Monday, February 19, 2018
Education

Some want added security at Hernando schools to be permanent

The killing of 20 young students and six adults in Connecticut last week has left a visible mark on Hernando County schools.

You can see it in the heightened security throughout the district, the added law enforcement presence at each school this week, the locked buildings. You can see it in flags set to half staff. The green and white colors of Sandy Hook Elementary worn by some. The little pins of support.

But more than anything, you can see it on the faces of people. And hear it in their voices.

Especially on Monday, the first day back to school after the weekend.

"My primary teachers were in tears most of the day," said Brooksville Elementary School principal Mary LeDoux. "They're still trying to process how they feel about things."

Monday was tough. Somber.

LeDoux said her staff provided emotional support for the teachers throughout the day, while handling a lot of fearful phone calls from parents.

Despite the police cruiser parked outside and the locked exterior doors, teachers took additional safety measures, LeDoux said.

"Today every single person's (classroom) door was locked," she said. "That's okay. That's what made them feel comfortable."

LeDoux said she spent the day walking the halls, reassuring teachers with her presence.

She said she saw all of her teachers four times. Her pedometer recorded 5 miles.

Superintendent Bryan Blavatt called the school three times, she said.

The increased security could be seen throughout the district.

On Tuesday morning, a Hernando County sheriff's cruiser was parked in front of Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics, with a deputy on campus.

The school's main doors, normally open, were locked. A school official sat just inside and monitored the door.

School officials spoke frequently about security. Principal Sue Stoops said she worried most about copycat killers.

Steve Pepi, whose 9-year-old son goes to the school, said he appreciated the ramped-up security and the school letting parents know about those efforts.

"They've got things locked up, and they seem to be taking things seriously, which is important," Pepi said, moments after he dropped his son off for school.

Other parents said the locked doors made them feel better.

This week, all elementary and K-8 schools in Hernando will see a law enforcement presence on their campuses.

Teachers, especially with young children, took a delicate approach to explaining to their students why the officers were there.

A few students in Melinda Barrett's fifth-grade class at Spring Hill Elementary asked why a deputy was on campus. Some parents had called the school to ask teachers not to mention the Connecticut shootings to the kids, Barrett said, so she tried to be honest without going into details.

"I told them (the deputy) was there just to keep an eye on things and to answer questions and to make sure everyone felt safe," Barrett said. "I didn't want to make them feel scared or like something was going to happen."

Some would like to see the extra security continue beyond this week.

The district has a total of 13 school resource officers working at its high schools, middle schools and K-8 schools, with the exception of Winding Waters K-8. Resource officers from four different schools spend time at Challenger.

The school district pays for nine of the officers, at an annual cost of $584,000. The Sheriff's Office pays for the other four, said Barry Crowley, the school district's manager of safety and security.

Some like the idea of resource officers on all campuses, including Hernando's nine elementary schools.

"I would love it. I have always asked for that. Always," said LeDoux.

"That would be wonderful," said Stoops.

"I certainly think they're worth the money spent," said Moton Elementary principal Mark Griffith, noting that the officers can be proactive at the elementary level, teaching kids about bullying, making good decisions and conflict resolution, among other things. "I think they would pay dividends in the long run."

He said he's even had parents ask him what it would cost to add the officers.

"I would love to have one," he said.

"I think we should have them. Schools are driving toward full-service schools. They're going to need law enforcement to help," said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association. "A lot of school resource officers love to help with character skills in the classrooms. There's a lot of character building they can do at that (elementary) age level."

Vitalo said additional school resource officers is something the Florida Legislature should consider.

Blavatt said he would not advocate for resource officers at elementary schools.

He said police response times at most schools are pretty good, although he did note there are some isolated elementary schools across the county that concern him. He also said finding the money for the additional officers would be an issue.

"It would be a nice factor if we could afford them," Blavatt said.

"At this point, I don't think we're prepared to go there. Having a resource officer is a wonderful thing. But it doesn't ensure anything."

Crowley agrees.

"If we could afford it, I would like nothing better," he said. "I think that's the greatest deterrent you could possibly have — to have a law enforcement officer at the school."

While not many people have called his office this week asking for more resource officers, they have had other ideas.

They've suggested arming teachers, installing bulletproof glass and metal detectors.

One person suggested adding alarms on the fences around each school's perimeter.

Times reporter Tony Marrero contributed to this report. Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. Tweet him @HernandoTimes.

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