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Broward School Board Approves 'Code Red,' 'Hard Corner' Policies, A Year After Parkland Shooting

Jessica Bakeman
Members of the Broward County school board and Superintendent Robert Runcie during a recognition of a staff member at a meeting, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019.

More than a year after the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the Broward County school board voted unanimously to adopt two new emergency policies that state investigators and parents of Parkland victims argue could have saved lives had they been in place sooner.

The board on Wednesday approved a policy clarifying that all staff members are responsible for initiating "code red" lockdowns if they believe there is a threat to students' safety.

The board also adopted a new plan for "hard corners" or "safer spaces" — areas where people can hide out of the line of sight of an active shooter at a window or door. But board members acknowledged there will likely be changes to the "safer spaces" policy, especially as the district has struggled to get help from law enforcement agencies in identifying and marking off the areas.

The new "code red" rule requires all employees to initiate a lockdown "should they see, hear or smell anything" that might threaten the safety of people at the school. Addressing concerns from teachers and other staff members that they could get in trouble if they call a lockdown mistakenly, the policy states: "Should a staff member initiate a Code Red which does not materialize into an actual threat, there will not be an adverse employment action."

The district's previous lack of a formal "code red" policy vexed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, members of which have accused Superintendent Robert Runcie of lacking a "sense of urgency."

On Feb. 14, 2018, it took more than three minutes after the gunman began shooting in the school's Building 12 before a staff member called a "code red" lockdown. Among those who failed to initiate a lockdown was a security monitor who recognized the troubled former student as he entered campus with a rifle bag but failed to stop him before the confessed shooter killed 17 people and injured 17 more.

Runcie said the district has been doing routine "code red" drills in schools "for years." The school board began consideration of the formal policy in December, at the request of the investigative commission, and members adopted it after reviewing it at two previous public meetings.

During Wednesday's meeting, school board members stressed the next step would be for the district to launch a robust communications effort to make sure staff members are aware of their responsibility to call a lockdown during a "code red."

Members suggested interactive trainings that require staff members to answer questions about how they would behave in certain scenarios based on the policy, rather than just check a box indicating they read the policy. The board also pushed for information to be posted on schools' websites and signs to be hung on campuses to alert contractors and school volunteers that the responsibility to report a threat extends to them, as well.

Runcie said the district would need some time to determine exactly how to ensure all staff members know about the new policy. He pledged it would be done by the end of the school year.

Board members also aired concerns that "code red" or active-shooter drills are happening too often. A new state law passed in response to the shooting requires "code red" drills to take place as often as other emergency drills, such as fire drills. Runcie said schools have held monthly fire drills and active-shooter drills this school year.

Board member Heather Brinkworth said the repetitive drills take away valuable classroom time and traumatize students. Further, students told her "they were becoming desensitized to a 'code red' and that they might not act appropriately in the event of a real emergency," she said.

The school board took another action at Wednesday's meeting that has been pushed by the commission and parents of victims: adopting a policy for "hard corners" or "safer spaces." State investigators have said at least one student was shot and killed through a classroom door window at Stoneman Douglas because she was not able to fit into a "hard corner."

Lori Alhadeff, who was elected to the school board after her daughter Alyssa was killed in the shooting, believes a "hard corner" might have saved the 14-year-old's life.

A month ago, Runcie said all 20,000 classrooms in the school district would have designated "safer spaces" by the end of February. But he told WLRN last week it might take longer, citing the complicated nature of identifying which corners are the safest spaces in each classroom.

Runcie said law enforcement agencies have been reticent to help determine where the spaces should be, because of liability concerns.

In fact, the board and members of Runcie's administration discussed postponing Wednesday's consideration of the new policy to allow for more input from police. But board members wanted to move forward.

"I understand that we're under some limitations. We have a lot of finger pointing, a lot of individuals who are not willing to assist in marking those areas," board member Patricia Good said. "I am not willing to just blanketly table this for weeks on end."

The new board policy directs school administration to work with "the appropriate individuals" to identify the spaces and adds those individuals could be school resource officers or first responders. Staff would be required to consider any additional space needed for students in wheelchairs.

School leaders will be required to inspect the "safer spaces" quarterly to make sure there are no obstructions such as furniture in them. A district administrator will perform unannounced checks, as well.

Runcie said school district employees might have to move forward in establishing the "hard corners" without help from police.

"We may come down to the point where we're just going to use our own good common sense the best that we can," Runcie said, based on the different classroom configurations there are throughout the district.

"If we've got to get it done by ourselves, we're gonna have to get it done by ourselves," he said.

Jessica Bakeman is senior editor for news at WLRN, South Florida's NPR member station. Previously, Bakeman served as WLRN's education reporter for four years. Bakeman was awarded the 2020 Journalist of the Year award from the Florida chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.