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In wake of reported rape, Hillsborough schools reviewing routines and security

TAMPA — Felicia Jones snaked around the pickup line to Chamberlain High School on Wednesday afternoon, feeling a little more anxious than days before.

She and other parents learned a day earlier that a 16-year-old girl on a hall pass was, according to police, raped this week in a gymnasium restroom by a fellow student while the school was in session.

"It's scary," Jones said. "It's hard because kids think it's not going to happen to them."

Jones joined other parents in wondering what can be done to make the school safer — and what the district can do to prevent it from happening again.

After the incident, faculty at Hillsborough County schools were reminded to restrict hall passes to only those students who need them for emergencies, including bathroom breaks, a district spokeswoman said.

Remote restrooms, like the one in the gym where the sexual assault was said to have happened on Monday, will be kept locked during school hours.

David Friedberg, the security director for Hillsborough's schools, said the district is looking into further options to beef up safety, ranging from new protocols to new technology.

That could mean more security cameras, which already are fixtures in high schools in some of Hillsborough's neighboring counties, including Pinellas and Polk.

Hillsborough has cameras in just four of its 27 high schools, not including Chamberlain.

The problem is money.

Pinellas, which spent $1 million annually the past four years upgrading and installing cameras in all its middle and high schools, had capital improvement money dedicated to that project, said Michael Bessette, Pinellas's associate superintendent for facilities, operations, safety and security.

In Polk, funding is more piecemeal, coming from grants or donations, said Greg Bondurant, director of the county's Safe Schools program.

"We're putting security cameras in our schools as fast as we can get the money," he said.

In Hillsborough, Friedberg said, school cameras could cost as much as $4,000 each, considering installation and software. And the district's 27 schools would need a minimum of about 60 cameras each, he said.

In the face of budget cuts, that kind of money is hard to come by.

"Safety is paramount," Friedberg said. Still, "We've got to look at what our fiscal responsibilities are."

And even the most extensive surveillance systems can't prevent every incident.

Security directors in both Pinellas and Polk said no one monitors the cameras' live feeds all the time. More often, the recordings are reviewed after incidents occur.

While the presence of the cameras themselves is thought to be a deterrent, they are not foolproof. As Friedberg says: "Anytime you have people together, you have potential issues."

Chamberlain, in North Tampa, has about 1,800 students, a little more than 100 teachers, five assistant principals, one principal and one school resource police officer.

Those are typical numbers for Hillsborough's large schools. Officials say Chamberlain is no more dangerous than any others.

Still, last year it had the most students in the district recommended for expulsion or school transfer — 24, followed by East Bay High School with 18. The district did not provide further details about those incidents.

But district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said Chamberlain's high number is simply evidence of the school's "zero tolerance" policy for bad behavior. The principal is more likely to expel students for bad behavior, she said.

As for criminal or violent offenses, Chamberlain had 97 incidents in the 2008-2009 school year, according to the most recently available data from the state Department of Education. That included one sexual battery and one case of sexual harassment, though details were unavailable on those. Far more common were fighting, battery and bullying.

What happened Monday, school officials said, is unusual.

"I truly believe our schools are safe," Friedberg said. "One could argue, 'If they're that safe, how could this happen?' Well, because we do have 2,000 people there. But that doesn't mean we're going to accept it.

"We need to figure out how it doesn't happen again."

Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@sptimes.com or 813-226-3337. Marlene Sokol can be reached at sokol@sptimes.com or 813-226-3356.

Chamberlain High School

by the numbers

Students: About 1,800

Teachers: Just over 100

Assistant principals: 5

Principals: 1

School resource police officer: 1

In wake of reported rape, Hillsborough schools reviewing routines and security 10/05/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 5, 2011 10:47pm]
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