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Commission Scrutinizes Staffing At Florida's Office Of Safe Schools

Debbie Hixon, who lost her husband Chris Hixon - athletic director at Stoneman Douglas - speaks as she sits with Parkland parents Tony Montalto, left, and Gena and Tom Hoyer during a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission meeting, April 10, 2019, in Sunrise, FL.
Wilfredo Lee
Debbie Hixon, who lost her husband Chris Hixon - athletic director at Stoneman Douglas - speaks as she sits with Parkland parents Tony Montalto, left, and Gena and Tom Hoyer during a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission meeting, April 10, 2019, in Sunrise, FL.

The chairman of a commission created to investigate Florida’s deadliest school shooting raised concerns this week that a key state office tasked with helping districts maintain safety on campuses may be understaffed.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission is questioning whether the state’s Office of Safe Schools is equipped to handle evolving responsibilities as its workload increases along with a growing public school system.

The commission, slated to sunset in July 2023, was established in the aftermath of the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. The shooting left 17 students and staff members dead and 17 individuals injured.

The Office of Safe Schools and the commission were created as part of a wide-ranging bill passed by the Florida Legislature in 2018 and signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Scott in response to the mass shooting in Broward County.

The office, housed within the state Department of Education, focuses on ensuring that local schools comply with safety measures required by law, such as having a school safety officer on each campus. The office also provides training and technical assistance to districts for such things as implementing emergency drills to prepare students and staff to respond to active-shooter situations.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who serves as chairman of the commission, asked Tuesday whether the office will be able to shoulder the burden of ensuring school safety after the commission disbands in 2023.

“Is the Office of Safe Schools, which is charged with being the trainer, providing technical assistance, being the subject-matter expert, developing a relationship with the schools and getting with the districts and helping them, the right entity also to inspect them, oversee them and enforce where it’s necessary? And I guess I say all that to say, I have concerns about that,” Gualtieri said.

Office of Safe Schools executive director Tim Hay told the commission, which met Monday and Tuesday in Sunrise, that his office currently has 18 employees, up from just three staffers when it was created in 2018.

“I have incredible colleagues and dedicated school safety professionals that I get to work with, and I can’t thank them enough for all they do and continue to do in support of this mission,” Hay told the panel Monday.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen, who is a member of the commission, asked Hay if his office is staffed adequately.

“Realizing you’ve got a pretty heavy workload, and none of us have the staff we’d like to have,” Searingen said, “but do you feel like 18 (staff members) is a good place to be, or in a perfect world what staffing level would you like to see for your office?”

“We’re very grateful for the 10 positions that the ... Florida Department of Education found internally to provide some additional support to the office. And we’re going to be as strategic as we can with those positions and our processes to make the most of what we have,” said Hay, who will complete one year on the job on Friday.

But Gualtieri asserted that Hay wasn’t giving a full picture of staffing challenges facing his office.

“That was the answer that he had to give you,” Gualtieri said. “So I want to give you the answer. And the real answer is, hell no. Absolutely not.”

Gualtieri said that the staffing issue needs to be examined.

“There’s got to be some entity that is permanently and robustly responsible for investigation, accountability, follow-up. If it’s going to be that office, that office is not staffed for that,” Gualtieri said. “From what I see, they’re maxed out. And they’re working very, very hard and multitasking and trying to get a lot of things done.”

A third of the office consists of regional compliance and support personnel who are assigned to visit schools throughout the state on planned and impromptu visits, Hay told the commission.

He also noted that, as Florida’s population increases, the number of students in the state's public schools is approaching 3 million.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Hay said.

Starting this school year, the office is tasked with overseeing schools’ compliance with Alyssa’s Law, a bill passed by the Florida Legislature during the 2020 session and signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The law, named after one of the victims of the 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, requires all public schools, including charter schools, to implement a “mobile panic alert system capable of connecting diverse emergency services technologies to ensure real-time coordination between multiple first responder agencies” during an emergency.

In an effort to find the “right model” for carrying out all of the duties assigned to the Office of Safe Schools, Gualtieri asked other commissioners to come up with recommendations to present to state lawmakers during the next two legislative sessions. The 2022 legislative session begins in January.

Gualtieri praised the office for making overall improvements to school safety despite its staffing challenges and wide-ranging responsibilities.

“They have significantly contributed to Florida schools being safer today than they were in 2018,” Gualtieri said. “Their commitment, and I can tell you because I deal with them all the time, is a personal one.”