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Safety at school

Sheriff's Office adds deputies to Lee school halls

April 4, 2018
Jessica Salmond and Meghan McCoy - News Editor ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

When news broke of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Heather Lodovico's first thought wasn't "how could this happen."

It was "how could this happen again," she said.

Lodovico is now the PE and music teacher at Fort Myers Beach Elementary School, and a native of Connecticut. The New Town shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, somewhere 30 minutes away from her hometown.

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Fort Myers Beach Elementary teacher Heather Lodovico attended a March for Our Lives event in Nashville.

"It shook me that someone could murder babies," she said.

The Connecticut shooting forever altered her opinion about guns - and the Stoneman Douglas shooting spurred her into action.

"Seeing the children rise up, and people listen, as a teacher I said, I need to step up. I can support this," she said. "I know our beach is safe, but so was New Town."

Lodovico joined the thousands across the nation in March for Our Lives on March 24. She joined the march in Nashville, where she was also attending a conference.

Her colleague, Holly Nichols, also marched in Naples. Nichols is the art teacher at the beach school.

Nichols said she'd never been involved in something like it before, but she was moved to use her Constitutional right by the young people who organized the effort. The Naples sister march was organized by a high school sophomore.

"I'm inspired by the young people taking part and coming together to change what needs to be changed," she said.

Nichols is a teacher and also a mother, which has heightened her awareness of the issues surrounding gun violence. A week after the Parkland shooting, there was a scare at her son's school. She said the recent shooting caused her, and other parents, to panic with worry. Many of them picked their kids up early, she said.

"I don't want my kids to be afraid to go to school," she said. "I want to do what I can to support, as a voter and an adult, and make changes."

Bringing Parkland even more close to home, Nichols' family knew some of the families whose children attended Stoneman Douglas High, making the shooting feel as it happened right next door, she said.

Both teachers agreed it's a multifaceted issue with no easy fix, and that in addition to gun legislation they'd like to see increased services for mental health.

"Gun violence happens every day," Lodovico said. "We're now listening from the mouths of babes. It's woken everybody up."

Lodovico hopes the magnitude of the march will make an impact, and she said she's planning to support candidates for office who aren't on the NRA's "A" list. She'll be donating to candidates and causes that will prod change to gun legislation.

"Can we make it harder? It's too easy to buy one," she said. "Mental health needs to be funded too. It's sad people are still saying no."

Both said they wouldn't feel comfortable carrying a gun at school, should the state mandate it or set up an armed teacher program as has been suggested in national conversation about how to deal with gun violence and how to prevent future school shootings. As a PE teacher, Lodovico said she didn't know where she'd keep it, and she'd worry about it getting into the wrong hands.

But luckily for them, the Lee County School District and the Lee County Sheriff's Office seem to be taking another approach: more school security in the form of more officers at school.

Adding security in school

Last week, there were two men in green at the Fort Myers Beach Elementary School instead of one.

The Lee County Sheriff's Office has provided 40 deputies to the Lee County School District following legislation to enhance safety and security measures at the schools.

The decision was announced March 26.

Lee School Superintendent Dr. Greg Adkins said due to Senate Bill 7026, they had to deploy School Resource Officers across the district.

"I want to first of all express our appreciation to the Sheriff's Office. They have done a magnificent job stepping up to the plate that we have coverage to ensure our students are safe," he said.

Adkins said there are more than a thousand pages in the bill and they do not have the technical assistance that is rendered from the state.

"We are taking the steps necessary now. We look forward to working with you and also with other municipalities to make sure that we can keep our students safe as we open a new school," he said.

School Development Executive Director Jerry Demming said the School Resource Officer component of the Safe School Allocation has been in existence since the 1980s.

"The SRO is a certified law enforcement officer, a deputy permanently designed to provide coverage to a school, or set of schools, specifically trained to perform many duties," he said.

The duties of a SRO are to perform law enforcement functions within the school setting; identify and prevent through counseling and referral, delinquent behavior, including substance abuse; foster a better understanding of the law enforcement function; provide information about crime prevention; provide assistance and support for victims identified within the school setting; promote positive relations between students and law enforcement officers; work with school administration on lock down drills; walk perimeter of campus during the day and assist in Baker Act procedures and counseling of students when needed.

