SJCSD hosts school safety forum following Parkland shooting

Mental health, facility improvements, armed security at forefront of discussion


Mental health awareness, educational facility improvements and the presence of armed professionals on school campuses were the three main topics discussed at a school safety meeting hosted by St. Johns County School District staff Monday, March 19 at Nease High School.

Initiated by School Board District 4 Member Kelly Barrera, the meeting functioned as a roundtable discussion through which members of the local community could share their ideas on ways the district could enhance school safety in the wake of the Parkland school shooting last month, and with consideration towards the recently-signed Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act. Attended by parents, students, school district staff and local law enforcement members, the discussion offered a unique array of perspectives on an issue of increasing concern for many Americans nationwide.

“This is an important topic, and I know having each one of you here is going to make the discussions that we have today richer and help to influence some of the decisions that our district will make going forward,” Barrera said.

Signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott on March 9, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act addresses the issue of gun violence on multiple fronts, implementing the new requirement of an armed professional on every school campus (to be assigned by the district and local law enforcement), as well as new considerations regarding mental health.

“Mental health, in my opinion, is the most important to the long-term decline in risk and decline in violence in our society,” said SJCSD Superintendent Tim Forson, who opened the discussion at the March 19 meeting. “If we don’t do something to help our youth in the area of stress, and coping skills and mental health, then what we are doing is just putting up barriers to repeated behavior that will probably continue.”

Forson added that the issue of mental health is a complex one, given the stigma often associated with the issue, as well as the various challenges of ensuring support is accessible to those who need it. Suggestions of possible ways to improve upon mental health services and awareness in the school system included comprehensive training for teachers and staff regarding how to identify and help students with potential mental health issues, incentivizing positive behavior, speeding up the referral process and providing students with a confidential way to report concerns.

Improvements to school facilities and operations were also a major topic of discussion, with common suggestions including updates to alarm systems; strict identification procedures for students, staff and visitors; a security-based approach to structural design; and more in-depth drills and protocols regarding active shooter situations.

While there was little disagreement in the discussion surrounding the first two topics, there was debate over the question of who the armed professionals on school campuses should be. Forson, however, was forthright in stating that he does not support the idea of arming teachers.

“I just don’t see it,” he said. “And it’s not that I don’t think we have very capable teachers and administrators—it’s not about that. That’s not what they came into this profession for. They came into this profession to lift kids up and to do everything for kids, and even for that kid who is at risk and doing terrible things, we have teachers who need to support them to get them back on the right path. The idea of asking teachers to have access to a high-powered rifle or to something else, to be the responsive person, I believe is the wrong thing.”

That view was echoed by many attendees, with the majority expressing a preference for the presence of an armed law enforcement officer on school grounds, as opposed to armed teachers or other staff members. There were some, however, who felt that other trained professionals should not be discounted as an option simply because they are not law enforcement officers.

“There’s no reason to think that (a person) couldn’t be trained by the police department to come in and do school security, and also be a janitor here,” said Denver Cook, a parent and District 4 school board candidate. “Ultimately, the training is the training.”

After all ideas and viewpoints had been shared, Barrera closed the meeting by emphasizing the importance of finding common ground through positive discourse when seeking solutions to issues like gun violence.

“As we get closer and closer to the decision-making process of what we’re going to do, how we’re going to do it and everything we need to consider, the voices that we hear today – the voices from the students, and the voices from the other teachers and staff – are super important, because we all have different eyes and we all see things differently through different lenses,” she said. “And each one of those lenses is valuable, but when you hear things from each group, there’s certainly a common thread, and I appreciate all of you being here tonight, sharing that common thread.”