Sunday, May 20, 2018
Education

School security response varies six months after Sandy Hook

TAMPA — Cindy Kelly was driving back from a business meeting when she heard on the radio about shootings at an elementary school.

"I thought, 'School? What school?' " said the New Tampa mother who, like most people, had never heard of Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary until Dec. 14. "What's going on?"

She shared the news with a construction worker at her next stop. He asked, in amazement, what the world was coming to. "I still get upset, just talking about it," Kelly now says.

For a while, it seemed that where-were-you-when moment would change the way Americans thought about safety at school.

But six months after Sandy Hook, where a gunman killed 26 students and staff, the nation, and Tampa Bay area school districts, are no closer to a consensus as to how best to protect schools from the violence that surrounds them.

"You get to this bottom-line principle," said Ronald D. Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif.

"You need to be doing everything that you can. But you know that you can't do everything."

•••

The shootings brought school security front-and-center, with strong opinions shaped largely by attitudes about handguns.

In Washington, D.C., gun control advocates were optimistic about a Senate measure that would require more gun buyers to go through background checks. It failed, as did a proposal to strengthen laws against gun trafficking and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines and semiautomatic rifles.

In Tallahassee, lawmakers called for special taxes to pay for security; and a law that would require someone on each campus to be armed.

Both measures failed.

In the Tampa Bay area, school districts and local police increased patrols at schools.

While major new measures are still under discussion in one district, the impetus of Sandy Hook has not led to a radical change in security at local schools.

In Pinellas, the district paid its officers overtime for extra duty.

"We had to calm their fears, and we also had to be prepared," said associate superintendent Michael Bessette.

Some principals called for locks and buzzers on their doors.

But, while the district made some modifications, Bessette said Pinellas already began the process of securing campus perimeters and school entrances about six years ago.

Following Sandy Hook, he noticed a heightened vigilance during inspections he makes to campuses.

The challenge, he said, is to make sure that vigilance does not fade. If he shows up on campus without identification, he said, "I want to be stopped. And then I want to be escorted."

In Pasco, officials reviewed security procedures and heard from a small number of parents who asked for full-time officers in the elementary schools.

But the superintendent and School Board did not give serious consideration to those requests, with some suggesting the officers would create a false sense of security.

In Hernando County, Springstead High School added an electronic gate to its student parking lot.

Some principals asked for buzzers, and the School Board will soon discuss whether to install them district-wide.

It's a philosophical issue, said Barry Crowley, the district's manager of safety and security. "You have to look at how far you're going to go and how friendly or unfriendly a school is going to be."

•••

Hillsborough County is the local district where the security debate has been the most contentious, turning into a point of friction between superintendent MaryEllen Elia and members of the School Board.

After consulting with area law enforcement, Elia in January unveiled a plan that included hiring enough armed security officers to staff all of the district's 142 elementary schools. Some already had regular security because of their location or past problems.

Some School Board members disagreed. They wanted to discuss the matter in a workshop before deciding on a plan, and chairwoman April Griffin later criticized Elia for placing the board "in a politically precarious position with the public."

But while the board rejected the guard component of Elia's plan, estimated to cost $3.7 million a year, it did allow her to hire Michael Dorn, a nationally known security expert.

And a month later, the board approved roughly $1 million in renovations to harden access at schools that are considered vulnerable.

Such deliberations are not unusual, said Stephens, the California consultant, who watched a similar debate play out in the Oak Park Unified School District, northwest of Los Angeles.

"The superintendent took out bids to put fencing around all of the schools," he said. "That would have cost $1.6 million. And the teachers had not had a raise in five years."

•••

On a recent Thursday, Hillsborough allowed a Tampa Bay Times reporter to shadow one of its officers on the job at Crestwood Elementary School, which serves 906 students in working-class Town 'N Country.

The day began with traffic detail for Juan Rivera, one of 96 officers hired and trained by the district.

The officers are armed but have no arrest powers.

Crestwood principal Rosalind Daignealt, said that's fine with her, as she sees Rivera as an extension of her guidance staff.

"If there is a situation of discipline, he's the good cop and I'm the bad cop," she said.

Retired from the New York Police Department, the 48-year-old Rivera is a father of two who joined the district in 2011. He serves primarily as a mentor for the students, calling a parent if a child is consistently arriving late and lending an ear if someone is having trouble at home.

Sometimes the trouble is serious enough to warrant a call to the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office.

Rivera was involved in two such situations the day of the Times' visit. Both came to light because students spoke to school employees, as they are instructed.

There was an assembly about bullying and a pull-out session with three girls to discuss their aggressive behavior.

In what Daignealt described as an unusually busy day, there were seven officers at the school, four from the district and three sheriff's deputies. All were busy.

"It's not just about carrying a gun, there's so much more than that," said David Friedberg, chief of the district's security department, who stresses that Sandy Hook-type situations are incredibly rare.

"It's to ensure that our staff stays trained, to be kept abreast of the changes and kept current. That there is someone whose primary job it is solely focused on safety and security issues, not as a part-time and not as an afterthought."

While approaches vary by community, there is some consensus among security officials.

Cooperation between school districts and law enforcement agencies is critical, they say. And training must be ongoing.

Said Stephens: "You don't want to meet your response team for the first time when a crisis happens."

Staff writers Lisa Gartner, Jeffrey Solochek and Danny Valentine contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]

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