"We have had a long standing relationship with the Lee County Sheriff's Office. They have worked really hard with us for the last few weeks, and many years. They are the people we want to use to keep our schools safe," Demming said.

Adkins said after the piece of legislation passed the school district and Sheriff's Office quickly responded with the first decision of how to move forward.

"We have to keep the kids safe and we feel that we can depend on the Sheriff's Office," he said.

Two weeks ago, he said the sheriff's team got together and put together this plan.

"This was very fast in terms of response from our Sheriff's Office. That gets us covered for the remainder of the year," Adkins said.

With that said, he said putting 40 deputies in the schools is costing the office resources from other parts of their department.

School Board Member Steve Teuber said he appreciates the sheriff's response to cover what the state legislature forced down to the schools with the $400 million one-time allocation for this entire security bill, which equates to about $12,000 for each school.

"I will not support any funding increase for added personnel," Teuber said.

Although there has been no funding, he said there is a requirement of an SRO in each school.

"Data has not been presented that it is going to make a difference, or make our kids any safer," he said. "We are just going to the SROs because that is what the state told us to do. To double our SROs based on this one incident is over reaction."

Board Member Jane Kuckel agreed that there has not been any documentation produced that states SROs make a bigger impact in the schools than something else.

Board Member Mary Fischer said this is a community and society problem.

"When you are taking 40 deputy sheriffs out of their typical assignments and putting them into our elementary schools, I don't think they have had the time to do the training," she said. "I worry about what is not being covered elsewhere. I think that it was a response to the voices of the community that they want kids safe and something done now. We need to include other considerations as we move forward as a team to plan."

Lee County Sheriff's Captain Mike Miller said the 40 personnel added are trained deputies and not trained SROs.

"But they are more than capable of safeguarding the campuses," he said. "The deputies are highly trained deputy sheriffs. We are visiting the schools and answering questions. We are leaning on principals and schools to help."

The 40 deputies added to the schools Adkins said was a response to the law, a piece of legislation that they were required to adhere to as of March 9.

"We understand safety, but you can't squeeze a balloon without it popping out somewhere else," Teuber said. "You are forcing us to do it without any money. How do you make that happen? Something is going to suffer. We have Sanibel, Fort Myers, Estero, Bonita, Cape Coral - we send them a bill. Just because our Sheriff's Department is funded by County Commissioners, we cannot put the whole burden on them to fund this."

Former State House Representative, now consultant Carole Green, who provided a legislative update during the Tuesday Lee County School Board briefing meeting this week, said the legislative session began in January and everything was starting to move along - until Feb. 14 when the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting shook the state.

"We became somewhat dysfunctional as a state family due to what happened to the children at the school," she said.

Green said more than 1,000 students came forward, and she spent time amongst them in the state capital while they were there. She said many were laying down pretending to be dead while others wore makeup that looked like they were bleeding. The students' involvement impacted Green and others, resulting in both houses crafting a bill.

"It was crafted so quickly that we do know that there will probably be more things to look at as we move forward," she said. "The fact that we extended to March 9 and today is the 27th, everything is just starting to settle a little."

Adkins sent out a letter March 26 indicating the changes that took place at the schools in terms of safety measures. Some of the safety and security measures include active shooter training, threat assessments at the schools, a single point of entry at all schools and advanced security technology measures.

Fischer said all schools will have active shooter training by the end of March, with the last one taking place on Thursday. Eighty-five percent of the schools had the training completed before the Parkland shooting.

The active shooter and hostage drills will be held once a month.

School safety personnel, law enforcement and maintenance will visit each school to conduct threat assessments.

As far as technology upgrades at the schools, Fischer said they're currently in the process of assessing them and instituting a surveillance refresh program.

"We are planning to implement adaptive technology, such as artificial intelligence, which will allow our cameras to think like humans and help the personnel onsite to make decisions of whether there's a threat or not, prior to it occurring," she said.



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