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District pursues safe school plan

They come with guns, knives and clubs. They beat on one another and others. They carry and sell drugs, break into homes and steal.

They are a small, but growing, segment of Citrus County school students. And their presence is frightening some of the county's educational, law enforcement and social service leaders.

On Tuesday night, officials gathered to discuss ways of dealing with children who break the law in school. The message was clear: The options for dealing with violent juveniles have proved to be frustrating for everyone concerned.

Consider: The three Citrus sheriff's deputies assigned to the county's three middle and high schools have made more felony arrests than road patrol deputies, according to Capt. Oren "Woody" Woodward, who supervises the school resource officers.

That statistic is ironic when the school resource officer program was originally designed to be for educational and preventive purposes rather than enforcement.

"Those arrests, folks, are made in your schools. And they didn't start in the school system, they started at home," Woodward said.

Coincidentally, a Crystal River Middle School student was suspended for 10 days on Tuesday after school officials discovered that he came to school with a 13-inch butcher knife.

Principal David Hickey said school officials found the knife concealed under the sixth-grader's jacket. Hickey declined to say why the student brought the butcher knife to school.

Woodward said the problem of violence in schools should generate more widespread community attention. On Tuesday, only about 30 people attended the session, which was sponsored by the school administration and the Citrus County Education Association.

"Every year, things get a little bit worse and so I think it's important that we have a plan" to deal with situations that might arise, according to School Resource Officer Doug Dodd, who is assigned to the Inverness middle and high schools.

Dodd praised the district for working to develop "safe schools plans" that outline specific things that a school should do during emergencies ranging from a child bringing a gun to school to a report of a suspicious person on a school campus.

He said that, while guns are the most dangerous items brought onto our school campuses, knives are far more numerous.

"The schools have a strict and strong policy with guns . . . we're going to take action," Dodd said. "We need to send a message to our students that we're not going to tolerate weapons on campus."

Dodd also gave educators in attendance some tips on how to best protect themselves if a gun should turn up in their classroom. He recommended that they stay calm and get word to an administrator and law enforcement if the gun was not drawn.

If the child did start making threats with the gun, Dodd suggested trying to get other students out of the room and taking cover themselves.

"Don't try to be a hero," he said. "When you're dealing with a volatile situation, a lot of things could happen and we need to take every possible precaution."

Crystal River High School teacher George Bacon questioned Dodd about whether a teacher might provoke a child more by ducking under his desk rather than just trying to talk to him.

Dodd acknowledged that every situation is different and that communicating with the child is an important part of the picture. But he again urged teachers to make themselves as small a target as possible in case talking didn't fix the situation.

Other panelists in Tuesday night's forum discussed training available for teachers on how to cope with violent students and how the state attorney's office, school system and the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services deal with juveniles who commit crimes.

School Board Chairwoman June Black questioned how much the system can force parents to be punished or taught when their child is caught committing a crime.

Teacher Deborah Platt said she had her own safety concerns in the classroom.

"We have students in our classrooms who are violent offenders and we don't know about it," she said. "How are we supposed to protect ourselves and our students?"