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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Nationwide shootings, bomb threats prompts Alachua County school safety expansion

State legislation takes action against public school violence

<p>A sign in front of the Alachua County Public Schools district office building is seen Sunday, June 6, 2021.</p>

A sign in front of the Alachua County Public Schools district office building is seen Sunday, June 6, 2021.

About a month into the 2021 school year, Gainesville High School students evacuated to a nearby Lowe’s during the first of four false bomb threats that Fall.

Eliza Acharya, an 18-year-old UF applied physiology and kinesiology freshman, was a senior at GHS at the time of the bomb threats. All the threats were called in by students, causing schoolwide evacuations before police secured the area and determined the threats to be false.

“I was scared to go to school,” Acharya said. “Before you know it’s students that are doing that, it is terrifying. It happened for the first time in the four years that I went there.”

There have been 620 U.S. mass shootings as of Dec. 4, according to the Gun Violence Archives. With many shootings taking place on school grounds — like the May 24 Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that made national headlines — students like Acharya are reevaluating how safe they feel at school.

Archarya began her Alachua County public school education in 2015 and said the ALICE protocol has always been in place during her time. ALICE stands for “Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate.” The five-step process is reviewed during monthly classroom drills.

“Just like we have fire drills, they had ALICE drills,” Acharya said. “During those, in whichever classroom you end up in, the teacher goes over the procedures for the classroom we're in. They'll remind us where we go if you have to evacuate or how to barricade the doors.”

The school evacuated during the first two bomb threats of the school year. Based on the mass flood of students trying to get to safety, Archarya said administration developed ways to limit crowding at evacuation sites.

“You could see the different faults in the actual systems,” Acharya said. 

After police checked cars for weapons, bombs or dangerous substances, students who walked or drove to school would be released. Students who relied on busing would have to wait for transportation to arrive.

Acharya noticed a rise in on-campus violence and threats, including fights during lunch.

“I'm not quite sure why,” Archarya said. “Because of the pandemic we just started having to go back to school. Maybe it was because it was one aftermath of the pandemic in the big picture.”

The Center for Homeland Defense and Security found that there were 112 non-active shooter cases in the U.S. That number jumped to 240 in 2021. Law enforcement officials have cited isolation, remote learning, and struggles as pandemic-related reasons for an increase in on-campus violence, according to NBC 6.

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For Idylwild Elementary School resource officer Cary Gallop, maintaining transparency, communication and relationships with students is key to keeping schools safe.

“When children first meet me, they ask me if I'm there to arrest them,” he said. “I always tell them ‘I'm here to protect you. I'm here to protect you from what we hope never happens.”

Alachua County Public School’s Office of Safety and Security requires an SRO to be stationed at all schools and requires training for all employees and students to be prepared for an active threat on campus.

School resource officers can make on-campus arrests, but they primarily work with school administrators to maintain a safe learning environment for students. SROs also de-escalate conflict between students, teach law-related topics in classrooms and investigate potential crimes that exist on or around school grounds.

“Your primary role is to protect,” Gallop said. “We're there to help keep danger from hurting their children because of what we've seen progressively getting worse over the years across the United States.”

Since the Columbine High School mass shooting in 1999, school shootings have changed the trajectory of how school officers carry out their everyday jobs, he said.

“We're seeing the escalation in violence on campuses,” Gallop said.

Douglas Pelton was appointed the new ACPS school safety specialist Oct. 4. He previously worked for the Orange County Police Department, developing their canine and weapon screening programs.

Pelton began his Florida law enforcement career in 1995. Following the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, he decided to change career directions and focus on school safety, he said. When he saw the open position in Alachua County to oversee the entire school district, he said he took the leap.

“School safety has a lot to do with prevention and early intervention,” Pelton said. “Instead of a state of fear, we need to be in a state of preparedness.”

As the county safety specialist, Pelton works with the Alachua County Sheriff’s Department, Alachua County Police Department, Gainesville Police Department and High Springs Police Department to oversee the function and safety of charter schools and public schools. He’s been tasked with adapting safety standards in the wake of changing state mandates.

State mandates are evolving because of security concerns heightened in the aftermath of the  2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting that killed 17 people, Pelton said. The MSD High School Public Safety Act has four years of legislative measures.

The legislative measures prioritize SRO protection for students, increase school counselor involvement in disciplinary measures, require de-escalation training for anyone armed on campuses and enforce annual drug screening and psychological testing for anyone armed on campus.

Senate Bill 70 passed June 6, 2020, enacting Alyssa’s Law, which requires schools to use an “Alyssa’s Alert” system that connects schools with emergency services and 911 dispatches.

“It basically creates another avenue for individuals who may be in a situation where they need assistance,” Pelton said. 

The Florida Department of Education conducts evaluations throughout all districts to ensure school safety specialists are complying with Florida statutes, Pelton said. The Florida Safe Schools Assessment Tool is an online platform that provides school safety strategies and analysis for school districts. 

Anntwanique Edwards, ACPS chief of equity, inclusion and community engagement, said she envisions school safety strategies that focus on more communication between schools and parents. 

She helped create quarterly Parent Empowerment Summits, which allows parents to learn about different topics with ACPS administration. She met with ACPS’s Educational Equity Director and Title I office to discuss important topics for parents to learn about.

“I'm a believer in the village,” Edwards said. “I'm a believer that we should be working together, hand in hand, side by side. When we do that together, we're stronger as a community.”

ACPS’ first Parent Empowerment Summit in August focused on mental health. On Oct. 25, Gallop gave a presentation on cyber safety at the second summit at Newberry High School.

The next summit will be held in the spring at Citizens Field.

“Parents should know that they have the support of the school district and the school district should know it has supportive parents,” Edwards said.

Contact Sophia Bailly at Follow her on Twitter @sophia_bailly.

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Sophia Bailly

Sophia Bailly is a second-year journalism major and covers politics for the enterprise desk. Some of her favorite things include The Beatles, croissants and Agatha Christie books. When she's not writing stories she's either reading or going for a run.

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