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Two schools near downtown Tampa will close during Republican convention due to worries about gridlock, protests

TAMPA — Concerns about traffic and the potential for civil unrest will lead two private schools near downtown Tampa to close the week of the Republican National Convention.

St. John's Episcopal Parish Day School told parents of its decision Thursday afternoon.

"With the gridlock as parents try to drop off and pick up students, and with the possibility of riots right across the river from us, I just thought it would be prudent for us not to be in school that week," St. John's headmaster Gordon Rode said.

St. John's isn't the only school with concerns about the convention, which is scheduled for Aug. 27-30 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

Tampa Preparatory School also plans to close that week. A public school, Rampello Downtown Partnership Magnet K-8, is looking at closing or moving students to another site that week. And the University of South Florida is so worried about its brand-new Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation that it is asking to be included in the convention's security perimeter.

Rode said he agonized over the decision, but has paid close attention to news about the convention.

In an e-mail to parents, he quoted at length from a November Tampa Bay Times article that while police expect most of the 10,000 to 15,000 protesters to be peaceful, they are preparing for hundreds of well-organized provocateurs intent on disrupting the convention.

St. John's has 240 students in grades five through eight at Platt Street and Plant Avenue, just across the Hillsborough River from the Tampa Convention Center.

The rest of its 586 students are at two locations not as close to downtown, but those sites will close, too. It would be too complicated to close one and keep the others open, Rode said.

Tampa Prep, which has 585 students in grades six through 12, decided to close after talking to Tampa police about the potential impacts of the convention.

Based on the concerns of police and because of its commitment to the safety of its students, "we felt like it was in our best interest to close," Tampa Prep headmaster Kevin Plummer said.

"We're all anticipating that the event is going to be amazing," he added, but closing that week makes sense because of "the X-factor."

"It's what happens if you have a group of people who really don't have good intentions for Tampa or for the event," he said. "You really can't predict what that group is going to do."

• • •

At Rampello, administrators are concerned about disruption and absenteeism the week of the convention.

"There are two options available, and the principal is consulting with the parents and the staff," said Stephen Hegarty, the school district's spokesman.

The first option is to relocate the roughly 700 students and their teachers during the convention. Under that scenario, grades K-5 might separate from grades 6-8.

A likely site for either or perhaps both groups would be the district's operations center on 40th Street near Columbus Avenue. "It's full of classrooms," Hegarty said.

The other option is to bring the kids to school a week earlier than the districtwide start date of Aug. 21, then close down during the week of the convention.

"I think starting early would be better," said Souhad Elgendi, who works in South Tampa and has two children at Rampello. Otherwise, she said, "it would be a different environment and it would take them a week to get used to it."

But she is sure there are parents who will have trouble finding child care if the school closes for a week. "Every family is different," she said. "I'm just hoping my mom will take care of them."

• • •

Like anyone with something shiny, new and expensive, USF is protective of its $38 million CAMLS building.

CAMLS is on Franklin Street, a few dozen strides north of the Tampa Convention Center parking garage and just north of the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway. It has large windows facing the street and houses dozens of high-tech medical training simulators.

This week, USF spokesman Michael Hoad said, "we want (CAMLS) to be inside the perimeter," the secure, fenced-off zone that the Secret Service will establish and tightly control around the convention campus.

A Secret Service spokesman declined to comment on what would be inside or outside the perimeter, or why any particular location would be included or not.

"We're still developing the plan," Secret Service spokesman George Ogilvie said. The agency is looking at releasing details of the plan at least four to six weeks before the convention.

If CAMLS is outside the perimeter, USF officials don't know what steps they might take to secure it, Hoad said.

Local officials have discussed, for example, putting fences around City Hall, the County Center and the courthouse, but police say private property owners will be responsible for securing their own premises.

CAMLS will not be holding regular training for doctors during the convention. Hoad said there would be no hotel rooms for the doctors, which CAMLS expects to attract for training from all over the world.

Richard Danielson can be reached at danielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow him on Twitter @Danielson_Times.

Two schools near downtown Tampa will close during Republican convention due to worries about gridlock, protests 02/09/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 9, 2012 11:21pm]

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