After a drunken man with a knife in his pocket walked onto a Florida high school campus, Volusia County district officials are working to patch the holes it revealed in their security precautions.
Derek Marlowe, 51, told the school resource deputy at Spruce Creek High on Friday he did him a favor and tested the school’s security, according to an incident report.
As it turns out, his trip to campus did just that: it unveiled “security lapses” that made it possible for him to enter the school attended by more than 2,500 students, at a time when school security is at the forefront of every parents’ mind — and school district’s budgets.
Lawmakers set forth new school security mandates after the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland left 17 people dead. Steps taken included requiring armed guards at every school and setting aside funds for physical upgrades to school campuses. Volusia County Schools has spent millions of dollars and changed numerous policies in an effort to make campuses safer.
But as schools across the country deal with daily threats and mounting calls to harden facilities and ramp up security, Volusia County interim Superintendent Tim Egnor told The Daytona Beach News-Journal last week’s incident at Spruce Creek shows that even the best laid plans can go awry.
“To convert (campuses) into minimum security prisons, which is the reality of this situation, it involves a whole level of thinking that is very different than what we’re used to,” Egnor said. “It is very hard to prevent with 100% certainty unless you just had a ring of security people hand-in-hand around the entire 10 acres.
“There is a certain futility to the notion if you think any place could be 100% safe.”
But at a news conference Tuesday, Sheriff Mike Chitwood said the incident was completely preventable, and should alarm parents and school officials.
“He could’ve had a gun. He could’ve had a grenade. He could’ve had anything,” Chitwood said. “After all we’ve gone through ... all the training, the guardians, technology, it just goes to show it’s only as good as the people you put in place to follow it.”
That’s why Egnor said the school will be retraining principals and campus advisers, as well as conducting a review of the school’s physical campus and this incident to answer the question on everyone’s mind: How did a drunken, homeless man with a lengthy arrest record make it into a high school classroom?
“It was just a comedy of errors that precipitated this,” Egnor said. “What we’re going to do obviously is learn from it.”
Surveillance footage showed Marlowe riding into the Port Orange school on a silver bicycle at 8:37 a.m. Friday by the bus and faculty entrance on Taylor Road.
Each high school has a campus adviser at its entrance who monitors cars coming in and out. Egnor said at the time of this incident, shortly after school started, the adviser was dealing with a car and caught a glimpse of the bike, but didn’t realize an adult was riding it.
“He might have called a Code Red (a lockdown), but because of his uncertainty didn’t want to do so for a kid coming to school,” Egnor said.
Instead of calling a lockdown or notifying campus staff via his school radio, he called another adviser on his cellphone to check it out. He saw Marlowe go to the student parking lot and head toward the student entrance.
By the time the second adviser got there, she found the bike but no Marlowe.
Entering a building
That’s because Marlowe had walked into a classroom building. Egnor said the door is supposed to be locked and actually, it was locked. But whoever last went in didn’t shut the door properly. Marlowe was able to just pull the door open.
“In the morning, it is very difficult to monitor, and that’s not an excuse, it’s a reality,” Egnor said.
Volusia has been pushing for all schools to have single points of entry, meaning students, staff, everyone, must enter through the front office during the day. It’s easier to accomplish on smaller campuses, but Spruce Creek covers about 10 acres in a residential neighborhood, and has a cluster of 45 portables — or individual classrooms — that have students coming and going all day long.
Fences have been erected at other schools that direct people to the one point of entry, but Egnor said Spruce Creek doesn’t have that.
“It was built at a such a time that there was no such thing as a single point of entry,” Egnor said. “It’s a really difficult campus to apply the standard operating procedure without internal fences.”
Entering a classroom
So as campus advisers were communicating with each other about where the possible intruder had gone, Marlowe was walking into a classroom populated with students around 8:45 a.m.
The classroom door was also locked as another security precaution, but a student had propped it open to go to the restroom.
When Marlowe got into the classroom, he sat down near the teacher’s desk and asked him a question, Egnor said. It took the teacher a moment to realize it was an intruder, not someone authorized.
That’s when the teacher pressed the classroom panic button and called for assistance via the school radio. What he didn’t do: call a Code Red, or say there was an intruder. Egnor said the teacher didn’t want to spook the intruder and the incident report said he did not want to startle the students in the classroom.
By the time nearby school staff made it to the area, Marlowe was out in the hallway. He was apprehended by the school resource deputy, who took Marlowe to the dean’s office and began untangling the barely 10-minute incident.
Marlowe was charged with trespassing on school grounds, campus disruption and disorderly conduct. He’s been arrested multiple times since 1986 on charges including aggravated battery, child abuse and drug possession.
Families were contacted later that day via a message from the school’s assistant principal.
“We had a disoriented person come onto our campus who had no business at the school,” the message said. “Spruce Creek administration, law enforcement and school security were notified. He was apprehended and no one was hurt.”
The message also urged students to “see something, say something.” It’s the mantra schools repeat now to encourage everyone to report anything they see that’s out of the ordinary.
For Chitwood, that’s what went wrong here.
“In my opinion, there is a little bit of fear that if you call for a Code Red, the media will descend upon the school and they’ll say there’s a problem,” he said. “In my opinion, as a parent or grandparent, I would like for you to call a Code Red (so everyone knows students are safe).”
The Sheriff’s Office and school district are reviewing the incident and the school district is also holding a press conference Wednesday morning. Egnor said one thing they’re certain to do is refresh training for school officials.
“All we can do is continue to train and continue to use real life examples as an opportunity to train, so that people will instinctively fall back on their training instead of overthinking it,” Egnor said.