework being done.”
Many school districts in the nation have armed teachers. But how many, specifically where, with what consequences has not been studied, leaving all the reports anecdotal. And the Centers for Disease Control are forbidden by law (since the 1996 so-called Dickey Amendment) from studying the effects of gun violence. That includes analytical data from campuses where weapons are carried by faculty or staff.
Then there are the students: the reason for the debate. Tyler Perry, the student who last week led a march across the Flagler Beach bridge to call for more deputies in schools and more interpersonal connections on campus as means of warding off violence, spoke of arming teachers during an interview.
“It’s easy for these legislators, probably a lot of them have kids in private school, or they don’t have kids in school at all,” Perry, a junior at Flagler Palm Coast High School and president of its Student Government Association, said. “It’s easy for them to think on paper, oh, we get as many good guys with guns, quote-unquote, that’s going to help us. But if you listen to the students, you know that that’s not how we solve the problem.” He described the students as “terrified” of the notion of an armed teacher or “turning our teachers into police officers and by telling our teachers that it’s now their duty to go out and—what, are they going to hunt down a school shooter? There’s so many students at our school that can overpower a teacher. We’re telling the students you don’t even have to bring a gun to school anymore. The gun is already there. You just have to secure it for yourself. So I think the kids are worried about that, and the Legislature ought to listen to the kids.”
Are Flagler County schools safe? The answer is generally a rather confident yes.
“I wouldn’t send my children to school if I didn’t think my children were safe,” Tucker, the school board chairman, said. But he does see vulnerabilities, which he will discuss behind closed doors Tuesday. “I’m not willing to point out to the general public what I see as insecurities at this point in time,” he said. “The public has to have faith that the school board wants safety for our children first.”