School Safety in Southwest Florida: More Locks, More Cops and Bigger Hearts

A year after Parkland, we check in on area schools to learn how adults and kids alike are enhancing safety


It’d be easy

    to shoot up

        the school …

Late last fall at Fort Myers High School, a student uttered that comment out loud during class one afternoon.

It was approximately 10 months after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, and seven since the one at Santa Fe High School in Texas. No one brushes off such remarks anymore.

A friend who’d overheard the statement grabbed another buddy and hurried to the guidance office to tell counselor Angela Higginbotham. Higginbotham pressed for details and then alerted Principal Robert Butz, School Resource Officer Mike Perry and other members of the school’s threat assessment team.

The final bell had just rung.

Officer Mike Perry patrols Fort Myers High School

The adults worked quickly. They discovered that the student had boarded a school bus heading outside of city limits and beyond Perry’s jurisdiction. Perry notified the law enforcement agency that covered the student’s neighborhood. Authorities met the teen at the bus stop and began a comprehensive school-police investigation (which school officials will explain later) to determine if the individual really had meant harm, if those words were an indirect signal for help or if they were merely a surly teenager’s off-color remark.   

This month marks the first anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High and the deaths of 14 students and three faculty members. The rampage had been carried out by 19-year-old former student Nikolas Cruz, a kid with a history of pervasive mental health problems, too little treatment, too few interventions, and at a high school with too many security lapses.

Florida lawmakers responded with new mandates for schools, ranging from the physical security of buildings to the implementation of mental health plans to the standardization of threat responses. School districts and individual schools layered in other initiatives. Some of those are driven by the kids themselves, who, like the Fort Myers High students, understand the potential consequences of doing nothing.

At the end of the first semester, I visited with school administrators in Lee and Collier to understand how our districts are protecting the region’s approximately 142,000 public school students and dropped in on two high schools, Fort Myers High and Naples’ Barron Collier High, for firsthand accounts of how these efforts are playing out. The reporting was personal. My daughters attend public schools.

At both of our school districts, I learned, the protocols start with locks on doors and cops on campus, and then delve into the things you can’t necessarily see or touch—a strengthening of adult-student connections and a deepening sense of empathy among students in the hopes of allaying a young person’s rage, despondency or mental illness before it explodes into mass tragedy.

Back to the Fort Myers High incident.

“This was our first big case, and it was textbook,” says Perry. The police officer and the rest of the threat assessment team, including Butz, Higginbotham, assistant principals and the school social worker, are gathered in a conference room one December morning to explain new procedures for handling potential threats. Teams like theirs have been assembled across Florida schools, one of the post-Parkland safety measures.

The student was not carrying a weapon to school that day, and the parents quickly handed over one they owned to responding officers. Further inquiry revealed some trouble with bullying, and the parents decided to give their child a fresh start elsewhere.

Butz doesn’t think the seriousness or speed with which the staff acted was any different in this case than it might have been pre-Parkland. What has changed: student willingness to come forward. “They see what’s happened in other schools, and they want to protect themselves, and they want to protect the rest of the students as well,” Butz says. “This is real.”

What’s also changed: the 12-page evaluation that the threat assessment team conducted. It requires administrators to comb through a student’s history: involvement with law enforcement, academic records, social media posts, online search histories, behavioral patterns. One question asks if the individual has shown an interest in mass violence; another if he or she has a trusted, sustained relationship with at least one person.

The biggest flaw at Santa Fe, Parkland, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook was that no one assembled the big picture. At least 30 people had knowledge of Nikolas Cruz’s disturbing behavior before the shooting—pieces of evidence that should have added up to a full-blown alarm, according to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission report, released last month.

“The vast majority (of school shooters) never made a (direct) threat to the school,” says Rick Parfitt, the director of safety and security for Lee County schools. “But there are always warnings. … The statistics say that the better of 75 percent of them will let something out. But we have to have people who understand and recognize the signs.”

If red flags pop up during the threat assessment process, the team will work with families to access counseling or other services, Parfitt explains. The objective is prevention—not punishment.

