With the return of students in Collier County from winter break recently, the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., remains fresh in the minds of many in our local community.
Although this event occurred several hundred miles away, it is still a cause for concern in our own backyard. Since the perpetrator targeted elementary students, this particular occurrence serves as a wake-up call — a reminder that school violence is not limited to high school campuses as it was in 1999 with Columbine or to a university campus as it was with Virginia Tech in 2007.
School violence is not something new. The first school shooting took place in 1764. There were 143 school shootings between then and 1999, and there have been 28 since Columbine.
The Collier County Sheriff's Office and Collier County Public Schools wish to assure you that we have no higher priority than the safety of our schools. We enjoy a solid partnership which is focused on a common goal: providing the safest learning environment possible for our students, staff, parents, visitors and school volunteers.
We have a strong and proactive school safety and security plan in place. It includes various training sessions and regularly scheduled drills which cover an array of scenarios. Since Dec. 15, the day after the tragedy in Newtown, the Sheriff's Office and the school district began a review of existing security plans to assess whether refinement was needed, as well as a review of our communications and responses to crises. We are continuing to review our procedures and will make changes as appropriate.
The school district and local law-enforcement agencies partner on a safety committee that establishes and reviews policies, procedures and response protocols designed to provide the highest level of safety possible in our schools. The committee will continue to review any enhancements to school security in Collier County.
The Sheriff's Office has a long history of providing safety and security in our schools. The partnership between the Sheriff's Office and Collier County Public Schools began in 1977 when then-Sheriff Aubrey Rogers first assigned deputies to safeguard our schools. There were eight deputies then and there are 43 today. The commitment remains stronger than ever.
Our cadre of Youth Relations Bureau deputies provides an on-campus presence in our schools. They serve as mentors and role models for students. We truly believe the relationships formed between the deputies and our students are making a difference. Students and staff feel safe and secure knowing that the deputies, considered to be members of each school's family, are on duty to protect and serve.
Youth Relations Bureau deputies train continuously in tactical responses to school violence situations, are updated on mental-health issues, and the majority of them are certified in critical incident training. In partnership with the school district, the Naples Police Department, the Marco Island Police Department and other first responders, we have plans in place in the event of any emergency.
In response to the Sandy Hook tragedy, school principals and administrators were contacted about appropriate concerns and interventions for our students, including counseling as needed and safety coordination with their Youth Relations Bureau deputies. Teachers were also directly provided intervention resources for students, which were also shared with parents.
On Jan. 4, all school principals, assistant principals and deans, facilities managers and high school activities coordinators were brought together to participate in a daylong critical incident response training meeting conducted jointly by the school district and the Sheriff's Office. Among other things, safety procedures were reviewed along with emergency response protocols and particularly school incident response protocols. A webcast, containing a synopsis of the training, will be shared with all employees.
Parent and community resources continue to be made available online at www.collierschools.com.
School safety is a community issue. As community members and parents you can also help to keep our schools safe. Encourage your child to talk to someone in authority if they have a friend who is exhibiting unusual behavior. If you are concerned about the behavior of a student or adult, please let someone in law enforcement or in the schools know. We all need to be a part of the solution.
We are proud to be part of such a caring and committed community. We believe that caring attitude will serve us well as we work together to keep Collier County a safe place to live, work and go to school.