How many active shooter drills is too many? Florida schools don’t know either.

A Pasco County sheriff's deputy walks up the stairs with an AR-15 rifle posing as an armed attacker during an active shooter drill at Charles S. Rushe Middle School in Land O' Lakes this summer. Now that school has started, students are participating in the drills. But educators say a vaguely worded state law has left them confused about often they should be conducted. [LUIS SANTANA   |   Times]
A Pasco County sheriff's deputy walks up the stairs with an AR-15 rifle posing as an armed attacker during an active shooter drill at Charles S. Rushe Middle School in Land O' Lakes this summer. Now that school has started, students are participating in the drills. But educators say a vaguely worded state law has left them confused about often they should be conducted. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published October 12 2018
Updated October 12 2018

As Florida educators work to make schools less vulnerable to attack, a single line in state law is making that job more confusing.

The wording, drafted by legislators in the emotion-filled weeks after the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, requires schools to hold active shooter drills. But it doesnít specify how often.

"Drills for active shooter and hostage situations shall be conducted at least as often as other emergency drills," the law says, leaving the question open to interpretation.

Schools for years have carried out different kinds of emergency drills with varying frequency. Which of those should be used as a template for active shooter drills? And are students being exposed to too many drills, or too few?

It depends on where you live. The new law is being carried out in significantly different ways from county to county, the Tampa Bay Times found in a partial survey of the state.

Students in Pinellas County, for example, will undergo active assailant drills monthly, or 10 times this year ó a situation that has prompted numerous complaints. Pinellas School Board members say theyíve been inundated with calls and emails from parents who contend the frequency of the drills will stoke fear among students.

Meanwhile, schools in Hillsborough and Pasco counties will conduct four drills this year, and in Hernando County, only two. The same variations are reflected in districts throughout the state, the Times found.

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Officials from the Florida Department of Educationís Office of Safe Schools, created by the same legislation that required the new drills, could not be reached for comment. A spokeswoman for the department cited Hurricane Michael, which closed state offices last week, as the reason why.

Meanwhile, educators across Florida disagree on what lawmakers intended, and continue looking to the state for answers.

"Iím not pointing the finger at (the department) or anybody else, but we are just trying to do what we need to do to the best of our ability," said Casey Hamilton, security chief for Alachua County schools. "If they tell us what to do, weíll carry out the mission."

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As the parent of a first-grader at Safety Harbor Elementary, Kristen Johnson took issue right away with Pinellasí approach to the drills.

Imagining her son, Anton, who suffers from sensory processing disorder, going through one of them each month didnít sit right with her. Two months into the school year, she still worries the information will have long-term effects on his feelings about school.

"What Iím concerned about is that theyíre creating a climate of fear," said Johnson, a transportation lawyer. "Theyíre emphasizing school shootings to kids who donít even know what that is Ö and believe school is a safe place."

She is one of many parents who have reached out to School Board members with their concerns. And, as a lawyer, she believes the district is wrongly interpreting the legislation.

David Koperski, the school board attorney in Pinellas, said while the law could be more clear, his research and conversations with other experts in education law have solidified the districtís stance on the issue. Fire drills are required monthly and therefore, active shooter drills are, too, he said.

"I interpret the letter and the spirit of the law to mean that you take the emergency drill that is the most frequent and make sure that (active shooter drills) are at least as frequent as that," he said. "I donít disagree that there could be clarification made. But at this point, to me, I think they need to be conducted monthly."

Another Pinellas parent and local lawyer, Michelle Nadeau, emailed Koperski suggesting the drills instead be held as frequently as severe weather drills, which happen twice a year. He responded citing the law, she said.

"Ten drills a year from kindergarten through high school is going to be 130 active shooter drills for a kid," Nadeau said in interview. "I canít understand why nobody at the School Board is concerned about that."

She contends lawmakers reacted quickly in aftermath of the Stoneman Douglas shooting, and should have had more consideration for how the mandate would actually play out in schools.

She also said she worries that too many drills could disturb younger children, and that high school students will shrug them off if they are too commonplace.

While some educators agree with Koperskiís take on the law, others donít. Of 13 districts reached by the Times, six plan to hold drills once a month, four will conduct one each quarter and three will have one per semester.

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School security officials from across the state attended a meeting this month in Sanford, where they were able to speak with state representatives about how new safety efforts are unfolding in their districts. The debate about active shooter drills came up, attendees said.

"Some people said it had to be as often as fire drills, but Ö thatís just so many drills," said Dennis McFatten, coordinator of safe schools in Marion County. "How are we going to get education done?"

He said he felt monthly drills would put "undue stress" on students and take up too much class time, so the district decided to schedule only two for the year and incorporate monthly training videos.

The education departmentís website makes him confident that was a safe call, McFatten said. The site summarizes the legislation, saying "trainings must be done at least every semester."

Koperski, however, said the departmentís summary does not line up with the language of the law, and that has fueled confusion around the state.

Like those in Marion, students in Hernando and Lake counties will also undergo only two active shooter drills this year. Hernandoís head of security Jill Renihan said her decision stemmed from her experience as a longtime principal, which, she said, causes her to work harder to balance safety with learning.

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"I think itís going to be critical for us to remember the purpose of schools, and thatís teaching and learning," she said. "If (monthly) is what weíre told we must do, we will definitely be in compliance, but we would have to have a conversation about the impact that begins to have on classrooms."

Renihan said she left the meeting in Sanford feeling that her counterparts across the state agree the lawís wording is nebulous.

"We all want to be doing whatís best for all of our kids," she said. "I think that some more definitive language about that would certainly clarify the questions some of us have."

Leaders in some districts remain unsure of their plans for active shooter drills. In Volusia County, for example, schools are currently slated to hold two this year, but the district is debating adding more, spokeswoman Kelly Schulz said.

In Charlotte County, students are set to participate in 10 drills. But after some concerns raised by parents, district leaders worry that may be too frequent, spokesman Mike Riley said.

Flagler County schools will conduct four drills, or one a quarter, according to spokesman Jason Wheeler. He said thatís what educators there thought was a happy medium that will prepare students but make sure "our kids arenít drilled for this all the time."

Meanwhile, Hamilton, the district security chief in Alachua, is still figuring it out. He said he hasnít yet finalized how many active shooter drills there will be this year in his district, but heís confident more specific direction from the state is coming.

"My understanding is that the interpretation is to be determined," he said. "I think itís just going to take a little bit more time."

Contact Megan Reeves at Follow @mareevs.