Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School held a moment of silence to mark the first anniversary of the shooting that killed 17 people on their school’s campus.
The fire alarm blares through the halls at Melbourne High School but nobody moves.
Danitza Egueiz, a junior at the school, listens, wondering is this a drill? A real fire? Or something far worse, someone with a gun?
Egueiz and other students wait. After what seems like a small eternity, Melbourne High Principal Chad Kirk’s voice comes on over the intercom, instructing students to stay where they are.
This is the new protocol in Brevard County schools.
A year since the Parkland shooting, in which 17 people were killed by a lone gunman inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, much has changed at Brevard schools and schools across the state. The tragedy has reshaped the lives of students, parents and educators.
Once, the sound of a wailing siren would have propelled students out of their seats. Not anymore. The alarm could be a ruse to get kids outside, where they’re exposed and vulnerable to an armed assailant. At Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, smoke from the gunfire triggered the alarms.
“We don’t go running out of the building just because the fire alarm goes off, “Kirk told FLORIDA TODAY. “We go and check it out, and if there’s actually smoke, there’s actually a fire, we evacuate. If there isn’t, no one’s evacuating.”
How kids and faculty respond to fire alarms is just one of many changes in schools today. Others include guards patrolling elementary schools, armed and ready to respond to a gunman; training videos for kids about how to survive an active shooter; guidance counselors and school psychologists conducting threat assessments of students; teachers having panic button apps to alert law enforcement to emergencies.
If it all sounds intense, it’s because it is.
In Brevard County, “they take it seriously,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Wednesday, during a news conference in Titusville to discuss school security issues. “I think they’ve had a lot of success in what they’ve implemented so far.”
“If you do security right, and people realize that the schools are secure, these people who may want to do harm are going to realize that that’s not a good place to try to do that,” DeSantis said.
But the new safety procedures and the weight of the responsibility of keeping children safe is a stressful burden on teachers and principals. Moms and dads are sometimes anxious about sending their kids to school.
“I don’t want to take a chance. I’d rather her miss a day of school and have to make it up and have my daughter,” said Maria Cirilli whose children attend Viera High School. “Sometimes, it feels like you’re making a choice between life and death.”
Many families have learned to not live in fear, as they adjust to a new school experience, and carry on with their normal lives that now include monthly drills and continuous threats.
“Do I think about mass shootings on a daily basis? Not at all,” said Lara Tarrillo, another mom with kids in Brevard schools. “There are bigger risks out there.”
10 drills a year
Lara’s son, Deegan Tarrillo, and his classmates at Viera High School huddle inside a supply closet during one of the school’s drills this year. During one just last week, they ducked down in the corners of the classroom, staying out of the sightline of windows. They wait until the school resource officer tells them it’s over.
During gym at DeLaura Middle School in Satellite Beach, a whistle sounds, and Charlie Routh and his classmates file into the boy’s locker room. During a drill inside the library, students crouch down. The lights are turned off and the doors are locked. They’re told to be quiet.
“We have to make sure that we’re not talking, because you don’t want people to know that you’re there,” Deegan Tarrillo said.
Students in Brevard County now have 10 “critical incident” drills a year, compared with previous years when schools did 10 fire drills and two lockdown drills in a school year. It was the Parkland shooting that spurred state lawmakers to require schools to practice active-shooter drills, something the district did not do before this year, Maj. Andrew Walters of the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office said.
The drills, some parents said, have quickly become routine for the kids.
“They go through the drills. It’s just a part of their everyday life for them at this point,” said Melissa DeFrancesco, a parent and founder of the local Moms Demand Action group. “They just see it as a another drill, like you would have a drill for anything,”
Egueiz says she isn’t scared, because she knows it’s just a drill, but she says she wonders, “What happens when it actually happens?” Not everyone takes them seriously, not even some teachers.
“We just lock our doors and we don’t do anything,” she said. Sometimes “the teacher just continues with the lesson.”
