Gun Violence Threats Increasing in South Florida Schools: Keeping Students Safe

Tony Montalto

A teenager was arrested for threatening to kill students at a Pompano Beach school on Wednesday.

And in recent weeks, there have been a series of online threats against South Florida schools that have led to the arrest of at least four other students.

NBC 6’s Julia Bagg and Marissa Bagg (Moms With A Mic) sat down with Tony Montalto, president of Stand With Parkland, and Michael D’ Angelo, security expert and former South Miami police captain, to discuss school safety, new initiatives being put in place across South Florida schools and their hopes to end gun violence.

Moms with a Mic: What do you think is the number one problem that schools are facing right now when it comes to trying to ensure safety for staff and students?

Tony Montalto: “Well, I think it’s a real readjustment following COVID and getting back into normal learning and normal procedures. Another struggle is maintaining a safe and secure culture in the school to make sure that students and staff members feel safe. And then finally, we need everyone teachers, administrators, other students, other staff members to look out for any children that are exhibiting concerning behaviors or showing that they might need a little bit more extra help. I think that those are where the real focus needs to be, is prevention and getting a hold of people and getting the help they need before they resort to violence.”

Moms with a Mic: There was some legislation filed Tuesday that speaks to mental health services. Tell us a bit about that.

Tony Montalto: “Well, as you know, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission has been involved in investigating the tragedy that took my daughter Gina and 16 other wonderful souls back on Valentine’s Day of 2018, and some of their recommendations have also broken out into improving mental health in the state. So just today, Christine Hunschofsky, who was the former mayor of Parkland and now represents District 96, her and Senator Gayle Harrell have introduced HB 899, which is entitled ‘Mental Health of Students,’ and part of that bill comes from the recommendations of the Stoneman Douglas Commission. It will ensure that if a student is receiving services in school that we look at all the other wraparound services that are available for our family to make sure that we’re addressing the problems of the student from as many angles as possible and making maximum use of the services that we have out there and available right to that right now.”

Michael D’Angelo: “The mental health component that Tony just spoke to is a key component that’s been lacking for so many years. It’s got to be a piece that fits into the equation that’s well communicated from all ends of the spectrum. If the experts in the mental health capacity notice the red flags, then that has to be followed up with immediate action so that the team of those responsible for the security and those responsible for mental health issues with the students are all communicating, working together and making sure that this stays a continuous process.”

Moms with a Mic: We have seen certainly some changes since February of 2018. What are maybe some of the safety improvements that have been most significant?

Michael D’Angelo: “I would say we’ve seen changes going all the way back from Columbine Senior High. Although they have been slow and not moving at the pace we need them to and we continue to have these incidents, there has been some change. A perfect example of that communication piece in the Michigan event that we just all went through. We know that staff members did things right. Those flags were caught. Things were brought to people’s attention, but there seems to be a gap in the communication of those that deal with the mental health or those in the in the one-on-one instruction — the teachers that worked every day with the students — and then those tasked with the security, whether it be law enforcement or internal security.”

Tony Montalto: “We are happy at some of the changes that have been made and some of the progress that Stand with Parkland has helped drive. And we’ll start with the one back in March of 2018 with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, which provided more money to schools to harden the campus [security] and more money for mental health increases in our schools here in the state. And finally, the most significant changes to firearm laws that we’ve seen in Florida in 20 years. … Another great piece that Stand with Parkland helped create federally is, and that’s the clearinghouse of best practices for school safety. That brought together the power of the federal government with the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice all contributing to this thing. It has programs that will help you address the climate and culture in school…it has things that will help you with your active shooter plan if something fails.”

Moms with a Mic: In regards to the recent threats to South Florida schools, how do police tackle which ones are credible and which ones are not?

Michael D’Angelo: “It’s always a challenge. I think the overwhelming effective piece here is that between the law enforcement administrators and the state attorney’s offices, we’ve taken this zero tolerance stance. And this is one of those circumstances where I think everyone agrees zero tolerance is what’s called for. Maybe there’s nothing behind the threat. There’s nothing to show that this person can actively carry out or had any intention to carrying out [a threat], but the message needs to be sent that we’re in a day and age where these types of threats are not designed for getting social media attention. They’re taken very seriously. Law enforcement is going to investigate and follow them up now. There is no need of ‘I feel bad if I call or waste anybody’s time.’ If you see these threats, especially if you pick it up on social media, call law enforcement right away or report it to the school right away. It will be acted upon. Data shows us time and time again, in every single active shooter event recorded history, there’s been some leakage of that intent. In modern day with the school shootings, of course, the main way is through social media, but every single one of them, there’s been leaked intent, either on social media platforms, talking to coworkers, or talking to fellow students. Word gets out that someone who’s planning a credible threat has been talking about it or has been posting about it and that information is taken seriously.”

Moms with a Mic: Are there any misconceptions about how police are trying to improve safety in schools?

Michael D’Angelo: “Having a law enforcement officer in the campus cannot be understated. … In the aftermath of Parkland, the effectiveness and the credibility of school resource officers clearly took a hit. And we can argue for hours about how ineffective that particular school resource officer truly was at Parkland, but we’re talking about a professional law enforcement officer who not only has an interest in working in that environment, in that climate with children and educators, but is shown to excel in that area. Long gone are the days where the school resource officer was the cop who’d been on the job for 25 years and wanted a nice 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday gig to ride out until his retirement. Now we’re seeing the cream of the crop, the professional law enforcement officers who show that they have that level of compassion and the ability to communicate and engage with children. They’re the first line of defense physically in the school as being the armed professional who is on site.”

Tony Montalto: “Another piece is that school resource officers should not be part of the school discipline program. They’re not there for discipline. They’re there to provide protection if the worst happens. We certainly wish that we had seen a better performance from the officer at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, but we do believe as a group, Stand with Parkland, that those school resource officers are invaluable.”

Moms with a Mic: Are we any safer today than we were on February 14, 2018?

Michael D’Angelo: I would say we’re much safer than we were in 2018. Again here, particularly in Florida, because it was right here in our own backyard. … Miami-Dade County has put a Miami-Dade police officer in every high school and middle school in [the county] now, and that’s still expanding. We’re seeing those initiatives continue, and to me, it’s hard to say that across the board we’re safer because we don’t know when the next credible threats coming in or where it’s coming in, but between that and the basic measures, the hardening of the schools, the reducing entrances to one entrance, the most basic security features that we’ve always recommended for any type of organization, we’re now seeing them come into schools. Traditionally schools did not want to give the appearance of being this prison-like environment. It was a warm, hospitable educational environment. So all these security features and hardware and cameras and door locks and intercom systems just didn’t seem to set the right tone and atmosphere for an educational setting. But I think since 2018, we’ve kind of surpassed that to a greater understanding that there is a way to find a balance between a warm, comfortable atmosphere for education and learning and doing so in a way that safety is built into that environment as well.”

Tony Montalto: “I think thanks to the Florida Legislature, certainly here in the state, we are in much better shape with the progression of these school safety bills. … Federally, we know more needs to be done. We need to have some kind of federal red flag law just like we passed here in Florida as part of the Stoneman Douglas Act. We need to either have it incentivize states to pass those laws or we need to have it federally so that it can be acted upon to again get people the help they need before they resort to violence.”

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