In the first semester of this school year, the Fort Myers High team went on alert two other times, to investigate a student who had doodled pictures of weapons and another who had alluded to suicide. Neither teen had meant harm, but the threshold for triggering an investigation is set low. Deliberately.

Collier County Public Schools Superintendent Kamela Patton is leading her district’s charge to tend to the social and emotional needs of students.

“It’s kinda edgy to talk to kids about social-emotional learning,” Collier County Schools Superintendent Kamela Patton confides one afternoon. She’s referring to personal development skills, such as self-management, social awareness and responsible decision-making. To her, that’s where school safety starts.

Character-building has always had a place in schools—from kindergarten lessons to locker-room wisdom—but Patton wanted to leap full-throttle into that arena, even at the risk of parents accusing her of stepping on their turf.

“We want to build that skill set for college, life, career. Grit, resiliency, emotional regulation—what happens when the pot is about to boil over and my lid is blowing up? How do you handle that? Those are life-ready skills.”

She’d started nudging the district in this direction well before Parkland. In 2014, Collier schools partnered with mental health treatment provider the David Lawrence Center, the Collier County Sheriff’s Office and eight other organizations to form a Mental Health Workgroup. (There are now 45 members.)

In spring 2017, the district held a symposium on social-emotional learning and how parents could build more resilient, motivated, self-aware and empathetic kids.

And at the start of this school year, with safety paramount, the district redirected the myriad efforts its 50 schools had embarked on and streamlined them into five major programs designed to cultivate compassion, extinguish the emotions that fuel outbursts, and grow the kinds of traits that lead to success. All are cutting-edge, but one in particular caught our attention because it puts the responsibility for changing school culture squarely in the hands of kids. We went to Barron Collier High School to see it in action.

To enter the school, you have to ring a bell outside of the front door, announce yourself, show your identification and wait for security to let you in. This is standard protocol now at most of the region’s public schools (I did the same to get into Fort Myers High). Locks, emergency drills, armed police, designated hiding spots—that’s the reality for today’s students.

But I’m not here to learn about the “hardening” of buildings; rather, I wanted to see the “softer” side of school safety. Barron, like all Collier middle and high schools, had formed a We Dine Together club at the start of the school year. It’s modeled after a Boca Raton initiative in which high-schoolers had decided that no one should have to eat lunch alone. Barron’s club members are learning how to approach kids who look lonely and invite them to join their cafeteria tables.

Barron students Amber Moore, Amanda Pasler, Alexis Digel and Brianna Alcee lead their school’s We Dine Together club.

“We like to say it breaks down the barriers, the cliques,” says Alexis Digel, a junior, who started the club and teamed with junior Amanda Pasler and sophomores Brianna Alcee and Amber Moore as fellow leaders. The school psychologist, Janice Moore (Amber’s mom), serves as adviser.

The student body generally gets along, the We Dine members say, though students tend to separate themselves by academic level, athletics and extracurriculars like marching band, a common enough reality in secondary schools. Some Fort Myers High students offered a similar assessment of their school.

“I think (the barriers) are the assumptions people make,” Amanda says. “Maybe you meet someone and they’re a little bit different from you in some way. … We’re trying to get away from people being scared of differences.”

Loneliness is more prevalent than you might think—even for the kinds of kids you wouldn’t expect to feel like outsiders.

“In middle school, I used to sit in the guidance office (at lunch) because I had no friends,” Amanda admits. She wasn’t the only club member to have done so—or to have looked across Barron’s nearly 800-seat cafeteria and felt a wave of panic.

When Brianna arrived at Barron last year, she was so overwhelmed by the volume of strangers that she used to eat by herself in the theater room until her mom insisted that the unhappy girl stop isolating herself. In an unwitting precursor to We Dine, Brianna began inviting other lonely-looking kids to eat with her until her lunchtime clique had bloomed to more than 20. “As I started making friends, I started to enjoy school. I really wanted to come.” 

If you know anything about teenagers, you know that the act of reaching beyond your social group requires tremendous gumption. But as more club members learn to break the ice, they’re noticing something: Some of their friends are emulating their example and striking up conversations at random. Kids seem to notice when a classmate doesn’t have companions for class projects and make space for them. Amber Moore hopes kids are starting to see that no one is “better” than anyone else, a step toward eroding a social hierarchy that can breed ill will.

