ESCAMBIA COUNTY, Fla. (WKRG) — After two school shooting threats during the first week of school at Pine Forest High School, Escambia County Public School leaders are reassuring parents that schools are the safest place for children.

WKRG News 5 sat down with Escambia County Public Schools superintendent Dr. Timothy Smith, Assistant Superintendent of Operations Shawn Dennis and Director of Protection Services and School Safety Kyle Kinser on the recent threats and what they are doing now to handle future threats.

The first threat happened on Tuesday, Aug. 16 when Pine Forest High School received the anonymous threat through Airdrop, the wireless system from Apple that allows people to send photos, videos and files over Bluetooth. The second threat happened on Thursday, Aug. 18. School officials said the second threat came through a social media type post.

How Escambia Co. schools respond to threats

Kinser said every school has its own specific incident response procedures.

“What you’re seeing happening on Tuesday and Thursday is a direct reflection of the administrative staff at the school and law enforcement responding to those threats, but also enacting those procedures we have in place,” said Kinser. “To me, I think that should give the community comfort, knowing that when you’re seeing these actions taking place, it’s not us looking past what some may consider, not a serious threat, but we take everything serious.”

Smith said the community got to see their partnership with the sheriff’s department in action.

“Pine Forest was on it. They jumped on it,” said Smith. “We work closely with the sheriff’s department, school resource officers when there is a situation, they will call in additional officers to respond, because one of the things you want to do in this type of situation is move quickly to really identify what’s the information and who’s associated with it. ”

Learning from the past helps the district develop new procedures

During both threat situations, Smith said the school went into a modified movement procedure, which restricts students to certain areas of the school.

“What that does is keep your hallway traffic lower,” said Smith. “We limit that movement as a precautionary move. So, when we do that, we want to communicate with parents. We don’t want to create fear, we just want to present that we have a situation that we are working on.”

When receiving a threat like they did this week, Smith said there are several mental checkpoints they go through. Dennis said it is a balancing act when they are trying to establish the credibility of the threat.

“You don’t want to immediately say, ‘Red flag, shut it down,’ but at the same time, you don’t want to take it lightly,” said Dennis. “So, what administrators do is, based on the initial information that we have received, we go to the limited mobility. Not the full lockdown, which puts everything in motion. There are departments in this district that have access to student behavior files and profiles, and they work closely with the administration, at the same time, law enforcement engages and you’re both looking at the credibility of the situation.”

Dennis said their procedures have been honed over years and years of dealing with threats.

“Many years ago, we had a lot of bomb threats in this district and what we learned from that is that you can’t take any of them for granted,” said Dennis. “Even though we were dealing with 10 to 15 a week, we were dealing with them every time.”

Dennis said the repeated threats helped the district to develop the process of moving to limited mobility. He believes this process is useful and notifying parents of increased security reassures parents while staff and law enforcement deal with the possibility of a threat.

“If we can give them piece of mind by saying things like ‘due to law enforcement activity in the area,’ what that does is tell them that there is nobody on campus, nobody in the school and it keeps the onslaught of parents rushing to the school to pick up their kids when there is absolutely no need. It’s really a balance of providing information, without overstepping our ability and at the same time, concurrently accessing threat credibility.”

Dealing with threats in the digital age

One aspect of the threats that school leaders are trying to get a grasp on is the connectivity that the students have nowadays.

“Our students are connected,” Dennis said. “They all have one of these phones in their pocket. So, there is advantage of giving parents information when we can, as timely as we can, so when ‘Johnny’ calls with these fictitious events because the kid next to him told him what’s going on, mom and dad know that that’s not consistent with what I heard the superintendent’s message says.”

Dennis explained how misinformation about a possible threat can spread from school to school when it’s shared by students over social media. Dennis said students are interconnected with one another, so misinformation spreads across the district, rather than just within the school.

“With that being the case, think about the threat that happened at Pine Forest, somebody takes a screenshot, sends it to a kid at West Tech, now he has a screenshot and he’s sending it to all of his friends. It spreads like wildfire. If a kid takes that screenshot out of context, that can even be construed as a brand-new threat. That is why we have to get out as much information as possible to make sure parents understand, this is where the threat is happening, it’s to this extent, we’re reacting to it and so on.”   

With two threats happening in one week, at the same high school, Smith said they are actively monitoring any future threats.

“The good thing is, if it is going throughout WiFi systems and networks, we can get it. In finding out who originated the message, our IT specialist was critical. It was a team effort, but again, that’s where parents can actually feel safer because they know their school administration is going to address these issues.”

Smith said it is important to know that when the person who causes the disruption is identified, there are serious consequences.

“We can’t have this going on,” Smith said. “It takes away from instruction time and it makes people feel uneasy. So, the consequences are very severe.”

In the nature of the electronic environment, Smith said things are going to eventually happen.

“We’ve got young kids who sometimes are learning how to navigate social media, and sometimes bad decisions are made, but when those issues surface and our administration comes upon a situation like that, there’s policies and procedures in place,” said Smith.

Escambia Co. schools working to keep students safe

Kinser said he feels safe with his daughter in the school than any other place he takes her. As Director of Protection Services and School Safety, Kinser is on the campus where the threat is happening.  

“I want you to think about any other place you go out in the world. Who else has mental health professionals, law enforcement professionals, guidance counselors and cyber security all in one location, all to support a safe environment,” said Kinser. “I feel safe with my daughters in the school than any other place I take her.”

Those representing the district feel that partnering with local law enforcement has helped the district create a safe environment for students.

“I think our partnership with law enforcement agencies is huge,’ said Smith. “So, I want to reassure people that we work very hard to have the safest schools that we can. What they are seeing in these two incidents is that we are aggressively dealing and tending to these situations.”

When it comes to school resource officers and campus security, all of Escambia County’s high schools have two SRO’s, except for Northview and West Florida, which have one, all middle schools in the district have one SRO and all of the other schools have school safety officers.

“A lot of people don’t know the difference between school resource officer and campus security,” said Dennis. “All of the high schools have uniformed, sworn in SROs. School safety officers are predominantly, our guardians or off-duty deputies, or Pensacola police officers. The layperson may think that a school resource officer is in every school, but a school resource officer is a specifically trained law enforcement sworn-in officer, and those officers are employed at the high school and middle school levels.”

“We have a group of individuals that whenever we see these red flags pop up, we respond,” said Kinser. “We come together to make sure these situations and threats are handled properly, and some parents ask if the student is going to come back to school the next day after making a threat, absolutely not. We take these threats seriously, and they need to know that if this happens, this is going to be dealt with seriously.”

The reactions that occurred recently at Pine Forest, Dennis said, are a testament to the fact that Escambia County Public Schools are doing the right thing.

“I think a lot of parents are worried when we go into a lockdown and think that the schools aren’t safe. No, reality of our life nowadays is threats occur and sometimes you get advanced warning, and sometimes you don’t,” said Dennis. “When you get an advanced warning, your ability to react is critical. What’s imperative to realize is that we reacted and here we are having school at Pine Forest today, tomorrow and the rest of the school year, because we have procedures in place, partnerships with the right people and we take this business seriously. The irony is that parents say the schools aren’t safe because of lockdowns. No, the schools are safe, because of the lockdowns. My daughter already graduated, but I would put her in our schools tomorrow. Any one of them.”

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