NORTH PORT — Some children see Officer Steven Roy walking through the halls at Lamarque Elementary School and ask for hugs.
Some ask for high-fives.
And others ask why he carries a gun.
He only gives them one response: “To protect you.”
The officer’s eyes start to well with tears; his voice softens.
“No person will come into this school and hurt my kids,” Roy said.
It has been one year ago today since a gunman opened fire inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School leaving 17 people dead.
School districts across the state have tightened their security in response to the tragedy.
The Sarasota County School District is no exception.
Within the last year, the district has spent $23 million to increase security at its schools.
The most notable change was the district’s decision to establish an internal police force.
A school resource officer now stands guard at nearly every elementary school.
At Cranberry Elementary, Officer Marino Rotondo pays attention to children who may have had a rough morning. As they get dropped off for school, he welcomes their hugs.
The school has about 650 students.
They see the officer everyday.
He wants them to feel safe.
He wants them to seek him out if they believe there is a possible threat to the school.
“A fourth-grader, a fifth-grader may hear something, maybe from their older brother or older sister. They have to have enough faith in me to come to me and say, ‘Hey, I heard that somebody’s going to do this,’” Rotondo said. “If you don’t interact with them, you’re just another person. You’re a guy in a uniform. You’ve got to build that rapport with them.”
The district hired a chief of police, three sergeants, two regional response officers and 26 school resource officers for the 2018-19 school year.
As the next school year approaches, the district looks to hire 25 additional officers.
Another major security upgrade includes establishing a single point of entry into every school.
Visitors can only enter a school through the front office. They must also sign in through the Raptor system, which conducts a background check by scanning their ID.
At some schools, like Lamarque and Cranberry Elementary, the front office staff works behind bullet-resistant glass, designed to give them enough time to call for help in the event of a shooter.
Lockdown drills will now become more frequent at schools. Schools will start practicing monthly drills to prepare students for a threat.
Teachers, faculty and staff members will all have the ability to initiate a lockdown if they witness suspicious activity.
Brad Porinchak, principal of Cranberry Elementary, said parents have had mixed reactions to the new security measures.
“When we were younger we didn’t have lockdown drills,” Porinchak said. “We didn’t have all these type of worries and they kind of feel bad that this is now the world we live in, that we have to have so many safety protocols in place, but they understand that we’re doing it to keep their kids safe.”
At Lamarque Elementary, parents shared similar concerns.
“These are the youngest kids in our district and they still want to make sure that this is a fun place to go and learning is taking place,” Principal Troy Thompson said. “They want to make sure that they’re still feeling that welcoming atmosphere that Lamarque is very well known for.”
Raising mental health awareness has also become more prominent since the shooting in Parkland. The district has added 16 new mental health therapists at elementary schools and six at middle schools.
The district has also made students aware of phone applications such as FortifyFL, which allows them to anonymously report a potential threat on campus. Crisis Text Line, a nationwide program that provides free confidential crisis counseling via text message, is also available to students.
North Port High School is one of the last schools to get security upgrades.
Certain areas around the school remain under construction as changes are made to include a single point of entry. Bullet-resistant glass will also be installed in the front office.
A gate has already been put up at the back entrance and another will soon go up at the front of the school.
Officer Mike Mills said it was challenging to make the school more secure due to its open campus.
We were having a hard time before,” Mills said. “It was hard to monitor all the different areas, but now with the new fencing, the new gates and the way they’re setting up the front, it’ll just funnel everybody into one spot, which will really help with safety.”
At least one student at North Port High appreciates the efforts.
“Creating a one entry/one exit school, installing bullet proof glass and adding extra security personal are a few physical precaution I have seen change since,” North Port High School senior Austin Justice said in an email. “I believe the toughest part about this topic is how to emotionally protect students from violence similar to what happened on Feb. 14, 2018.”
Nearly all middle and high schools are staffed by local law enforcement.
The district will make a decision in the near future about whether local officers will remain at the schools. The district may opt to take over and begin assigning its own officers to the schools.
At Lamarque Elementary, Roy protects close to 900 children.
Every morning, he stands out front and waves to the parents. The officer watches as children leave their parents and make their way inside the school. He hopes parents trust their children will be safe.
“I’m here,” Roy said. “I want them to know that when you drop your son or your daughter off at 8:15 or 8:30, that when you come back at 3:15 or 3:30 or quarter to four to pick them up, they’re going to be here.”