Pasco County school district officials had a simple, and timely, question for student leaders on Monday: Are there situations at your school that make you feel uncomfortable or unsafe?
Glad you asked, the students responded, giving superintendent Kurt Browning and his staff an earful.
The teens said too many campuses are too easily accessible and open. They worried that they don’t have enough resource officers on the widespread campuses. And they fretted that they don’t have enough practice drills to know what to do for every class they take.
These were not things that worried them just two weeks ago. But the Parkland school shooting made them all keenly aware of their schools’ shortcomings.
"Now more than ever," said Reagan Yake, a junior at Zephyrhills High.
She noticed, for instance, that some teachers did not seem prepared for emergency drills, pulling out their handbooks to figure out the procedures as the event was taking place.
"If it was real, there would be no time for it," Yake said.
Wiregrass Ranch High sophomore Joseph Cannella joined others in observing that many schools have wide open spaces that are neither guarded nor protected by fences or other blockades. He suggested adding more security measures, but at the same time didn’t want schools to turn into maximum security blocks.
"As long as the campus is more secure, then I feel it would be better," Cannella said. "But I don’t think anything too extreme."
Other concerns students raised included a lack of working cameras, and doors that open outward, making it impossible to barricade them if they cannot lock.
Asked by district officials what made them feel safe, most said the presence of school resource officers. One group of students said they would like to have more armed staff, perhaps including retired military veterans who are teachers.
That suggestion echoes a measure being considered by state lawmakers as they rush to respond to the Parkland tragedy in the final two weeks of the legislative session.
Dylan Nagore, a junior at Cypress Creek Middle-High, said his school administration had welcomed student voices in talking about such issues, as well as supporting students who want to participate in walkouts that are planned around the state in the coming months.
But students need to take that opportunity seriously, Nagore said. When they took part in a 17-minute walkout a week ago, he said, many had no idea what the demonstration was for and used it as an excuse to skip class.
"Right now, no kid is in a safe environment," he said. "There are things we need to do to improve our safety. … When you are prepared, you feel safer."
The group included about 50 teens from the district’s 14 high schools, who gathered at district headquarters for a student Congress meeting.
Browning told them he would review their ideas and create solutions based on their responses. "This is really important to us, important to me as superintendent, to hear student voices," he said.
Assistant superintendent Tammy Berryhill said the district has told principals to work with student leadership organizations that have an interest in participating.
She noted that the state’s social studies standards include five items relating to civic action, meaning any walkouts could fit into such a lesson. The district just wants to make sure that the students are led, that any action they take is led by themselves and not teachers, and that they are learning.
Berryhill said the district wants students to participate in conversations about their safety and their school climate, calling the issue timely and important.
"It should combine our input and theirs so we can come up with one big solution," said Annica Morgan, a Zephyrhills High senior. "But it’s not going to be easy."
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected]