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In the aftermath of Friday’s shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., Flagler County is turning its attention to security in its own schools.
The conversation started just hours after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School made national headlines.
To Colleen Conklin, a member of the Flagler County School Board, the most effective safety plan is a multi-layered one. She spent Monday morning with Janet Valentine, the district’s superintendent, visiting schools to be sure that staff and faculty were reassured of the strength of the district’s safety plans.
They also used the time to examine the physical structure of the schools to assess their level of security.
“Student safety is a concern of ours every single day, but in light of what’s taken place last week, even more so,” Conklin said. “The most alarming part of it all is (Sandy Hook Elementary) had every safety precaution in place.”
That system included a buzzer system: The school’s doors were locked each morning when classes began. Nobody could enter the school without being identified through video surveillance.
But Adam Lanza, the gunman who killed 20 students and six staff members, shot his way into the school. While it’s important to hold school security to its highest standards, Conklin said, even the strongest of plans can be breached.
To Conklin, and to much of the rest of the country, the issue at hand is greater than school security. Discussion has centered largely on gun control and mental health care. The latter, Conklin said, can be addressed in part within schools themselves.
“Everybody talks about running schools like a business and wanting to know what the rate of return is,” she said. “But if someone had made an investment on (Lanza’s) mental health at an earlier age, maybe we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
“If you look at the background of the last half a dozen killers in these mass murders,” she added, “most of them have been young, white, affluent males who, for the most part, have had some signs of mental health illness or have actually been diagnosed.”
Flagler County’s schools have onsite psychologists available for students, and the district partners with Halifax Health’s Behavioral Services to provide psychiatrists to those who need it.
Conklin said she’d like to see greater services offered to students since pyschologists are rotated quickly out of schools and cannot forge relationships with students during their weekly one-hour sessions.
Along with that, Conklin said, society must remove the stigma that comes with mental health treatment.
Gov. Rick Scott asked schools in the state to assess their safety plans in a statement Monday, though the process had already begun in Flagler.
Friday’s shooting came two days after Flagler County high schools were locked down Wednesday after William Hofer, 20, posted threats against Matanzas High School Students on his Facebook page. Hofer has since been arrested and charged with written threats to kill or do bodily harm.
The week’s incidents immediately opened a conversation between school administrators and the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office about how to continue to keep Flagler Schools safe, said Jacob Oliva, assistant superintendent of the Flagler County School District.
The school district works closely with the Sheriff’s Office, and Oliva said the presence of school resource officers in schools is crucial to school safety.
“The officers know our routine; they know the layout of our buildings, and they know our teachers and students,” Oliva said. “It’s an extra level of security for us.”
The relationship works not only with school administrators, but with students as well, Oliva said. “The students are our eyes and ears on campus. They know what’s going on, and when they see something happen that they know is not right, they feel comfortable talking to the adults in the building, including the school resource officers.”
Valentine said in a statement that in the weeks to come, staff in schools will provide emotional support for students, and urged parents to do the same.
“It is important to recognize that every student will respond to news of this tragedy in different ways,” she said.
A candlelight vigil for Sandy Hook Elementary School is being held on the Flagler Beach Pier at 7 p.m. Dec. 19, hosted by the Flagler Beach Christian Surfers. Attendees are encouraged to bring their own candles.
Conklin said the tragedy raises a lot of questions that must be addressed.
“There are conversations that need to be had, and it can’t just be on the schools,” she said. “This has to be everybody. It has to be the whole community.”