Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Education

At public schools in Tampa Bay, a day to mourn, assess and reinforce

While fielding calls from anxious parents after the Broward County high school shooting that claimed 17 lives, school officials in the Tampa Bay area took a close look Thursday at what they are doing to keep students safe.

There are gates and locks and buzzers on the doors in Hillsborough County, inspired by the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy of 2012.

But are school staff using them faithfully?

"We have to make sure of the human side of it," superintendent Jeff Eakins said. "We have to make sure they are doing all they need to do to make those perimeters secure every single day."

READ MORE: Suspect confessed to shooting, police say

Hillsborough announced it will accelerate training it began more than a year ago in a program called "Run, Hide, Fight" that trains school personnel how to respond to an active shooter.

Students will get a gentler version of this training, adding an evacuation component to their "lock-down" drills.

And districts throughout the area will continue to stress the "See something, say something" doctrine that uses prevention to avoid violent confrontations.

"If you know a young person who’s acting irrationally, please say something immediately to local law enforcement," Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis said in a video message he made along with superintendent Lori Romano.

To varying degrees, districts have been retooling their security procedures since the Columbine High School massacre of 1999.

Technology and ideology have changed over the years. Even something as basic as a "lockdown," in which students hunker down and hide from a shooter, has been called into question, as in some cases it is wiser to flee the premises.

After researching models around the country, Pasco County’s lead school resource officer, Lt. Troy Fergueson, introduced a new crisis response plan to the Pasco School Board in May.

The plan focuses on teaching students and staff how to become alert to a situation and let others know, figure out how to avoid danger by staying put or taking off, and better protect themselves where they remain.

"We needed to move from a reactive, passive, one-strategy approach to an active, option-based plan," Fergueson said.

Lessons focusing on the ideas of "alert" and "avoid" took place early in the school year. A new-look lockdown, now called a "barricade," is on tap for the coming weeks.

Pasco officials had created videos to guide hands-on instruction for the second phase, but postponed all planned drills because what happened in Broward County made the scenario too potentially raw for children.

In Hillsborough, Eakins sent parents an email explaining how his schools are improving their actions. The "Run, Hide, Fight," training, which began with central office administrators and has since been introduced to principals and some teachers, will now be accelerated, with the goal of training all employees by the end of the school year.

Eakins is asking all principals to conduct lockdown drills next week. And he wants them to survey their buildings to see if any repairs are needed in their security equipment.

Meeting with reporters Thursday afternoon, Eakins said all of this is the largely a matter of fine-tuning and reinforcing procedures that began more than a decade ago.

"On a daily basis, somewhere in this community we have a lockdown," he said. "This morning, we had one in the Temple Terrace area. There was an issue in the community. We had to lock down an elementary school."

With the enhanced training, he said, students will be taught to evacuate their classroom or school building when the teacher directs them to.

Much of the response Thursday had to do with reassuring parents and children, and offering tips on how to discuss the horrific events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego told parents in an email that there will be increased law enforcement patrols on campuses, including police visits to elementary schools.

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office also assigned additional deputies at schools Wednesday, saying it was "for peace of mind."

Grego stressed that school is generally the safest place for a child. "This is a larger reflection on society, whether it’s a nightclub in Orlando or a shooting in Vegas," he said.

There were statements from School Board members that bordered on political.

Pinellas School Board chairwoman Rene Flowers begged Congress, in a Facebook message, to "do more than pray or send condolences."

Hillsborough board member Susan Valdes told reporters that elected officials need "to step up to the plate," including Florida lawmakers who do not fund the schools adequately.

READ MORE: A rattled Florida Legislature concedes it should do more to address mental health after Parkland school shooting

"The priority is safety," Valdes said. "But again, so is everything else" including air conditioners and teacher pay.

Eileen Long, the only Pinellas board member with school-aged children, said her district needs to take a hard look at mental health and how threats are handled. A former teacher at Clearwater Intermediate, a dropout prevention school, she said she’s had several situations where threats were waived off. She plans to mention those experiences at Tuesday’s board workshop.

"This one is too close to my heart," Long said. "This one is too real for me."

Board members Lynn Gray of Hillsborough and Joanne Lentino of Pinellas called for metal detectors in schools. "It is not a question of if a shooting will occur," Gray said, "it is a question of when."

But while not ruling out that option, Eakins and his head of security, Chief John Newman, said several factors argue against such a move.

In addition to the initial cost, people would be needed to operate them — not just during school hours, but also at sports events and concerts.

"Do they work? Absolutely," Newman said. But "the second somebody opens a back door to let somebody in, why have them?"

Hillsborough is dealing not just with the alarming national trend of school-based shootings, but also some resistance to Eakins’ efforts over the past two years to keep troubled students in school instead of suspending them.

It’s a balancing act, he said, making relationships ever more important.

"I’m going to believe that every single student, even if they are having challenges, we will help them overcome it," he said.

"Every day I know that all of our employees are coming to school potentially to be in a situation that creates challenges for their safety.

"So we have to do everything we can with our buildings and structures to maintain that safety, but ultimately rely on the relationships that are built student to student, and adult to student."

Times staff writers Megan Reeves and Colleen Wright contributed to this report. Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.

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