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Safety, openness a tricky balance for school boards after Bay County shooting

James Yant had talked in passing about the need to tighten security at Hernando County School Board meetings.

It's now a "top priority" for the board chairman after Tuesday's fatal shooting at a session of the Bay District School Board in the Panhandle.

"The board room door is open. A person just walks in and there is nothing to really screen anybody," said Yant. "We're just sitting there, sitting ducks, I guess you could say. . . . We need to look into that."

Officials doing the public's business understand they must operate in the open, providing access to the people who put them there and pay the bills.

They also know they sometimes make decisions that infuriate — on rare occasions with tragic results.

The trick is how to balance democratic government with security.

"Our meetings take place in the public. The public needs to be there," said Carol Cook, chairwoman of the Pinellas County School Board. "I don't want to overreact."

That doesn't mean that area school boards won't be taking a closer look at how they protect themselves, though.

Unlike in Bay County, both the Pinellas and Hillsborough school districts place armed officers inside their school board meetings during regular session. If the boards meet in workshops outside their main board room, visitors must register with security before getting inside.

"In talking with the superintendent, we are going to review our procedures in light of this (Bay County shooting)," said Doretha Edgecomb, chairwoman of Hillsborough's board.

Cook expected a similar review by the Pinellas safety committee. She noted the district recently increased security measures at its Largo headquarters, adding protective posts to guard the entry way from cars.

The Pasco and Hernando school boards meet without armed officers, except when security is requested.

Pasco board members were in no hurry to change, although vice chairman Allen Altman predicted the discussion about safety at meetings will probably take place all over Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

"I have mixed emotions about it, and think it should be thoughtfully discussed," Altman said. "I try to keep in mind that these are very, very, very rare instances and be sure that the response is appropriate."

That might not include armed guards, said Hernando superintendent Bryan Blavatt.

Florida school districts found themselves in similar reflective mode in early 1994, when a former Lee County schools employee walked into superintendent James Adams' office and shot him to death.

In the aftermath, districts scaled back their open-door policies. Some superintendents moved to locked offices on upper floors.

The key, said Pasco School Board member Steve Luikart, is to maintain perspective.

"We serve the public, so the public is always invited," he said. Dealing with angry constituents comes with the territory.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Safety, openness a tricky balance for school boards after Bay County shooting 12/15/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 15, 2010 11:23pm]
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