The Ledger | By Paul Nutcher | August 4, 2022
BARTOW — Polk County secondary students can expect to see staff conducting random weapons checks at school entrances as they go back to school next week, the superintendent announced Thursday during a news conference.
“This was a very low-level non-intrusive way for us to continue to add additional layers of support and security,” Superintendent Frederick Heid said at the school district offices on Floral Avenue.
The Office of Safe Schools is responsible for initiating the random screenings for students with a metal-detecting wand.
Safe Schools is staffed under a contract with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, which provides the district with school resource officers, guardians, gang resistance intervention and crossing guards.
Last school year, the district dealt with 214 weapons on campuses as well as 44 firearms. However, he said the statistics were similar to the pre-COVID years 2017-2019.
“We are well within our right to search and make sure our campuses are safe,” said Heid, saying the practice is compliant with Florida and federal laws. Staff at schools will be trained to conduct the random checks, and law enforcement officers will not be involved unless a weapon is discovered.
There are not enough officers on campuses, and there are legal ramifications to them conducting direct student searches, he said. “This is an additional layer of security for teachers and students,” he said.
“Our intent is students see this and recognize this as a safety precaution and it is not turning our campuses into, or giving the sense our campuses are more prison-like,” Heid said.
Any student randomly checked for weapons will receive a note to take home and show their parents, he said.
The process is comparable to passing through security checkpoints at theme parks and sports stadiums, and a response to violent acts across the country.
The Gun Violence Archive listed 625 mass shootings in the United States so far in 2022 as of Thursday. The group defines a mass shooting as one that involved four or more people who are shot or killed at the same time and place and not including the perpetrator.
By comparison, the non-profit research group said there were 692 mass shootings in 2021.
Heid also said verbal or other threats of violence toward a person will be met with a much stronger penalty during the 2022-23 school year, depending on the grade level. There will be a five-day, out-of-school suspension penalty for a first offense and 10 days for a second offense with a potential referral to a reform school.
“We investigate all of these,” he said, “which is creating an incredible burden on our resources and takes personnel away from primary responsibilities.”
Threat assessments require school administrators to investigate such incidents for the entirety of the school day – sometimes multiple days, while law enforcement resources of four to six hours go toward multiple interviews of anyone and everyone who overheard or saw the threat online for each case.
“Times have changed since we grew up, and that playground comment is no longer something we let fly or pass without there being a consequence,” Heid said.
Cracking down on missed school days
He also discussed efforts to improve school attendance and the teacher shortage.
About 51,000 students missed 10 or more days in a district with about 110,000 students last school year, he said. Those numbers do not include students who missed school last year for COVID-19 quarantines and other sickness-related absences.
“You have to be in school to learn,” he said.
This year, seven more truancy officers will be enlisted to work with social workers, school counselors and families for safety checks and to potentially direct them to appropriate services to keep kids in school.
“If you look at our academic data and all the significant improvements we had, I can only imagine how much further we could have moved and improved our outcomes if those 51,000 kids would have been in school each day,” Heid said.
Regarding teacher vacancies, he said the district is about 200 classroom teachers short with more coming by the start of the 2022-23 school year.
Many of the teachers who have been hired to fill vacancies since the last day of school have come from other countries, and their numbers are double what they were for last year. Certified teachers, including academic coaches, will fill classrooms until permanent teachers are hired.
He said many school bus drivers have signed on since the board increased their wages to $15 per hour. Over the summer, there were 90 vacancies for bus drivers, but that number has dwindled to 50. He said 30 are training now and another 20 will be in the next class after that.
‘It’s really an exodus’
Districts across the state have met several headwinds to find qualified teachers.
Before the press conference, Stephanie Yocum, president of the Polk Education Association, sat for media interviews outside the building to address teacher shortages across Florida.
“I am hesitant to call it a shortage; it’s really an exodus,” she said, noting the estimated 9,000 unfilled teacher positions statewide.
“We are seeing experienced teachers leaving the profession because Gov. Ron DeSantis is pitting senior educators against new hires, providing them with $47,500, an amount some 10- and 12-year teachers earn.”
Teachers are citing low pay and workload as well as the salary compression, as the “perfect storm” for the exodus, she said.
Further, college students are not enrolling for education degrees at rates 10 or 12 years ago, and career changers are not opting into teaching in numbers previously seen, Yocum said.
She also raised concerns about safety when the district is short teachers all while the district is anticipated to add another 50,000 students over the next decade.
“We’re going to have a schoolhouse full of kids and no teachers,” she said. This can be avoided if the state would listen to educators’ warnings and their solutions instead of following the governor’s plan.”View Comments