Safety alerts closer for Florida private schools

The call came on the first day of school, first thing in the morning, from another private school a few blocks away. An intruder had just tried to break in. He took off before police arrived.

Shouldn't private school be notified, like public schools, in case of emergency situations in the neighborhood?
Shouldn’t private school be notified, like public schools, in case of emergency situations in the neighborhood?

Mary Staley, the principal of St. Paul Catholic School in Leesburg, Fla., knew she had to err on the side of caution. She ordered her school locked down.

“You have to think worst possible scenario,” Staley said.

Luckily, police caught the guy quickly, and nothing bad happened. But Staley said it would have been far better if police rather than a cautious neighbor had notified her.

In Florida, there is no requirement for emergency response agencies that routinely contact public school districts about major incidents – fires, SWAT team raids, you name it – to do the same with private schools. At a time when the definition of public education is expanding, it’s a reminder of old dividing lines. But bills to change that got their first hearings before House and Senate committees Tuesday, and cleared both.

The identical bills – SB 284 by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Palm City, and HB 369 by Rep. Mike La Rosa, R-St. Cloud – would require emergency agencies that already notify districts to also notify private schools. Only private schools that voluntarily opt in would be affected.

“I think it would be excessive to require emergency personnel to go identify every school,” Negron told the Senate Education Committee. But “if it’s simply a matter of putting them on the list, I don’t think that’s unreasonable so they’re treated with the same parity as public school.”

The committee voted unanimously for the bill. So did the House Choice & Innovation Subcommittee with its counterpart.

“The bills makes the health, safety and welfare of all students a top priority,” James Herzog, associate director of education for the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the latter. The conference represents 237 schools and 84,000 students.

Altogether, Florida has more than 2,000 private schools, with total enrollment topping 300,000.

Though seemingly non-controversial, similar bills did not pass last year. This year, school security is getting more attention from lawmakers in the wake of December’s shooting tragedy in Newtown, Conn. The Senate Education Committee had lengthy discussions Tuesday about two other safety bill. The private school bill generated virtually no comment.

Staley said the lockdown was a wake-up call. (St. Paul accepts tax credit scholarship students. The scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.)

It got her preK-8 school to open up lines of communication with police and fire departments, and to update its security plan. St. Paul Catholic was also one of many Central Florida Catholic schools to participate in a security training last month organized by the Diocese of Orlando.

If a similar event happens again, Staley said police now know to call. But she said the legislation is still needed for other private schools that haven’t taken those steps.

They might not have neighbors who give them a heads up. And police are more likely to know the facts on the ground and be able to recommend the best course of action, she said.

“Our kids are just like anybody else’s children,” she said. “They need to be protected.”

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director of Research & Special Projects at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times).