TAMPA — Troubled by violence around the nation and inequality at home, the Hillsborough County School Board voted to tighten access at those schools that are least secure.
An estimated 10 percent of the more than 200 public schools are too easy to enter, according to superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who consulted with law enforcement agencies after the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
Last month the board voted down her plan to upgrade those schools, as well as her plan to hire armed guards for elementary schools. The component of her plan to better control access, which would have drawn $1.2 million from a contingency fund, was defeated 4-3 at the time.
Board member Candy Olson reintroduced the issue after an intruder assaulted the principal of an elementary school in Polk County.
While a committee and a consultant are exploring the larger issues of school security, Olson said it is too risky to postpone the access improvements.
"I don't want to be sitting up here in a couple of months and saying, 'if only,' " she said Tuesday.
Instead of using money from the contingency, the board decided it can use roughly $1 million in maintenance emergency funds.
Chairwoman April Griffin hesitated to endorse the plan, saying she would rather see the money spent on character education. She also said the improvements would give a false sense of security — ignoring, for example, the danger students face on long bus rides in unsafe neighborhoods.
But she said she was convinced by those who argued that the current situation is unfair to the 10 percent of schools that do not have controlled access.
The measure passed unanimously.
The board also took a close look at a bus drivers' manual that is being used as part of an effort to improve safety, particularly for special-needs students.
Just more than a year ago, 7-year-old Isabella Herrera died after she stopped breathing on a school bus and no one called 911.
District officials say the best way to issue a distress call is through the radio dispatch system. Not all bus employees have cellphones, and drivers are not supposed to use their phones while the bus is moving.
In Isabella's case, the bus aide had trouble using the radio.
The new handbook gives bus staff the option of calling 911. But Griffin wanted the book to specifically state that employees should use common sense where 911 calls are concerned, as the board and Elia had discussed in November.
"When I look at the procedure and the radio codes and the phone numbers, it gets very, very confusing," Griffin said. "I do know that calling 911 in an emergency situation, when seconds count, is a little bit easier to do sometimes. … That's a priority of this board."
Member Cindy Stuart questioned whether the manual should have been revised before the district finished work on its exceptional-student education safety plan, which includes transportation.
"With everything that we are doing with ESE and safety, we have not married into this document some of the things that we are already talking about that we need to change," she said.
She said she also found parts of the book complicated and confusing. "I respect our drivers, but I don't want there to be mistakes on the road," she said.
Elia and transportation manager John Franklin said the manual can be revised, and probably will be revised before the next school year, reflecting any changes that come out of the ESE safety project.