ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. — Violent threats against schools have become an all-too-common occurrence and the pressure to find a safe solution has forced school districts to look for new strategies to keep threats and actual violence at bay.
Following the Parkland massacre in 2017, Florida schools are required to have at least one-armed officer on every campus and the app, FortifyFL is used statewide to report suspicious activity.
But schools and law enforcement are also turning to more enhanced technology to improve response to real threats, and speed their clearance of fake ones. St. Johns County is using technology not seen anywhere else on the First Coast and calls it a 'powerful' way to keep schools safe.
From the moment a CENTEGIX alert from a school staff member is received, the system is in motion. St. Johns County 911 dispatchers direct resources. The school’s assigned deputy receives a cell phone alert, responds, and additional deputies arrive to help and analysts inside the Real Time Intelligence Center begin investigating.
"It's all a collective work behind the scenes to keep all 50,000 students safe in our county," Youth Services Unit Lieutenant West Kennedy said.
The purpose of the Real Time Intelligence Center is to expedite the preservation of life and property.
"We're basically a force multiplier," RTIC Sergeant Samantha James said.
Sergeant Samantha James says only a small group of intelligence analysts have access to the cameras inside St. Johns County Public Schools in real-time.
“We immediately pull up school cameras and start looking to see if something is actually occurring," James added.
The system, called CENTEGIX, includes a CrisisAlert system, allowing school staff to alert law enforcement at the push of a button. Whether it's a medical emergency or threat of harm, the alert shows dispatchers a red dot, which is the exact location of the reporting staffer.
“We can direct deputies to a threat, instead of them having to search an entire building not knowing where the bad guy is," James said.
St. Johns County Sheriff Robert Hardwick says the immediacy of the system is what makes it unique.
“It's real time data, real time intelligence fed from this center, this building to our deputy sheriff’s that are responding which is going to go ahead and actually set up for a better response, and hopefully save some lives," Sheriff Robert Hardwick said.
In several St. Johns County schools, the Sheriff's Office can do more than just observe what's happening inside a school. It uses access control to manually lock doors.
“The goal with the locking and unlocking of doors is to steer the active shooter towards the deputy sheriff so he can kill him, that’s what the goal of this is," Hardwick said.
Hardwick calls the technology ‘powerful’.
“What it does is give us that edge on the battlefield per se. You watch these tactics, the way they clear hallways, where they peek around corners, it's similar tactics that we use, that the United States military uses to fight the enemy," Hardwick said.
The need for such technology, however, is not something to celebrate.
“I never thought I'd sit here, you know, with 31 years in law enforcement and say we're getting better at active shooters in a school, where nine-year-old girls and little boys are shot and killed by a coward," Hardwick adds.
The Sheriff's Office says it receives several tips about school threats each week through social media, phone calls, the FortifyFL reporting app or just overheard conversations on school campuses. Youth Services Unit Lieutenant West Kennedy says they investigate all tips regardless of credibility.
“The biggest priority for our deputies inside of our schools is maintaining the safety and security of not only students but the faculty," Kennedy said.
Making written or online threats to kill, do harm or conduct a mass shooting is a second-degree felony. So far of more than 100 threats investigated against its schools this year, the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office says only three were credible. Deputies arrested three people this school year. Kennedy says the majority of threats are ‘misunderstandings'.
“Even if the threats are not credible, and there's nothing to it, what can we do to help that child to understand what problems they could be going through in life?" Kennedy said.
Hardwick says the Sheriff’s Office and School District are committed to keeping violence out of schools.
“We hope it never happens in our backyard, but we continue to watch this in America and it’s happening everywhere. It doesn’t discriminate," Hardwick said. "We just got to get better as a community as law enforcement entities, and not be afraid to say no to any technology or any techniques or tactics that we can use to combat the enemy.”
A sheriff’s deputy is assigned to 40 of St. Johns County's 43 Schools. The others have a St. Augustine Police Officer. Sheriff Hardwick says the department is committed to adding more detectives to investigate crimes against schools.
We also checked in with Duval, Clay, Nassau and Putnam Counties about how its school districts and law enforcement handle violence in schools. Here is what we found by county.
Duval County Public Schools Police Chief Greg Burton says when a tip or threat is received, a team of detectives, and law enforcement partners like the FBI and DEA work together to investigate and will apply the fullest extent of the law if necessary.
