Palm Beach County Schools Police Chief discusses school safety

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Palm Beach County Schools continue to review safety in their own schools.

On Friday, district police Chief Lawrence Leon sat down with WPTV's Alanna Quillen to share insight into what protocols the district has in place and what school police want to change.

"Schools are safe. It's still one of the safest places to be, we work hard to maintain that safety as officers," said Leon. "We need additional officers and we need the community to step forward and help us get to that point."

We asked Leon for his thoughts on Thursday's resignation of the school resource officer at Majory Stoneman Douglas HS when it was revealed the officer never went into the school during last week's deadly shooting.

"Our officers are very distraught about it, because that's not our role to have done that," said Leon.

Chief Leon also said he disagrees with President Donald Trump's idea to arm teachers in schools.

"To have an armed teacher on campus, you're bringing another weapon onto campus," he said. "You're just adding another dimension that's not safe."

The Palm Beach County School District is one of a handful in the state that has its own police department. There are about 152 officers on staff spread out at schools across the county and the department even has three trained K9's for bombs, guns and drugs.

"We were the first school district in the state to be accredited in 2003," said Leon.

Chief Leon said his department spends 160 hours training school resource officers on school shootings every summer. Schools must also conduct lockdown and shooter drills every year.

"We engage. Our officers are trained to engage. Go in there and do what we need to do to take care of the situation," he said.

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The officers are also trained on first aid, rapid response, and encounters or problems with students who have autism or mental health issues.

"That's the uniqueness of our agency -- is that we're trained to step in, have a conversation with that student, deescalate them and move forward," said Leon.

Leon told me being a school resource officer is a commitment to a different kind of policing.

"When we get information about a weapon, it's a tip because those kids believe in us and have built those relationships with us," he said. "You're almost a parent to the child while they're there."

When it comes to school shootings, Leon said he notices a pattern.

"I look back and see what's occurring and review the situations," he said. I even talked to the lieutenant in Sandy Hook, he walked me through the whole scenario. And the common denominator is -- unlocked door."

Easy access to campuses depends on the way schools are built. Newer school campuses are built with single point entries. Older campuses have multiple access points and that's where Leon said the role of an SRO is crucial.

"The first piece always starts with the person at the gate," he said. "Be able to observe something that's happening. Make those contacts and not bypass any of those systems that are in place."

Leon said the district is looking into restructuring the campuses to a better and safer design.

"The newer buildings are done not as spread out. That was the tropical setting for Florida and the way they were designed. Now, you're going to see them more compact."

But those changes will not happen overnight.

The district is trying to find the money to update campuses to make them safer and hire more staff for the police department. With Governor Rick Scott's announcement on Friday, finding the necessary funding might be even more possible.

"We need more officers. We need the money to hire more officers and we need the money to provide those target hardening situation," he said.

Many parents have also asked about metal detectors as a possible idea for added safety, but Leon said that might not be feasible right now.

"When you have a bus loop, and a parent loop and all these other entrances, to try to follow everybody in you might as well start school at 4 o'clock in the morning trying to get everybody in on time," he said.

But at the end of the day, Chief Leon says parents need to connect with their kids.

"Parents need to be involved and check their kids' book bags and be involved on what's going on in their life as well," he said.

Right now, the district police department needs officers and are looking to fill nearly 100 vacancies. Click here to apply.

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