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School police chief on protecting kids and prestigious award

Mark Parker

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"When you drop your child off, they're going to be in good hands," said Williams.

Luke Williams became Pinellas County Schools’ Police chief on March 1, 2018, just over two weeks after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Williams worked closely with the school system during his 33 years with the St. Petersburg Police Department, 18 as an assistant chief, and felt mentoring was his calling. He planned to photograph “as many sunsets as I can and ride my bike as far as I could” following his retirement from the SPPD in 2018, but “there was this tug at me to continue helping these children.”

The Parkland shooting, said Williams, did not factor into his decision to lead the school’s police force, as he had already committed to continue serving the county’s children.

“Whether Parkland occurred or not,” added Williams. “Unfortunately, it did. And fortunately for me, I was able to bring the skillsets that I had working at St. Petersburg, being an assistant chief for 18 years and being over the uniformed services division …”

Williams said that as a commander with the Uniform Services Bureau, “if it happened in St. Pete, I was involved with it.” The bureau provides direct police services to the community, including covering dignitary visits and protests. It also includes the Uniform Support Division, which oversees community policing, K-9 support and school resource officers.

The challenge, he said, was to mesh school safety with mentoring and coaching students to ensure they can effectively navigate through their school years and become productive members of the community.

Williams said the rash of school shootings is concerning, and from a law enforcement perspective, there are always things that they can do better.

“There are always things we should do – hesitancy shouldn’t be one of those factors,” said Williams. “We’re all trained that we’re not waiting for anybody.”

Chief Williams and several other high-ranking members of local law enforcement agencies discuss school safety. Williams said he would “jump off a bridge to save a kid.”

For several years, Williams said local police agencies have worked with Interlogic Solutions to create an alert system that ties the many different aspects of the school safety plan together.

If an educator or faculty member pushes the active assailant button – available in schools and through a geo-fenced mobile application – it notifies the PCS Police, Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and local police departments while triggering a PA system warning for students. Strobe lights flash to alert kids outside and inside loud areas like the band room and cafeteria.

Doors remain locked throughout the day, with school resource officers checking to ensure they are secure. A new system allows local agencies to pull up camera feeds and search for people using descriptors, such as the color of a shirt the intruder is wearing. Williams said that provides critical situational awareness for responding officers.

“I always say that if you feel like you can’t go in and save a kid if their life is on the line, then I won’t feel bad about you leaving your stuff at the front right now,” said Williams. “I’m going to be depending on you, just like people depend on me.

“If I’m the first one there, I’m going in to save those children. Period. No questions asked.”

While Williams is doing everything he can to keep the county’s children safe, he noted it is not a one-way street. He said there are things he can do “on the front end,” but it also takes the community’s help.

He added that as a community, nation and state, people need to put politics aside to address the root causes of the issues we all face. The frequency of school shootings, said Williams, is especially concerning. While he prays Uvalde is the last, the statistics tell him that as a nation and community, “we are not there yet.”

Community work, a national award finalist

In addition to protecting the students throughout the county, Williams, a lifelong resident of St. Petersburg, also maintains close connections with the surrounding community. He serves on several boards, including the Community Health Centers of Pinellas County, the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg and Bayfront Health St. Petersburg. He also volunteers for the 5000 Role Models of Excellence, the Men in the Making mentoring program and many other organizations.

Williams said he wants to be a voice for people not at the table. As a product of local schools, a law enforcement officer, African American male, father and grandfather, he noted he brings several perspectives to his community involvement. Williams credited his wife and family – all of whom also proudly attended Pinellas County schools – for supporting his work in the community.

Earlier this year, Williams played a key role in providing 3,000 foldable duffle bags to students in foster care. Mt. Vernon Elementary School Principal Robert Ovalle began the initiative after realizing many children must carry their belongings in trash bags when removed from unsafe environments.

Williams played a key role in providing 3,000 foldable duffle bags to students in foster care. He said the totes provide some dignity to an often-undignified situation.

“Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for them to get moved from one home to another,” said Williams. “So, you’re telling a kid that not only are you not wanted here, but we don’t really care much about your belongings.

“The few things that are really consistent in your life – your belongings.”

Ovalle contacted Superintendent Dr. Michael Grego with the idea, who then enlisted Williams’ help. Williams, a former chair of the Pinellas County Police Standards Council, reached out to the organization for funding.

Together with the Mike Alstott Foundation, the SPPD, Florida State Graphics and the Town of Bellair, they purchased 3,000 brightly colored reusable “tiny totes” – easily folded into patrol cars – for students in foster care.

“The next step we are doing with this is making sure that they have toiletries and those necessary items to function when they go from place to place,” said Williams. “The overall goal is that we don’t want to have to pass out all these bags all the time.

“We want to be able to get them in a stable home setting and make sure they’re continuing and able to get the education they are trying to achieve and become good members of society.”

A national publication has recognized Williams for his work. PCS recently announced that Williams is one of six finalists for Campus Safety Magazine’s Director of the Year award.

The publication is a trusted source for campus police chiefs and security directors of schools, universities and hospitals nationwide. The magazine will announce its Director of the Year during the Campus Safety Conference East, held June 20-22 in Bethesda, Maryland.

As a national award, Williams called the nomination humbling and a true honor. However, as with any personal recognition, he said it is more about the surrounding support system rather than the person. He noted that Grego and incoming Superintendent Kevin Hendrick’s task is to educate children – but they realize the importance of sharing funding meant for the classroom to ensure children are also safe.

“I’m very cognizant that we want to make sure the money necessary to educate our kids is there,” said Williams. “But I also know there is a very delicate balance to making sure that – you can’t educate kids if they’re not in a safe environment, either.

“So, there’s a very delicate balance that they’ve actually been able to navigate, and I’m very thankful for Associate Superintendent Clint Herbic – he gives me the enthusiasm to come to work every day.”

 

 

 

 

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