Not every drill is specific to an active-shooter situation. Some are meant to also prep students for fires, false alarms, hostage situations, suspicious devices and intruders. Drills happen during class, during lunch and while students are changing class in the halls.
Sometimes, drills are unannounced, which has been a point of concern among some parents, although, in some cases, principals alert parents beforehand.
“We are trying to create as real an environment as possible,” said Walters, who oversees school security in the county. “Because, if it’s staged, you’re going to go through the motions. We all know back when we were kids and you did the fire drills, everyone knew it was a fire drill. Everybody laughed, everybody just talked.”
Where administrators may have kept things vague before, the message behind drills now is blunt, even indelicate. Principal Kirk says the level of realism is invaluable.
“We’re training them about how to respond to an active shooter on campus,” Kirk said. “Now we’re saying, ‘If someone brings a gun to campus and you hear shots, here’s what to do.’ That’s never happened before.”
Egueiz said the number of drills students like her have to go through can be destabilizing.
Maj. Walters would not specify what children are taught during the drills and in the training videos produced by the sheriff’s office, citing security concerns. Some parents worry the training may not be age-appropriate. Critics point to the possible negative psychological effects of these types of drills.
Brevard Fire Rescue Chief Mark Schollmeyer said he has some qualms about a school district policy of not having students evacuate immediately when an unplanned fire alarm goes off. Schollmeyer and other fire chiefs are concerned the policy may send the wrong message to younger children, who might think that if a smoke alarm goes off in their homes they should not evacuate.
Schollmeyer said representatives of the Space Coast Fire Chiefs Association plan to meet with Brevard school district and law enforcement officials to go over their concerns.
The effectiveness of active-shooter drills is hard to determine. Marjory Stoneman Douglas had just had a drill a month before a former student killed 17 and injured 17 others.
Molly Domin, a parent from Melbourne Beach, has taken her first-grader out of school during certain drills and has spoken with the principal about how explicit the training is.
“My child does not know what Parkland is, and I’d like to keep it that way,” Domin said. “He doesn’t need to grow up that fast. I want to protect his innocence.”
The Brevard School Board hears updates regarding school security just before the one year anniversary of the Parkland shootings.
Schools have always had drills. And there have always been perceived threats to campuses.
Gary Shiffrin, a retired principal from Brevard, recalls as a child practicing duck-and-cover drills out of fear of nuclear missile attacks. When he was a principal at Merritt Island High School in the 1990s and early 2000s, bomb threats and drills to prepare for them were the trend.
“An active shooter? I don’t think that was on our minds. We never had to experience that. That just never happened,” Shiffrin said. “What was on my mind were bomb threats. We went through a time, and it probably lasted two or three years, where everybody was getting bomb threats. Kids figured out that was a good way of getting out of school. We became personal friends of the SWAT team. They were always there.”
Students were taught to evacuate the building. Now they’re taught to “shelter in place.”
“That’s the whole mentality that has changed,” Shiffrin said. “Whereas, before, when I was a principal, the whole idea was we need to get everybody out of here.”
Teachers have to keep their classroom doors locked at all times. Some place a piece of construction paper or black felt over the narrow window on the door that looks into the classroom.
Old campuses with open courtyards, large gaps between buildings and walls of windows are difficult to secure. The school district last year completed a long list of security enhancement projects across its 83 schools, creating single entry points, as well as installing 6-foot-tall fencing, security cameras and closed-circuit televisions in front offices, and entrance buzzers.
Overall, principals say there is a heightened awareness since Parkland, but also added stress.
“We do more door checks. We do more making sure the gates are locked,” said Rachad Wilson, principal at Cocoa High School. “It has definitely added to the stress of the day-to-day operation. It just added on to an already stressful job,”
Wilson says he shoulders the responsibility of keeping his school safe.
The dread of children getting hurt on your watch is a difficult burden, Shiffrin said.
Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie and other high-up district officials have been criticized for their decisions that may have contributed to the shooting. Parents have demanded Runcie’s resignation, pointing to potentially lax security on campus and the diversionary Promise program.
