NEW PORT RICHEY — Most days, Cotee River Elementary School principal Lou Cerreta finds his campus one of the most serene and peaceful places he has ever worked.
Chickens cackle from the west. More than 100 acres of pines and oaks buffer the hustle-bustle of nearby Little Road to the east and Ridge Road to the north.
If only he didn't have to deal with the gunshots.
At least 10 times this year, most recently on March 4, Cerreta has quickly and quietly canceled outdoor physical education classes and recess because of the blasts that, according to third-grader Emily Ratliff, "sound like a big huge bomb."
"In the principal handbook, where is the part on hunters shooting?" the veteran principal said, shaking his head. "You want to err on the side of caution. God forbid there could be a stray bullet."
The Pasco County Sheriff's Office has gotten involved, with the full permission of the neighboring corporate land owners. Five people received trespassing citations when the sheriff's environmental crimes unit scoured the woods on March 14, said Lt. J.R. Law, the school district's head resource officer.
None were armed.
"Patrol deputies and members of the SRO Unit have checked the area in response to these calls and even walked the wooded area in attempts to locate the source of the shooting," Law said via email. "Deputies also perform directed patrols at and near the school."
Law noted there's also a deputy who lives in a mobile home on the campus — a fairly common practice that provides added security at schools and remote parks. He said that deputy "assists with monitoring for activity in the wooded area near the school."
Occasionally a school goes on lockdown if deputies are chasing a suspect in the area. But district officials don't know of any other Pasco school that has ongoing problems with gunshots near campus.
Officials recognize there is heightened anxiety over guns and schools in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings. Even before that, though, Cotee River officials tried to keep their situation low-key to avoid scaring students. But at lunch recently, third-graders said they knew what was going on beyond the fence and the berm behind their school.
And they didn't like it.
"There's people that are back there and they're training to shoot guns," said Maddie Lanzi, 9. "When they shoot, we're not able to go outside."
"It scares me," said classmate Emily Ratliff, also 9. "If there's kindergarteners out there and people are shooting at the trees, they might hit a kid."
Not only is it scary, but it also ruins school, added 9-year-old Dylan Akers: "It cuts off all our exercise time, and we don't get to have great muscles."
Physical education teacher Valerie Lundin, who has worked at Cotee River since it opened in 1994, said the school always has endured the occasional gunshots in the distance.
"This year has been the worst year," Lundin said, after seeing a class back to its room. "I find that they're not being very considerate or responsible. . . . We have so many activities going on at our school, and it shuts everything down. . . . Someone needs to find out who it is and make it stop so no one gets injured."
Parent Michael Davis was so concerned about the threat that he told the school that his fourth-grade daughter was not allowed outside at all for about four months. During recess, she helped first-graders with their reading lessons.
"Did she like it? No. She wants to be able to go out there," said Davis, 31, who has looked into transferring his daughter to a private school. But "she full well understands what guns are, what they can do and what can happen."
Davis stressed that he's not looking to see peoples' gun rights restricted. He said he has several firearms of his own, as well as a concealed carry license. What he wants to see, though, is common sense.
"Why would you discharge a firearm, whether it be target practice, whether it be hunting, near a school?" he wondered.
Cerreta said he hoped the increased attention to the activities in the woods would lead to the end of the shooting or, at the very least, push it even farther away from the school.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.