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School District provides campus safety update

February 6, 2019
By CHUCK BALLARO ( , North Fort Myers Neighbor

Are schools safer now than they were a year ago?

The consensus was yes as North Fort Myers High School administrators, representatives from the School District of Lee County and students met for a media event as we approach the one-year anniversary of the school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 17 dead.

The Lee District has taken an approach that not only delves into the security elements at the schools, but with the students as well through the creation of behaviorial health and threat assessment teams at each campus.

Debbie Diggs, principal at North, said safety and security has always been a focus in Lee County, but the shooting heightened everyone's awareness, especially since it happened so close to home and gave everyone the realization it can happen anywhere.

The establishment of the teams has created a human element that is able to root out potential problems students may have that could develop into bigger issues if not addressed, she said.

"Any time there is a threat that may be coming, the teams can work together to identify protocols that need to be put in place," Diggs said. "The mental health team is geared toward the students by identifying red flags and how we can support the kids."

Natasha Gorman, school psychologist for the school district and a member of both teams, said the district has implemented a system to help assess students to have a formal plan.

"We have weekly meetings, see if we have any threats, work with the kids if there are any. Before Parkland, it was much less formal, we would just meet and talk about it. Now, the team knows what steps to take, the process we have to follow. It's more formalized," Gorman said.

Carmen Rey-Gomez, school social worker, who just came to the school, said red flags include isolation, not attending school, and students talking about what someone is saying on social media. She added that students have been more forthcoming with issues since the shooting.

"When students are not engaging or maybe experiencing situations off campus that affects their performance, we want to be able to catch that and talk about them," Rae-Gomez said. "Students, since Parkland, have become more aware with who they interact with and more likely to report seeing something and make someone aware."

Lori Brooks, assistant director of school counseling and mental health services, said social media plays a big role in the mental state of the individual and early intervention is the key.

"Society is more involved with their technology, so we don't see someone and get eyeball to eyeball. Social media can isolate people from each other," Brooks said. "Kids don't get a break on social media. They can be bullied and don't get to check out uncles they pull themselves away. It impacts their mental wellness."

At North, Diggs said the school brought on a second student resource officer from the Lee County Sheriff's Office and an extra security person who checks out the parking lots. They created a single point of entry system, and was the first school to have implemented a new security camera system, which will be able to spot problems in nearly every area of the school. Nearly all county high schools have followed that approach.

"We have implemented a number of programs that target hardening of the schools," said Rick Parfitt, director of safety and security for the school district. "We were already ahead on the target hardening, but the threat assessment and mental health teams were new. That was where I focused my attention because we don't want kids to slip through the cracks."

The teams also have to draw the fine line between what might be a troubled or at-risk student and someone who is just a non-conformist and what kind of security is best. Metal-detectors and razor wire on the fencing is not the answer.

"We aren't looking at anything other than behavior. If we have people reporting these things, we can intervene," Parfitt said. "With metal detectors, students feel less safe because they believe they're in a more dangerous place."

At North Fort Myers High School, they are trying to be more engaging. The school will hold a "Kindness Week" designed to help students who may feel isolated come out of their shell and feel more welcomed.

"The event will feature a pep rally and a 'no student eats alone' day, with everything with the goal of supporting Parkland while focusing on the motto 'Once a Red Knight, always a Red Knight, that we're a family.' A lot of organizations say that. North does it," John Drake, assistant principal.

As for the students, Bridgette Marrero, a junior, lived a stone's throw from Stoneman Douglas High School when she was little. The tragedy there had a little deeper meaning to her.

"I was immune to it. It was happening so often it was like another shooting. Then I found out the location and it became less of a statistic and more personal," said Marrero, who lived there until she was 4. "I love North. All the teachers and staff are supportive. They're always trying to make sure everyone is OK."

And are schools safer than they were a year ago?

"I would love to say yes," Rey-Gomez said. "I still think we have things we need to consider. If I had said yes, we wouldn't have had a shooting since. It's a collective effort, not just certain environments. The kids are stepping up and understanding their role in safety."

"We're always trying to improve. You can never get lax on that. When we implement something, we always ask what's next," Diggs said. "There's no place to stop when it comes to kids' safety. Every principal would tell you we're here to educate our kids. My main job is to keep my staff and kids safe."



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