Related: When Students Take Action 

Adults are doing their part, too. Two years ago, Principal Jose Hernandez started the “Link” program, pairing upper classmen with freshmen to help ease the transition into high school. This year, he augmented the existing incentives program with one called “Renaissance” that rewards kids for things like grades and attendance. He takes similar pains to acknowledge the accomplishments of staff—“a way to build a sense of family, ownership and morale,” Hernandez says.

“I think all of those things have had a cumulative effect,” he says. “You see it in the hallways. Students are friendlier. We haven’t had the discipline that we have had in years past. … Maybe Parkland made them more aware that you want to be kind to one another, you want to be supportive of one another.” Hernandez hadn’t intervened in a single case of bullying during the first semester; by the same time in years past, he might have had half a dozen incidents.

It’s these kinds of efforts that students say make them feel safe.

“OK, this is gonna sound so cheesy, but it’s starting at the core, with people’s hearts and making them feel comfortable and not having them grow into resentment toward anyone,” Amanda says. “Resentment is where it starts.”

At Fort Myers High, Principal Butz might amend that statement slightly and tell you “relationships” are where it starts. “The single most important thing we do,” he says, “is to build relationships with kids.”

Lee schools also are infiltrating the social and emotional lives of students more deeply and through the use of a comprehensive district database, they are keeping closer track of student academic progress, discipline, attendance, teacher and counselor observations, conversations with parents—all in an effort to flag problems before they worsen.

But not everything is so formal.

Just before the holidays, Butz had bumped into a young man he’d disciplined a short time before. “Are you excited for Christmas?” the principal asked, hoping for a more positive interaction. The teen shook his head. His mom was struggling and there would be no presents. Butz told Assistant Principal Jamie Kirschner, who was spearheading a gift drive, about the exchange. With the consent of the teen’s mom, Kirschner showed up at the student’s front door with a Christmas tree, a gift and a message: “Dr. Butz was just really worried about you, and we want you to know we love you.” He was floored.

“It’s such a small thing that we did, but to him it’s huge,” Butz says. “What type of discipline issue from him do you think we will see in the future?”

This kind of compassion among adults did not first spark with Parkland—anyone who has been around educators knows the job has always been more about personal calling than paycheck. But the shooting did prompt schools to redouble efforts to make sure kids know that grown-ups care.

By student request, the Fort Myers High faculty this year continued a mentorship program that pairs students with a teacher of their choice. In twice-monthly sessions, teachers delve into life skills—how to shake hands, change a tire, balance a bank account—and tackle issues that are preoccupying students.

“(My mentor) really understands,” says Leah Ramsey, a junior, over the holiday break when she and a couple of friends met with me to talk about school and efforts to create a more connected environment. “High school is stressful. Extremely stressful.” 

Mentors, like coaches and club advisers, are usually the ones who find out if a student is depressed or anxious or having trouble at home. Or potentially creating a risk, like a case last year in which a mentor teacher found out a mentee was carrying a knife in a backpack—not because the student meant harm but because after Parkland he was “scared to death,” Kirschner says. “We would not have had any clue that was happening if we had not had the mentor program.”

Related: 5 Ways to Intervene 

Barron Principal Jose Hernandez focuses on building school pride and a sense of belonging.

Janice Moore surely must be among the most in-demand people at Barron. In my visits I watched the school deputy pull her aside to consult on a student matter, saw a secretary hand her a message from one girl and saw another teen rush to find her after an exam period.

Moore is among the wave of mental health specialists being deployed to the region’s schools. Previously, she’d divided her time among a few schools. She’s full-time at Barron this year; in fact, every public high school in Collier now has its own designated psychologist.

“We can’t change all aspects of their lives,” says Moore, who has a maternal air that seems to resonate with teens, “but we can get you through the school day and get you to a point where you can be in class and be a learner. That’s really what my role is. Our staff and our teachers understand if students are going through a crisis or something significant, they need to get help with that before they can be successful in the classroom.”

Being on campus full-time, she says, creates consistency. Some kids check in with her daily, even if only for a few minutes. A few carry a pass to go to see her or a counselor any time they feel their anxiety or frustration mounting.

