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Hernando School Board weighs hiring armed security for meetings

BROOKSVILLE — An armed, uniformed officer could soon be a fixture at Hernando School Board meetings.

Superintendent Bryan Blavatt said Tuesday that he will recommend that the district hire an officer to be present during the meetings.

The recommendation comes in the wake of mayhem last week at a Bay County School Board meeting. The husband of a fired teacher killed himself after shooting at board members and exchanging gunfire with a security guard.

Blavatt said the presence of an armed officer is probably the most appropriate response among more extreme measures, such as installing metal detectors at the front door of the district's office on N Broad Street or using a wand to scan visitors for weapons upon entry.

"It's important not to knee-jerk these things," Blavatt said.

Board chairman James Yant, who directed Blavatt last week to consider the issue and bring back proposals at an upcoming meeting, agreed.

"I told him I was comfortable with that, and the cost should not prohibit us from doing that," Yant said. "With the instability of the economy and people now under stress, I think it will be an investment well worth it."

Regular evening meetings are usually held on the first and third Tuesday of each month. The board also meets on those days for afternoon workshops to hash out policy decisions. The workshops are open to the public, and visitors must sign in with a receptionist, who pushes a button to unlock a door to grant access from the lobby. Few people show up, though.

Yant said he expects the board to also discuss whether it's necessary to have an officer at the workshops. For his part, Yant said he is more concerned about the evening meetings.

"They're at night, the public is there, and we vote at those meetings," he said.

Blavatt said he and the district's security director, Barry Crowley, have yet to work out a specific proposal. Hernando sheriff's deputies serve as school resource officers, and one idea is to have one of those deputies work the School Board detail.

Yant said the issue likely will be on the agenda for the board's next workshop, slated for Jan. 11.

Clay Duke was a burly, bipolar 56-year-old ex-convict pushed to the brink after his wife, Rebecca, was fired from her teaching job in Bay County, the Associated Press reported last week. The couple's benefits were about to run out.

"The economy and the world just got the better of him," Rebecca Duke said at a news conference the day after the shooting.

Bay County superintendent Bill Husfelt pleaded with Duke not to shoot, but he fired several shots, missing the superintendent and board members.

Rebecca Duke said her husband was an excellent marksman and probably missed intentionally.

A few minutes later, director of security Mike Jones entered the room and fired several shots, hitting Duke three times in the back. Duke took his own life by shooting himself in the head.

Jones later told reporters that he checks in on the meetings often by peering through the door. When he saw Duke, he ran to retrieve a bulletproof vest and clips for his gun.

Bay County, with its roughly 26,000 students, nearly mirrors Hernando County in size. In Bay, board meetings are held in the afternoon; in Hernando, meetings start at 7 p.m.

While Jones' office is in the school district headquarters, he doesn't attend every meeting, Tommye Lou Richardson, executive director of human resources, told the St. Petersburg Times on Tuesday.

"That may change in the future," Richardson said.

The district is expected to reconsider its security protocol, Richardson said. That could include an armed guard, whether it's Jones or someone else.

"Our superintendent has said we're not going to make it Fort Knox," Richardson said. "We're still accountable to the public and we welcome the public, but at the same time we're going to employ some additional safety measures we have not done in the past."

The lack of security in Hernando is typical of a large majority of the state's 67 districts, Wayne Blanton, director of the Florida School Boards Association, told the Hernando board last week.

Blanton was in Brooksville to lead a training session for the board on the roles of the superintendent and board members. But at the start of the workshop, he talked about the Bay County incident.

"Most work like it does in Hernando County," Blanton said. "People come in, sign up and speak. That's the open access that constituents expect."

He said large urban districts such as Pinellas and Hillsborough do have armed officers on hand at meetings.

"You have to figure out what's best for Hernando County," Blanton said.

After the board meeting last week, board member Dianne Bonfield said she is open to the idea of an armed officer at each evening meeting. She noted that children are present at the meetings to lead the Pledge of Allegiance or receive awards.

"I think we err on the side of caution," Bonfield said.

But board member Pat Fagan isn't convinced.

Watching the footage of a gunman holding a School Board hostage was a "scary" experience, Fagan said. And he said the board should do what it has done in the past: Have an officer on hand when the agenda includes a controversial issue such as school rezoning that tends to draw large — and sometimes angry — crowds.

"That's a different story. But at this point," Fagan said, "I just don't think we need armed security at all of our board meetings."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Hernando School Board weighs hiring armed security for meetings 12/21/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 21, 2010 8:27pm]

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