Thursday, February 22, 2018
Education

As Tampa Bay schools review and beef up security, bullet found on Hillsborough bus

Schoolchildren around Tampa Bay returned to the classroom Monday and found an environment struggling to cope with the killing of 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school.

A helicopter hummed above schools in Hillsborough County.

Deputies, both in uniform and in civilian clothes, made rounds throughout Tampa Bay elementary schools.

School doors usually open for student activity were locked.

By the time school closed Monday, the only serious incident reported by officials was a bullet found on the floor of a Tampa school bus.

The enhanced police presence clearly was an attempt to provide peace of mind as school leaders contemplate the impact of the Connecticut shooting and its repercussions on school safety.

"It's just a matter of reassuring people in the community that we're taking every step possible," said Hernando schools superintendent Bryan Blavatt.

In Pinellas, dozens of campuses were patrolled by sheriff's deputies, local police officers and school resource officers. Similar patrols were in place in Pasco and in Hernando, where deputies also were posted at all schools. Gates and doors normally opened for student activities at all Hernando elementary schools were locked.

In Hillsborough, Tampa police pulled officers from other units, including marine and canine patrol, to help patrol elementary schools this week. Officers will show up 30 minutes before school starts and as children head home, said Sgt. Kert Rojka.

A Tampa police helicopter also will be used to oversee schools this week.

"We are taking every reasonable precaution that everybody coming to the school today and this week is going to be safe," Rojka said. "We just want to be as preventative as we can."

Many Hillsborough sheriff's deputies were pulled from patrol and assigned to check on elementary schools through the week in both marked and unmarked patrol cars, said Sgt. Christi Esquinaldo.

On Monday, Hillsborough schools remained under "modified lockdown," which includes locking the doors to administrative offices and restricting outdoor activities.

The district's approximately 100 armed security officers also will patrol the more than 140 elementary schools throughout the week, said Hillsborough schools spokeswoman Linda Cobbe.

Throughout the Tampa Bay region Monday, the only serious incident reported Monday was a bullet found on the floor of a Tampa school bus serving Liberty Middle School, Turner Elementary and Wharton High School.

Several officers arrived at each school to interview students from the bus and search their backpacks and lockers, but nothing was found, Cobbe said. An 18-year-old student from Wharton High School eventually came forward and told a school resource deputy the bullet, which he found in his apartment complex, fell from his pocket.

School officials did not say what action, if any, was taken against the student.

Had the bullet been found before the Connecticut shooting, Cobbe said, the reaction would have been the same.

"I don't think it would have been as widely known that we were looking into it," Cobbe said. "Because of all the concern of what happened on Friday, we felt that it was important to let people know that it was going on."

The heightened security measures were visible Monday morning at Cahoon Elementary Magnet School.

An officer with Hillsborough Schools served as a crossing guard and another stood guard at the entrance. One parent approached one of the officers and thanked him for his service.

A Tampa police patrol car was parked in the school's parking lot. Over the sound of a helicopter above Cahoon, some parents in the school's parking lot discussed Friday's tragedy.

"That could have been my child," said Najalee Hammond, mother of a 5-year-old son.

Parents said they were comforted by the extra security.

"To me, it made me feel safe to bring my kids to school," said Tony Hampton, who dropped off his two daughters, ages 7 and 11.

Besides bumping up security, school officials were coping on Monday with how to counsel students. In Hillsborough, Cobbe said teachers were asked to not bring up the shooting. If students have questions, she said, they could ask a counselor for guidance.

In Hernando, addressing the shooting will be handled on a school-by-school basis, said superintendent Blavatt.

Pinellas schools superintendent Mike Grego sent out a message to all district employees saying social workers and psychologists were available.

Following a call from Gov. Rick Scott for schools statewide to review emergency procedures, districts across Tampa Bay were trying to determine whether permanent changes were needed.

Pasco school officials were scheduled to have a school safety workshop today.

Blavatt said he doesn't foresee any changes to security procedures, but the schools may work with the Hernando Sheriff's Office to do a security audit.

But, Blavatt added, schools can only do so much.

"The fact is, nobody is immune from this," he said. "Nobody is immune from the potential of someone who is deranged coming in and doing something."

Laura C. Morel can be reached at [email protected]ay.com or (727)893-8713. Staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek and Curtis Krueger contributed to this report.

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