“It’s a game changer,” Hernandez, the principal, says of Moore’s presence. “It’s daylong access to an expert.”

Lee County took similar action, putting licensed social workers at each of its high schools because district administrators saw a gap between school services and the community ones designed to handle more complicated needs. Among other things, the social workers would serve as liaisons to SalusCare, Lee County’s primary mental health and substance abuse treatment center. Through a new partnership, SalusCare is dedicating three assessment specialists to serve students referred by the school district, reducing wait times and the risk of slipping through the cracks. (Collier schools have a similarly tight relationship with the David Lawrence Center.)

All told, Collier County schools hired seven new school psychologists and eight new intervention counselors (social workers); Lee County added 10 social workers, four psychologists and three behavioral experts to coach students who don’t qualify for special education programs and their array of services. These experts will join school counselors to form mental health teams at each school, charged with evaluating students who shows signs of distress and determining the best ways to support them.

Jenna Canterbury is the social worker newly assigned full-time to Fort Myers High. Her job includes making home visits to understand firsthand what troubled teens are facing.

“There is just a lot of horrendous poverty, which is not something that is always talked about or acknowledged in this part of Florida, but it’s there,” she says. There are refugee and immigrant families, terrified of deportation; teens raising younger siblings while parents work; students going hungry at home. “They have all sorts of baggage they come to school with,” Canterbury says.

Fort Myers High social worker Jenna Canterbury is among the growing number of mental health experts supporting kids and their families.

Assistant Principal Darya Grote chimes in: “I spoke to a parent the other day whose insurance had lapsed and she couldn’t afford (her child’s) medication.” The mother cautioned that behavioral issues may emerge, but she was facing eviction, and housing trumped prescriptions.

If violence were to erupt, the schools would be under the microscope, but the roots of the problems often fester well beyond anything they control.

“It’s a little cold out there,” Officer Perry proclaims one December morning after finishing his campus rounds. Fort Myers High is a sprawling place—five buildings, a football stadium, a baseball and softball complex—and sits in a mixed part of town, its facade facing an affluent neighborhood but its eastern border a stone’s throw from a seedy part of U.S. 41. Perry walks grounds and hallways to ensure kids are kept in and strangers kept out.

In the wake of Parkland, lawmakers insisted that public schools have some sort of armed presence. Both Lee and Collier had long contracted with area police and sheriff’s departments for secondary schools, and this year expanded to full coverage at elementary schools, too. Neither county bought into the idea of armed “guardians” or gun-toting teachers.

Perry, who has held similar positions at two other schools, likes the daily interaction with teens and the chance to intervene before their troubles get too deep. He knows he and his colleagues are under increased scrutiny now; deputies in Broward took a beating in the post-Parkland investigation for their fumbling response.

“It’s a heightened awareness,” Perry says. “I try to strategize: What would I do in this situation because, really, I’m gonna be the first one on the scene. Fortunately, in our agency, we have excellent backup so I won’t be alone, but I’m always strategizing.”

For all school personnel, safety comes down to awareness. By the end of the school year, teachers across both counties will have undergone Mental Health First Aid Training designed to teach them about common mental illnesses and how to notice when something is not right. The training is another post-Parkland response. “It does not teach them to diagnose (mental illness) or even to talk about what symptoms they may be showing,” says Lori Brooks, the Lee County schools director of counseling services. “It’s all about knowing what’s typical and what’s atypical.”

The kids are on alert, too. During a cold snap, a couple of them had rushed up to Grote, the Fort Myers assistant principal, to report seeing a kid in the courtyard wearing a hoodie and a “mask” and clutching a backpack to his chest. The mask was actually a scarf—he was simply bundled against the cold and carrying his pack on his front because his back hurt. When he learned of his classmates’ concerns, he took off the scarf. “I get it,” he told Grote.

In some ways, that’s helpful. Perry likens it to a “neighborhood watch.” But it hurts, too.

“Everything is heightened. For just allowing people to come in and pick up their children, security is heightened,” Butz says. “The paranoia is heightened as well. It just puts people more on edge about anything. The students can’t say things we could get away with jokingly as children. Just messing around, ‘Oh man, I’m gonna kill you’ when they’re playing basketball. Now somebody says that, and we have to do an entire report to make sure it’s not real. And all the kid was talking about is he was gonna take a basketball and go dunk it over somebody’s head.”

Related: How Collier is Stepping Up

As a mom, I share Butz’s concerns about fear permeating schools—and other public spaces, for that matter. When I was a girl, the scariest thing we learned about in school was HIV/AIDS, but the prevention strategies drilled into us allayed our fears of acquiring a selective disease. In school, my children learn how to hide and run from bullets that strike at random. What kind of childhood is that?

Last spring, on the anniversary of the Columbine massacre, I ordered my daughters to keep their eyes peeled for anything that seemed amiss. On another day last year, my husband escorted our older daughter to school (she happens to go to Fort Myers High) to ensure it was safe; rumors of a bomb had circulated on social media the night before. At my younger child’s middle school, a girl was arrested a few months ago for penciling a threat on a bathroom stall. Her words were not considered credible, but the incident unnerved me all the same.

I worry that money that ought to go to hiring teachers and buying books will get siphoned into locks and cameras, that academic time will be lost to code red drills and, yes, that administrators’ energy will be depleted chasing false leads.

But no one wants a repeat of Parkland, so we’re all caught in this awful quandary.

And yet, I see another side to the school safety push, and it fills me with hope. Jose Hernandez, the Barron principal, reminded me of what school was like when we were kids—when the attitude toward student success was more “sink or swim” than intervene and nurture. “We really are living in a different time,” he says. “We don’t just sit back and let the child fail academically or in other ways. … (We are) looking at the whole child.”

I taught public high school briefly, and I think often about the kids I met—the girl whose parents used drugs; the boy working long hours to help his family; the immigrant kids with shaky English; the young lady who skipped her assignments but ensured her little brothers finished theirs. Surely, those kids could have benefited from more adults checking in and more guidance on overcoming the obstacles in their paths. Surely, my own children could use help navigating the anxieties of an adolescence mired in social media and its boundless pressures. And, surely, all children would be more likely to thrive when they themselves emphasize graciousness over gossip.

Patton, the Collier superintendent, shares this belief. She reflects on how her students did in the last academic year, interrupted by Hurricane Irma—an inconvenience for everyone and a trauma for those students and staff who lost homes, jobs, savings.

“(Last year) we lost 11 days of school. That’s half a month,” Patton says. “Yet our school grades went up. Our graduation rate for that year went up. … Why did they go up? Because our kids knew we cared about them. When kids feel safe and secure, the academics will follow.”


Postscript 4/14/19: 

Today is the anniversary of the Parkland shooting, a day to grieve—and one to be resolute in ensuring the safety of our children. Gulfshore Life visited with Lee and Collier county school district administrators and spent time in two high schools before the holidays to understand what steps have been taken in the wake of the tragedy our fellow Floridians have suffered.

What we found encouraged us in the scope of the actions that adults have taken and in the fact that students, increasingly, are taking safety matters into their own hands. You can read our story below or find the print version in our February issue, on newsstands now.

We must offer a troubling update, though. Since the time we reported our story, we’ve seen a rash of threats—20 since the end of winter break—and arrests of students in Lee County.

That district, in tandem with local law enforcement agencies, has introduced a “Fake Threats, Real Consequences” campaign, warning students making a threat can result in suspension, expulsion, arrest, felony charges, up to 15 years in prison and fines of up to $10,000.

Just a few days ago, Superintendent Greg Adkins and Cape Coral Police Chief David Newlan held a news conference imploring the community to help. At the time of that event, there had been three student arrests in two weeks in the Cape, and 47 threats of violence in Cape schools thus far this academic year.

“Kids have to realize how serious this is,” Newlan says. “This has long-lasting effects that they don’t realize.”

Other recent incidents include the arrest of a Lexington Middle School student and, on the eve of Parkland’s sad anniversary, the arrest of a Fort Myers High School student for menacing words sent over text messages.

“This has to stop,” Adkins said at the news conference.

We couldn’t agree more.