Escambia County schools will see random metal detector sweeps starting this fall

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The Escambia County School District will roll out a series of school safety measures this fall, including random metal detector sweeps and spending close to $1 million for mental health counseling programs in schools.

Superintendent Malcolm Thomas said his multi-phase school hardening initiative has been in place for the past five years since the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in 2012. He said the biggest change students can expect in the upcoming school year is 10-15 minute sweeps conducted by school staff with handheld portable metal detectors.

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"We’re going with the random metal detection, rather than having a single-door (metal detector) because we think it’s more efficient," Thomas said. "If you have a single door with high school students, they’ll find a way to defeat that one door to get their contraband on campus. We think if we are randomly searching bags and persons with metal detectors and we’re doing that every day at different locations, it keeps everybody more honest and will keep, certainly, weapons off our campus."

Thomas said the sweeps will take place randomly on a nearly daily basis at high schools and middle schools throughout Escambia County starting in the 2018-2019 school year.

"For example, one day maybe you (sweep) buses 1, 2 and 3, the next day its buses 11, 13 and 14, the next day you get the first 10 car riders," Thomas said. "The next day you grab 10 minutes worth of students that walk through the door. You’re never gonna know where it’s gonna happen."

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Also by the start of the upcoming school year, Thomas said all but "four or five schools" will be down to one access entry door for students, staff and guests while all other school doors are locked. He said the remaining schools should be down to the one accessible entry door by early fall.

Security will also continue to be addressed this fall, and Thomas hopes to restore school resource officers who were let go due to the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office budget cuts. Every school in the county will have at least one armed deputy on campus, according to Thomas, who said off-duty officers will continue to work in elementary schools.

"We’re still working with the sheriff’s department in Escambia County to determine if the SROs that were eliminated by the sheriff at the beginning of the year, if they’ll be put back into place. We’d like to see that happen," Thomas said. "It really depends on the sheriff’s personnel issues."

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Categorical funds left over from the 2017-2018 school Safe Schools Appropriation Allocation will pay for the metal detectors, Thomas said. The increase in the new 2018-2019 allocation will go toward paying the off-duty officers who will cover county elementary schools.

Thomas also said Florida categorical funding will provide $980,000 that the school district will use to hire or contract more mental health counselors.

"We’re also looking for software that will help students when they get in trouble," Thomas said. "Watch videos, play through role model situations so that if you’re having anger management issues, it helps you address those issues. So a variety of approaches there in the mental health money that we will be spending."

Details on the new measures were presented by the district to the school board in April.

Jake Newby can be reached at jnewby@pnj.com or 850-435-8538.

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