The Benjamin School sign. The school added armed guards to its campuses in January, the month before the deadly school shooting in Parkland. (Thomas Cordy / The Palm Beach Post)
Florida lawmakers, galvanized by last month’s deadly high school shooting in Parkland, want to arm school employees to better protect students.
American Heritage School in Delray Beach is way ahead of the state Legislature when it comes to security measures.
American Heritage already has armed police officers and private security.
Ten years ago, it installed glass that is hurricane resistant or bulletproof.
A new $1 million reinforced fence already is being installed at a Plantation campus.
And under consideration now: “Clear backpacks,” American Heritage vice president Doug Laurie said Wednesday.
Some private schools are years ahead of what lawmakers and public schools are considering with regard to safety measures for students.
After 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High school in Parkland on Feb. 14, Florida lawmakers this week passed bills to boost school safety. The bills include money to physically harden schools and create a “school marshal program” that would allow some school employees to carry concealed weapons on campuses after they complete 132 hours of training by the county’s sheriff’s office.
The state is playing catch-up to many private schools that employ either armed private security guards or hire off-duty police officers to patrol their campus.
While private schools officials say nothing is foolproof, they say they’ve worked for years to add layers of safety to their schools.
The idea of clear backpacks seems prescient. On Thursday, a gun was discovered in a kindergartner’s backpack at a charter school near West Palm Beach.
Private school safety measures range from physical barriers and school construction features, to guards and armed personnel, to technology that protects the school or helps communicate information during a crisis.
Some of these policies are inexpensive, such as keeping doors locked or having a single point of entry. Some are costly, such as technology and upgraded construction.
With tuition ranging from $10,000 to more than $30,000 a year at most private schools, cost isn’t an impediment to security improvement, private school officials said. Neither is timing.
“That’s the good thing about being a private school,” Laurie said. “You don’t have to wait for lawmakers to make your policies. You can make changes expeditiously.”
School security is on every parent’s mind. Like their brethren in the public schools, private school officials have been bombarded by parents seeking information and reassurance about student safety in the wake of the Parkland, which left 14 students and three staff members dead. “For the past three weeks, 80 percent of my day is dealing with security,” American Heritage’s Laurie said.
Security has always been a top issue for private schools, said Jacqueline Whitfield, headmaster of Grandview Preparatory School in Boca Raton.
But now security is likely to be a leading issue for parents considering private school, as important as academic programs or class sizes.
“100 percent,’ said Shimmie Kaminetsky, executive director of Katz Yeshiva High School of South Florida in Boca Raton. “Safety is going to be a critical factor.”
In January, The Benjamin School switched to armed guards from unarmed guards, said Juan Carlos Fanjul, chief development officer for the K-12 school, with campuses in Palm Beach Gardens and North Palm Beach.
Fanjul said the upgrade was decided after a review by the school’s board of trustees and its head of school, Robert Goldberg.
The guards are “highly trained” former law enforcement or military personnel, Fanjul said.
Parents were happy with the move: “When we switched to armed guards, we had an overwhelmingly positive response to it,” Fanjul said.
Oxbridge Academy of the Palm Beaches, a private high school in West Palm Beach, has armed security roaming the campus, too, said John Klemme, head of school.
Oxbridge also has a new feature added last fall: A school security official has the ability to remotely lock all exterior building doors, including the main entrance, Klemme said.
Rosarian Academy on Flagler Drive in West Palm Beach, which teaches early childhood to 8th grade students, took steps after the Parkland shooting to beef up its security.
The school doubled its presence of off-duty West Palm Beach policy officers, said Stephen Rubenacker, head of school.
Other upgrades are planned, including rewiring parts of the campus to improve communications, he said.
The school also is exploring buying adjoining property “to completely enclose the campus,” Rubenacker said.
At St. Andrews School in Boca Raton, the pre-K through 12th grade school added off-duty Boca Raton police officers to its private security team, said Carlos Barroso, school spokesman.
Hurricane-resistant glass isn’t something people would think of when contemplating school security. But it proved critical to preventing even more deaths at Douglas High School.
The Miami Herald reported that the gunman tried to shoot out the teacher’s lounge on the third floor of the freshman building, possibly for a sniper’s vantage point as hundreds of students and faculty ran fleeing below.
But his bullets could not penetrate the hurricane glass recently installed in the lounge.
Rosarian’s Rubenacker said the school has been replacing its windows with hurricane glass over time.
That glass is a key feature cited by Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene, founder of The Greene School in West Palm Beach. The school’s students, from early childhood through 6th grade, attend school in a new building with a single point of entry and hurricane glass, Greene said.
Communication was a major issue for students, teachers and parents during the Douglas High School shooting. Calls could not go through and students texted with each other and their parents to try to find to find out what was going on.
Several private schools say they already have an emergency communications system in place.
St. Andrews School has a smart-phone app that features a text notification system. It also has emergency features to call 911 or summon school security, Barroso said.
American Heritage uses a system called Silver Shield that provides information to parents and students. It also screens any visitors that come to the school, combing watch lists, FBI’s Most Wanted lists, and sexual predator databases, Laurie said.
Grandview also has a text-alert system, Whitfield said.
Limiting access to the school campus is another security feature that many private schools employ.
Katz Yeshiva, the largest Orthodox High School outside the New York area, has the benefit of being on the campus of the Jewish Federation, which has private security constantly patrolling the campus, Kaminetsky said.
In addition, Yeshiva has armed guards in its buildings, locked exterior doors and hurricane resistant windows, Kaminetsky said.
Some 20 years ago, St. Andrews’s 81 acres was an open campus. Now it is walled and fenced, Barroso said.
Changes that limit students’ exposure to the outdoors may be the next wave of school construction. But school officials say they fly in the face of Florida schools’ longtime nod to its climate.
“There are learning advantages to fresh air and sunshine, and all the things that a Florida school campus is able to do with exterior hallways,” Whitfield said.
At this point, most private school leaders say they’re not inclined to use extreme measures for security, such as metal detectors for students.
“They’re schools. Not fortresses,” said Oxbridge’s Klemme.
But there are other changes they can make. Yeshiva wants to add more security cameras. Oxbridge is looking into a texting system so children know whether to stay locked in their classrooms or flee.
And American Heritage also is weighing additional measures beyond backpacks, which Laurie said would discourage students from bringing dangerous items to school.
Under consideration: Installing metal detectors for bags that cannot be made of clear plastic. This includes duffel bags often used to carry sports equipment, Laurie said.
Laurie said he’s glad Florida lawmakers are taking steps now to discourage another mass school shooting. But he’s disappointed it took this long to happen.
He said American Heritage began beefing up its security in the wake of the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. The shooting left 12 students and one teacher dead.
“I know (Parkland) was a huge shock for South Florida, but the wake-up was 19 years ago, with Columbine,” Laurie said. “At least it was for us.”