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel was suspended after it was learned he had gotten rid of a policy requiring deputies to confront active shooters. Scot Peterson, the deputy on duty at the school when the shooting unfolded, resigned, painted as a “disgrace.”
Fearing the unthinkable, principals have no choice but to treat every perceived threat, no matter how small, whether circulated on social media, written on bathroom walls or muttered in the hallways, as credible. Sometimes to the “point of overreaction,” Kirk said.
“You just can’t take a chance. No administrator wants to have that hanging over them, if something happens, ‘we should have evacuated,'” Shiffrin said.
“You want to do the right thing, and you don’t want to take a chance that what was written on the bathroom wall or what was called in was reputable. I could have said: ‘We had four (bomb threats) last week. This is getting ridiculous. Let’s just stay in place.’ But that might have been the one,” Shiffrin said. “You just couldn’t do that. You just had to hope this trend would stop.”
Four major changes have been made since the Parkland school shooting one year ago.
‘I want them to have normalcy’
Since the Parkland shooting, Cirilli says among fellow parents at Viera High there is an underlying anxious feeling, but many try their best to swallow their unease.
Ashley Routh, whose son attends DeLaura Middle, repeats positive affirmations to herself when there’s a lockdown at one of her children’s schools and sometimes when she sends them off in the morning.
“It’s going to be OK,” she has to tell herself. When she hears a rumor about a threat, she goes on Facebook and texts other moms to find out what’s going on.
“Your instinct reaction is you want to protect your child — ‘I’m going to take him out of school,'” Routh said.
DeFrancesco of Moms Demand Action texts her children during lockdowns and during drills.
“I was nervous, maybe more nervous than she was,” she recalled feeling during an incident last fall.
Cirilli finds herself pacing at her house when there’s something strange going on at the school.
“There was a moment where I was like: ‘Should I go over and get them?’ Because if this is something like that,” Cirilli pauses, “you just don’t know. I feel like we all have a little bit of anxiety, but we don’t want to show our kids.”
A year since the shooting, Routh says, “I want them to have normalcy.” The possibility of another Parkland, though, is still on her mind and the minds of other parents.
Administrators don’t want families to be paranoid, but they do want them to be aware.
“Things are normal, but me, as the leader, my awareness is heightened. But the kids are normal. Things are going normal,” Cocoa Principal Wilson says.
Looking out the windows in his office, watching students cross the courtyard to get to class, Melbourne Principal Kirk wants to believe school feels normal and safe.
“God, I hope it does,” he says. “I just want them to be kids. I hope it feels like that.”
FLORIDA TODAY government editor Dave Berman contributed to this report.
Glenn is the education reporter at FLORIDA TODAY.
Contact Glenn at 321-576-5933
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A year ago a gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
Thyrie Bland, email@example.com
What’s changed at Brevard schools since Parkland?
• 27 “security specialists” have been hired by the school district and trained by the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office to respond to active shooters. Specialists went through 176 hours of training, were deployed in elementary schools in October and carry guns on campus.
• Additional school resource officers have been hired to cover all middle schools and high schools and about half of the district’s 56 elementary schools.
• Additional social workers have been hired.
• The district has purchased the Rave Panic Button app, an app that is voluntary for school staff to download and use to report fires, medical emergencies, active shooters and other incidents. The app bypasses 911 dispatch and immediately alerts cellphones of law enforcement and first-responders.
• The district promotes its Speak Out anonymous tip line, 800-423-TIPS, and phone app, P3 Campus, for people to report suspicious behavior. The district has received 400 tips this year.
• The district has done away with color codes, and instead has “lockdown,” “shelter in place,” “secure the perimeter” and “evacuate” directives. Any staff member is allowed to place a school in lockdown.
• Threat assessment teams of administrators, teachers and guidance counselors have been appointed at schools.
• The sheriff’s office has been awarded a grant to install more security cameras in schools.
• The district has completed half-cent sales tax security projects, including installation of 6-foot-tall fencing, single-point entries and mechanisms to lock front offices from the inside.
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