SHALIMAR — Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley spent nine months on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission.
The commission issued a 450-page report outlining the system failures that occurred during the Feb. 18, 2018, school shooting that killed 17 students and staff members, and injured 17 others.
It also offered recommendations for improvements.
Ashley has shared his experiences on the commission and how it affects Okaloosa County.
"I'll say it like I've said from the beginning: If we can't protect our children, what else really matters?" Ashley said.
What is your takeaway from the commission?
One of the biggest things about sitting on the commission is you see just how vulnerable our schools are to interior and exterior threats and to the safety of our kids. The most shocking thing I think is how poorly we communicate those threats. We’ve got to do a better job on weighing the consequences of individual rights against corporate rights. So, your individual right to privacy should be weighed against the corporate rights of everybody else around you to be safe.
Parents don’t really know what’s happening at their schools because there’s no reporting. Certainly, our schools are ahead, but I’m talking about schools across the state of Florida.
(Ashley believes students who are “chronically disruptive” or violent forfeit their right to a free public education.)
It shouldn’t matter why you’re disruptive or violent. You should be segregated from (the) mainstream because you’re putting everybody else at risk, yourself included.
What surprised you the most?
Just how avoidable this was. Look, I've been at this business for almost 30 years, and I've seen parents grieve. ... Two of the fathers of the murdered children were on our commission and you could see the grief in their faces. You don't ever get used to that.
Knowing that this could have been prevented. Knowing that apathy led to a lack of response and even cowardice led to a lack of proper response.
Are there any local safety measures in place or being put in place because of the report?
School safety leaderships, which review and access enhancements to safety and make recommendations that are forwarded to the state
Threat assessment teams at every Oklaloosa County school, with policies in place
Monthly lockdown and active-shooter drills. "Every time we do a fire drill, we have to do an active shooter drill," Ashley said
All classrooms are numbered for immediate identification
Doors and windows covered to minimize view inside the school and classrooms
Single point of entry
8-foot fencing on all campuses
Communications at each school. Looking at outdoor and indoor intercom systems that can identify whether to evacuate or lock down.
Better weapons systems for our school resource officers along with extensive active-shooter training and active-shooter policies
Security camera monitoring
It’s a matter of culture change. Security is not convenient. Trying to get teachers to lock doors, that’s not a convenient thing to ask them to do because now they’ve got to get up and lock and unlock that door multiple times. ... But it's a safety mechanism that works. So it's a culture change.
Security is all of our responsibility.
What are the differences between Okaloosa and Broward counties?
Two of the big issues I saw is (Broward County) did not have a mandatory vest or mandatory wear policy. So deputies were allowed to determine whether they wore a vest or not. Our policy requires our deputies to wear a ballistic vest while on duty.
(Ashley said that was an issue for Broward County during the shooting because deputies had to spend time removing their body cameras, putting on ballistic vests and body cameras, and grabbing a rifle while the shooting was taking place.)
That's unacceptable. We don't give you the option to carry a sidearm or not. We don't give you and option to carry a body camera or not. That's one of the ways we're different.
(Ashley said Okaloosa County also has different policies in place and an adequate amount of training compared to Broward County that would have helped during the shooting.)
Broward County's active assailant policy says you may engage an active assailant, our policy says you shall engage an active assailant.