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Panel debates guns on campus, but educators agree relating to students is key

TAMPA — Principal Bill Bond still remembers when a 14-year-old boy strode into Heath High School in Paducah, Ky., pulled out a .22-caliber handgun and opened fire on a prayer group.

"I've experienced a school shooting," he said Friday, recalling the 1997 attack during a panel discussion for Florida school principals. "I've taken the gun away from the kid that's been killing kids. I've been to many schools where this happens, but I've been to plenty of schools where this did not happen."

The session on school safety was part of the Florida Association of School Administrators' summer conference at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay.

Other panelists included longtime school resource officer Jamie Meeks, Tampa FBI agent Steven Burdelski, state Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, and state Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee — a former high school principal himself.

Steube said he has been focused on the issue of school safety since the shooting last year in Newtown, Conn.

"How do we have an armed, trained response in case — God forbid — this was to happen in Florida?" Steube asked.

His answer: Arm principals with the resources to safely allow teachers to have guns in schools.

Steube sponsored legislation this year that would have required an armed officer in every Florida school, unless the principal designates another teacher or administrator to take the necessary training to carry a weapon. The bill passed in the House, but failed in the Senate.

Montford said that Steube will be tweaking the bill and reintroducing it next session.

Arming teachers continues to be a controversial issue, as evidenced at the FASA conference, where principals were split on the best way to keep schools safe.

"If you give teachers guns, the issue of George Zimmerman will look minute compared to the number of students accidentally shot," Bond said.

Bond said teachers have enough on their plates without being expected to safely carry a weapon in class.

"Is a football coach the best teacher he can possibly be during football season? No," Bond said. "If you're going to be armed and take that responsibility of carrying that gun with you, that has to be your first thought."

Other panelists pointed to pre-Newtown incidents as examples of how law enforcement officials have changed their approach when responding to an active shooter. At the Columbine shooting in Colorado, for example, Meeks said officers waited outside the school until SWAT and other backup arrived.

"Now it's, 'we move,' " Burdelski said. "Typically it's from as little as one officer; some agencies want four to go in there."

Ultimately, the educators agreed, the biggest thing teachers can do to keep schools safe is to serve as a "trusted adult" for students who may be at risk for violent behavior. That kind of proactive mentality can have other unexpected benefits, Bond said.

"After the shooting at our school, for the next three years we didn't mention test scores once," he said. "Every year for three years after the shooting, test scores went up."

Bond credits the school for concentrating on students' needs after the tragedy and cultivating relationships with students instead of teaching to a test.

"The reason we got in this business," he said, "is to get involved with kids' lives."

Charles Scudder can be reached at cscudder@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3111.

Panel debates guns on campus, but educators agree relating to students is key 06/21/13 [Last modified: Friday, June 21, 2013 11:11pm]
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