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Pinellas heightens security at 10 schools

The Pinellas school system is increasing security at nine elementary schools and one middle school in response to principals' fears after the December mass shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Michael Bessette, associate superintendent for operational services, said Wednesday that eight schools will receive electronic locks and buzzers for their front doors so that administrators can control access to the buildings.

Doorbells already have been installed at two more schools where clerks sit close enough to the entrances that a buzz-in system isn't necessary.

One school may also receive a video camera outside the front door because the school's windows are tinted and difficult to see through at night.

Additionally, all 74 elementary schools in Pinellas will receive doorbells for rooms such as cafeterias used for after-school programs. Staffers will be instructed to lock the doors and approve who enters each time the bell rings.

Bessette said last month that he was visiting Pinellas campuses to decide which schools would benefit from locks and buzzers. Principals began requesting them after a gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, killing 20 children and six adults.

In many cases, Bessette said, buzz-in access would not improve school security as drastically as people might imagine.

"For the most part, the bad guy is not going to come up with an AK-47 slung across his chest," he said. "For the most part, they're going to look like you or me and you're going to think they're an aunt or mother and let them in."

But the school system did decide to grant the wishes of schools where parents and teachers were rallying hard for the buzzers. In some cases, school officials had concerns about people in the neighborhood, sometimes homeless men, who would frequently enter the schools and bother staffers, Bessette said.

Citing safety concerns, officials declined to name the 10 schools with new safety equipment.

Bessette said he feared that people who would do harm could read the list of schools and say, "Those are the ones we're not going to go to; we'll go to the other ones."

But as School Board member Linda Lerner pointed out, the locations will soon be an open secret as parents try to open doors that won't give.

"With buzzers, I think people will find out pretty quickly," said Lerner, who plans to ask for more details about the new security measures at a School Board workshop next week.

The cost for each school's new security system ranges from $300 to $900, Bessette said. Work orders for all the schools had been put out by Wednesday.

School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook said she was pleased to see the school system taking a campus-by-campus approach to school security.

A county commissioner's idea to put a trained school resource officer in every Pinellas elementary school received a tepid response from the School Board in January.

"I think what happened at Sandy Hook caused us to focus in a little sooner than we would have, with a little more intensity," Cook said. "And as we look at every single school, we can plug in any gaps or holes there may be, or even just look at it with a set of fresh eyes."

Bessette's staff will continue to visit campuses every year to check security, as they have in the past. As far as addressing the extra concerns that followed Newtown, he said these changes at the 10 schools mark the end of "round one."

But there will be a round two.

"We did review sites, and we saw some sites where they needed to tweak things," Bessette said. "We're going to go back."

Lisa Gartner can be reached at lgartner@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8707. You can also follow her on Twitter @lisagartner.

Pinellas heightens security at 10 schools 02/13/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 10:59pm]
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