Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday October 17th 2017

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Keeping Escambia County Schools Safe

By Duwayne Escobedo

If you want any information about what is happening in your children’s schools, you’ll have to ask them or another informed parent.

Don’t expect the Escambia County School District or local authorities to be forthcoming, especially if it involves violence or guns on campus.

Former school board member Jeff Bergosh, who was recently elected as the District 2 Escambia County Commissioner, said he often found out critical information, such as a brawl among high school students or a big drug seizure weeks, after it happened.

“Communication has always been a problem with the school district,” said Bergosh, who served from 2006-2016. “We were the last people to know, even after the parents.”

In this day and age, school shootings like Sandy Hook and Columbine are firmly burned into the American consciousness. At the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., 20 children, ages six and seven, and six adults were fatally shot — making the December 2012 shooting the deadliest at a school in U.S. history. In April 1999, two students massacred 15 students at Columbine High School in Colorado.

Since 2013, there have been over 200 school shootings in the United States, or an average of nearly one a week, according to Everytownresearch.org.

The prevalence of deadly shootings on school campuses raises the question about how open school administrators should be with parents and the community when a gun is brought onto school grounds.

On Feb. 7, Inweekly broke the story that a student brought a handgun to Booker T. Washington High School when a parent alerted the newspaper.  A relative of the boy, who originally brought the handgun, later called Inweekly to say the student had no intention of hurting anyone, only himself. He planned to do it off campus, according to the relative.

She added that another student, William Caldwell, took the gun away from him to save his life. When Caldwell turned the gun in his backpack over to police, he was arrested and charged with possession of a firearm on school property, a third-degree felony. The other boy was placed under a Baker Act.

Inweekly later confirmed the gun incident with an official Pensacola Police arrest report.

Despite Inweekly breaking the story, neither school officials nor police had fully notified parents or students about the Feb. 7 incident to quell rampant and off-base rumors. There were no announcements on either the school district’s or high school’s website.

The only notification parents received was a vague robocall from Washington Principal Dr. Michael Roberts that was approved by Escambia County School District Superintendent Malcolm Thomas. Roberts said:

Good evening, parents and students.
This is Dr. Roberts calling from Booker T. Washington High School to inform all parents and students that today we had an incident at the campus in which a student was found to be in possession of an illegal item.

The school district, with the assistance of law enforcement, took immediate actions to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all parties.
I thank each of you for your care, support, and concerns.

Good evening.
Dr. Roberts

Parents heard there was an “illegal item” not a black and silver semi-automatic handgun with a full clip.

Escambia County School District Deputy Superintendent Norm Ross, a former principal, said the school district did not inform parents specifically about a student in possession of a gun Feb. 7 at Washington High School because the Pensacola Police Department was still investigating the incident.

The parents of the two students involved were immediately notified, Ross said. As far as notifying all Washington High parents about a handgun at the school, Ross said he saw no need for transparency.

“A SOP (standard operating procedure) that all get a call that soon, I’m not really sure about that. I would not advise that. That’s my personal feeling,” Ross said.

Superintendent Thomas told local media that he only remembers twice in eight years having to deal with firearms at an area high school.

Thomas said the Washington High student was caught before the gun could be used in a “threatening way.”

“Thankfully, no one was injured or threatened,” Thomas added. “(The gun) wasn’t brandished to other kids. In today’s world, we will not blink when we hear there might be a gun.”

In Okaloosa County, the school district shows a short film to its students at the beginning of the school year, “Tell Somebody.”

“We take school safety very seriously,” said Henry Kelly, the school system’s director of community affairs.

Although Okaloosa County hasn’t dealt with a weapon at one of its schools in several years, Kelly said how much information the school district releases depends on the circumstances.

“We coordinate with the sheriff’s office on what they want to share,” Kelly said. “If they want it, we will notify the parents that there was a safety issue at school. We try to be as forthcoming as we can.”

Kentucky, South Carolina, and other states across the country recommend crisis response templates that clearly inform parents about safety issues when they arise.

Following Sandy Hook, Escambia County formed a committee to look at the issue. Ross insisted the school district does have a plan “regarding situations concerning law enforcement” but said it’s exempt from public records law. Jennifer Ellis is in charge of the Escambia County School District’s Protective Services Department.

In addition, Ross said school administrators have attended several workshops around the state and country on school violence.

Ross credited a female student at Washington High for bringing the gun to the attention of Administrative Dean George Schellang. A classmate told her that he was going to shoot himself during lunch and opened his backpack and showed her the gun.

He added that law enforcement encourages students to come forward at the beginning of the school year. “The fact is that a vast majority of these situations (are found out) because another student spoke out.”

Bergosh, who has a son in high school, said you don’t want to panic parents. “It’s a delicate balancing act.”

However, he said the school district should err on the side of open communication like other school districts do.

“It’s a scary situation,” Bergosh said. “There should be full disclosure, so people don’t think you’re hiding something. It’s a tough call. But as a parent, I always want to know everything.”

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The National Education Association recommends three keys to school safety and gun violence prevention.
1.    Increase access to mental health services.
2.    Provide a safe and secure learning environment for all students.
3.    Take meaningful action on gun violence prevention.