"You can receive up to 15 years for having a written threat to a school. Once we do that, you could actually have prison time, jail time. You could have loss of opportunities for jobs, loss of opportunities for continuing your education," DCPS Police Chief Burton said.
DCPS conducts hundreds of threat assessment investigations each year based on the tips it receives, regardless of credibility. The number of arrests for making a threat against schools in Duval County have skyrocketed in the last three years. According to Duval County Public Schools, in:
2019-2020: 4 arrests
2020-2021: 1 arrest
2021-2022: 2 arrests
2022-2023: 13 arrests so far this school year
Burton says tips and threats are received through numerous outlets like social media, phone calls, and written notes.
“We have to make sure these threats stop because our children are suffering. The mental trauma of having to go into code red lock downs, having to do backpack searches every day. It's necessary. As long as there are threats, we're going to do it but if we can get these threats stopped, our children will then be able to learn more effectively," Burton added.
Burton says the district's police department recently added a traffic unit and expects a K9 unit in the future. Burton says schools conduct random searches on students.
In Putnam County, the sheriff's office says they've seen a slight uptick in threats against its schools. Most threats come through anonymous tips or messages through FortifyFL and social media.
Putnam County Sheriff's Office Master Sergeant Caleb French says deputies are assigned to each school but also rely on school guardians to protect. Guardians are trained armed staff members you would never know are armed.
"This year we had a toy firearm that was intercepted by a guardian. The guardians are school board employees that have undertaken extensive training so they can also be armed on school grounds and participate if there is any sort of threat. They are trained to engage and eliminate that threat. Our guardian program is leading really in the nation as far as the steps that we've taken for school safety," Master Sergeant Caleb French said.
Since the suspicious activity reporting tool, FortifyFL was created in 2018, the Putnam County Sheriff's Office says its received about 570+ tips to date. Not all of these tips are credible, anything can be reported but the department investigates all tips regardless.
Chief Deputy Joe Wells says the school district has its own police department but is only staffed by the school safety director who oversees all school safety plans. Wells says its deputies are trained to keep schools safe.
“Let the school district do what they do best, educate our children and let us do what we do best, protect our children,” Chief Deputy Joe Wells said.
Clay County uses SaferWatch, an instant notification system to administrators and law enforcement in the case of an emergency on campus.
“Half of it is the mobile panic alarm and the other half of it is where you can actually submit tips and type it out anonymously. You can send videos, you can go live and through the sheriff's office Real Time Crime Center, they can actually see it live,” Clay County Schools Police Chief Kenneth Wagner said.
Clay County Schools Police Chief Kenneth Wagner says the sheriff’s office also has access to cameras in schools. He says the district is actively looking to upgrade its security systems.
“We are also looking at additional technologies when it comes to metal detectors and weapons detection,” Wagner added.
Each Clay County school has a behavioral threat assessment team consisting of a school administration member, a mental health professional, teacher, school resource officer, and a nurse. When the team is aware of a threat to a school, it conducts a threat assessment.
“These teams across the district have cumulatively conducted threat assessments 87 times in 2021-2022 school year and 250 times during the 2022-2023 school year. Clay County District Schools takes every threat seriously and investigates fully using our Comprehensive Threat Assessment Guidelines (CSTAG),” the district says.
Nassau County School District Police Chief Alfred Smith says his focus to keeping schools safe is prevention.
“A lot of law enforcement agencies spend a lot of time learning to react and respond to incidents. I'm a true believer in that almost every school incident that occurred could have been prevented,” Nassau County School District Police Chief Alfred Smith said.
Smith says student and staff access to mental health services are a priority of the district. He says school district police, the sheriff’s office, and neighboring department's partner to provide mental health services.
“The pressures on the students these days has really created an uptick in the need for services. Our officers go to some extensive training, both in recognizing youth mental health scenarios with our students and active shooter training. Smith said.
Nassau County School District has 16 schools with roughly 15,000 students. Smith says the district is receiving a few threats a month against its schools.
“We've had one that the Nassau County Sheriff's Department has made an arrest on,” Smith revealed.
Smith says portable metal detectors have been ordered for Fernandina Beach, Yulee, West Nassau, and Hilliard High Schools.