SEBRING - The Highlands County Sheriff's Office completed security reviews recently of every School Board of Highlands County campus and offered suggestions to the district to improve school safety.
The safety review was prompted after the school shooting on Dec. 14 in Sandy Hook, Conn.
Sheriff Susan Benton said, "We reviewed all our own policies and procedures ... but, we realized no matter how we responded, if we didn't know how the schools were going to be when we got there it might be a huge barrier to the response."
Benton noted that the school safety surveys were conducted by Public Information Officer Nell Hays, who is a certified practitioner in crime prevention by environmental design, and a member of the SWAT team. They looked at every single school assessing various elements such as landscaping, fencing, lighting, ingress and egress.
They also surveyed the schools at night to review lighting, she said.
In a letter to the school district, Benton noted that several of the recommendations are "fairly large projects" such as major landscape cleanups and the upgrading of school-based radio communications.
She suggested a family cleanup day at each school with parent volunteers or using of an inmate labor crew with the sheriff's office and the district sharing the cost of supervision.
Also, Benton stated they are looking into the possibility of using surplus county equipment for the school-based radio system upgrade.
Benton said the sheriff's office would like to see each school using the same standards for video surveillance equipment so law enforcement can get timely access to view, for example, what is going on in the cafeteria if there is a reported emergency.
At a recent principals meeting at the district office, Sheriff's Chief Deputy Mark Schrader and Hays presented the principals with the results of the safety and security reviews.
Deputy Superintendent Rodney Hollinger said the reports will be reviewed by each school's safety committee.
"Because of the variety of structures in the schools they've got a variety of suggestions with these site surveys," he said. "Some of our schools are more accessible to outside view and there are pros and cons to that. Law enforcement wants to see what is going on as they drive by, but then the general population is able to see through and into the schools."
Without identifying schools, did the survey show that some campuses had significantly more security challenges than others?
"It just depends on the particular site; there was no winner or loser; it is suggestions based on how the campus is built and what is there," Hollinger said.
Benton stressed the importance of consistency in safety procedures at all the schools and consistency in the response that public safety responders provide at each school.
"It's important for a deputy who is running an emergency code to that school not to have to think 'does Woodlawn [Elementary] do it this way or does Memorial [Elementary] do it that way? What school am I heading to?'" Benton said. So on an active shooter call, a deputy will know that each school will be taking the same general precautions.