Florida school, on edge since shooting, now requires students to carry clear backpacks

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students also will be issued identification badges, which they will be required to wear at all times while in school.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students also will be issued identification badges, which they will be required to wear at all times while in school.PHOTO: AFP

MIAMI (NYTIMES) - The Florida high school where a gunman killed 17 people last month (February) will require students to carry only clear backpacks, school administrators announced on Wednesday (March 21), after the shooting suspect's brother was charged with trespassing on campus and two students were arrested on charges of carrying knives.

The episodes again called into question the safety of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a little more than a month after the deadly shooting that shook the affluent suburban community of Parkland, about an hour north of Miami.

Mr Robert Runcie, superintendent of Broward County Public Schools, sent a letter to the families of Stoneman Douglas High students imposing the new backpack rule, reminiscent of security measures at airports and professional sports venues.

He said any student without a clear backpack would be provided one at no cost after spring break, which takes place next week.

Students also will be issued identification badges, which they will be required to wear at all times while in school. Staff members have badges as well.

In addition, Mr Runcie said the district was considering using metal-detecting wands at school entrances and installing permanent metal detectors - a safety measure Mr Runcie recently criticised as ineffective. A person intent on committing an atrocity would find his or her way around them, he said in an interview last month.

"Someone is not going to go through a metal detector with an AR-15," he said at the time, adding that metal detectors do not help create a welcoming learning environment and pose a logistical challenge in a school as large as Stoneman Douglas High, which has more than 3,200 students.

Stoneman Douglas High parents, already on edge since the massacre, became alarmed on Monday when the shooting suspect's brother was arrested on a charge of trespassing, after Broward County sheriff's deputies said they saw him skateboarding onto the campus after school let out.

A deputy assigned to patrol the campus was found asleep by a student the same afternoon, the sheriff's office said; he was suspended without pay.

Some parents kept their children home on Tuesday, according to Sarahnell Murphy, an assistant state attorney prosecuting the trespassing case against Zachary Cruz, the brother of the shooting suspect, Nikolas Cruz.

Also on Tuesday, the sheriff's office said it had arrested three Stoneman Douglas High students, one for making threats on Snapchat and two for wielding knives.

Jordan Salter, a girl accused of pulling a knife on a boy after a cafeteria confrontation, made a court appearance on Wednesday. Her father, Scott, told the court his daughter had been "terrified" of going to school.

The arrests on Monday and Tuesday prompted Governor Rick Scott to offer state assistance to Mr Runcie and the Broward sheriff, Mr Scott Israel, to secure Stoneman Douglas High's entryways.

Mr Israel accepted the help; eight Florida Highway Patrol troopers will report to work at the school on Thursday, according to the governor's office.

In his letter on Wednesday, Mr Runcie also outlined other steps the district is taking across county schools, such as evaluating "code red" active-shooter protocols and drills, and upgrading surveillance camera systems. Schools with multiple entry points would have single points of entry by the first quarter of 2019, he said.

A new Florida law passed after the shooting will set aside US$8.5 million (S$11.1 million) for the school district to pay for at least one armed police officer at each school starting in the fall. Broward also will receive US$6 million to expand school mental health services, according to Mr Runcie.

Reacting on Twitter to the news that only clear backpacks would be allowed at school, Kyra Parrow, a senior at Stoneman Douglas High, criticised the move as "making my school seem like jail now because legislators don't have common sense gun reform on their agendas".